Thursday, September 27, 2007

D.C. United Is an Upset Winner; Nationals, too -- What a night for D.C. I haven't posted to my blog in a month (since I turned 43), but I had to post a report on tonight's doings. I've just returned from a rocking RFK Stadium. Reports of the old grey flying saucer's demise were somewhat exaggerated. There was a good turnout for tonight's Copa Sudamericana match against CD Guadalajara (Chivas) -- just over 21,000. United opened up the upper deck, and that's where I plopped myself -- amongst the Chivas supporters. I hadn't seen a soccer match from up there in years.

Actually, most of the fans were cheering for the visitors, but D.C. United's supporter clubs were well-represented, and the atmosphere was electric. The game itself was played at a frenetic pace that MLS fans aren't accustomed to seeing. While United probably held the balance of the possession in the first half, there was no question that Chivas was the more dangerous side. Marc Burch and Bryan Namoff were frequent victims of the speedy and talented Chivas wingers.

Yet, it was United that struck first. Most of United's threats were coming from the left side, where Fred was working his tail off, and Burch was sending in his customarily picture-perfect long crosses into the area. It was off a cross by Fred that United got its first goal. Jaime Moreno found himself in front of the goal, but couldn't stretch far enough to get a solid touch on Fred's pass. If Moreno had let the ball go through, Emilio was in position to finish, but Moreno tried to make the play himself, to no avail. However, a bad clearance followed, coming straight to Ben Olsen who sent a grass-cutter into the lower left corner of the goal, putting United in front, 1-0.

United had a couple of other good chances in the first half -- really, Luciano Emilio did. Emilio narrowly missed a long-range shot, and was denied from point-blank range, near the end of the half, by Chivas' goalie, Luis Michel.

Most of the good chances belonged to Chivas, but Troy Perkins was really on his game -- at least, between the pipes. Perkins was simply awful with his goal kicks, putting three of them wildly out-of-bounds, much to the delight of the Chivas' supporters. However, flying this way and that, Perkins was clearly the man-of-the-match for D.C., stopping shots and denying balls that seemed certain to be put in by waiting strikers. United's defenders were also crucial, blocking numerous shots, and clearing the ball when Perkins wasn't able to do so.

Unfortunately, while Burch was strong on the attack, he was horribly overmatched on defense. He has looked good in the MLS, but he's never had to face an attack with such skill and such speed. This might have been a learning experience for the young defender, but the lessons came to an end early when Burch received a second yellow and was ejected just before the half, having played a ball with his hands as it was skipping dangerously between his legs.

So, playing a man down for the entire second half, United struggled to weather a punishing Chivas' attack. Chivas' players couldn't penetrate Perkins' shield, except with some balls that sailed just wide or just over the crossbar. It seemed only a matter of time before Chivas punched through for the equalizer. However, ten minutes into the second half, United made a rare run into Chivas' end, and Christian Gomez was brought down just outside the penalty area. His free kick went in to the ball, but Clyde Simms raced for the rebound, and drilled a low shot into the Chivas' goal, giving United a surprising 2-0 lead, and some much-needed breathing room.

Chivas responded quickly -- this time it was Devon McTavish that was schooled out on the wing, and Xavier Baez' cross was hammered in for a goal -- Sergio Santana's shot was so powerful that Perkins barely flinched before it had gone past him. Once again, United was desperately clinging to a one goal lead, while Chivas controlled nearly all the possession. Christian Gomez left the game with about 20 minutes remaining, as he appeared to be cramping up in the heat -- leaving United with no one really capable of running at the Chivas' defense. still, United was able to hold on, as Chivas was unable to finish any of its chances. For the game, Chivas was credited with 21 shots (it seemed like more), but only one found the net.

There's no doubt that Chivas is the more talented squad, even when playing at even strength. So, United's 2-1 victory tonight was a remarkable achievement. Can United manage a tie or better in the return match, next week in Guadalajara? It seems unlikely, but so was tonight's undermanned victory.

As for the Washington Nationals -- It's true that the New York Mets are playing simply awful baseball, unable to get anybody out, due to ineffective pitching and really bad defense -- and all of this was especially true in the two September series against the Nationals. However, one has to give credit to the Nationals for a stunning achievement. They went up to New York and swept the division leaders, scoring 32 runs in three games. Sure, the Nats nearly gave away the game last night, as the Mets came up just 90 feet short of an all-time historic comeback. The fact is they won that game, and they won the others, too, with an amazing offensive display.

This really does raise some serious questions for the off-season. It's beginning to look like the answers for the Nationals are already in the system. J-Max (Justin Maxwell) might be the answer in center field, even though he hadn't played above A-ball before this month. The way Willy Mo Pena has hit since joining the Nationals last month, and the way Ryan Church has hit this month, it looks like they may have a battle for left field. Best of all has been Austin Kearns, who has been outstanding the last couple of months. It makes one wonder where the team is going to play Dmitri Young. If he returns at first base, what do the Nationals do with Nick Johnson, who was the best hitter left from last year's squad?

Ronnie Belliard has hit so well, and played such good defense that he seems certain to return as the starting second baseman, leaving Felipe Lopez to try and compete with Cristian Guzman for playing time at shortstop. The only obvious weak spot in the order seems to be at the catcher spot, but Schneider and Flores have excelled defensively. Of course, the Nats still lack a lot of power, but moving into a smaller park will make their numbers seem a little more impressive. Young could hit 20 HRs next year, and the Nats could expect at least that from the corner outfielders, based on the way they've hit in the second half. Ryan Zimmerman is also likely to hit at least 20 HRs. If they can get double figures from Belliard and the center fielder (maybe Maxwell), the offense wouldn't seem so anemic any more.

As for the pitching staff, with Hill and Bergmann, the Nats have a pretty good one-two, when healthy. Tim Redding is looking like a good candidate for the staff next year. Which means Matt Chico and John Lannan will be competing for the fourth and/or fifth rotation spots -- at least, as it stands now. And then there's the wild-card of John Patterson -- what kind of pitcher will he be after his nerve repair surgery this month? The bullpen should be outstanding, from end to end, with Rivera, Albaladejo, possibly Schroder and/or Munoz, Ayala, Rauch and Cordero.

I'd like to see the Nats go after a front-line free agent starting pitcher, if there are any this offseason. They may have the makings of a good, albeit very young rotation, but there are still too many question marks. Getting a proven starter will take the pressure off the youngsters. If they can land one, this team might be ready to contend next year. I know they don't have anyone who can compete with the big hitters on the Phillies or the Braves, or even the Mets...and yet...the Nats seem to have an intangible that makes them better than the sum of their parts.

There are still questions for the Nationals to ponder in the offseason, but it's beginning to look less crucial that the team seek answers outside the organization. It would be nice if the Nats can bring in a slugger -- and maybe Jorge Posada to catch. It would be equally nice if they can land a big free-agent pitcher. What I'm saying is, that even if none of these things happen, the Nats just might be a winning team next year. Don't be shocked -- if you leave aside the disastrous first six weeks, the Nats will probably have a winning record this year. Once you realize that, you have to admit the Nats already have become a good team. The next step up may be a contending team. I know back in May or even June that idea seemed ridiculous -- but, now, is it really so far-fetched?