WASHINGTON - Having last played a match 10 days ago, Real Salt Lake should have been physically ready to face D.C. United on Wednesday at RFK Stadium. But after seeing his team thrashed 5-1 by United, Real head coach John Ellinger had more questions than answers around his team - and most were wondering about the fight left in his team.
"I thought we gave the ball away," said Ellinger. "We stood there and watched (United) attack our goal. The first principle of defending is once the ball is lost you fight to win it back, and we didn't fight to win it back."
MLS all-time scoring leader Jason Kreis agreed, but went a step further, citing a lackluster effort all over the field.
"I think we played poorly," he said. "We just allowed D.C. to run all over us tonight, from the beginning to the end. You allow a team like D.C. time and space on the ball as we did tonight, and they're going to punish you."
Ellinger also pointed to breakdowns and was willing to shoulder the blame.
"Even in the first half we had moments when we played well," he said, "but in the second half, we broke down, we broke down and broke down again. It's just unacceptable.
"I'll take full responsibility, because I'm the head coach."
The outcome was especially tough to swallow given the optimism that rippled through the team following the Melvin Tarley goal just six minutes into the second half. United had taken a two-goal lead into the halftime break from a Jaime Moreno penalty and a Freddy Adu effort from long range in first-half stoppage time, though it could have been more.
"Everyone is extremely disappointed," said RSL defender Eddie Pope. "In the second half, we got ourselves back in the game and then we let down again. It was 2-1, we had time left to get a goal, but we didn't do the right things from top to bottom (to equalize)."
Kreis reiterated that that the mood of the team in the early stages of the second was "fairly good," adding that "the guys were feeling pretty confident about what we were doing."
He diagnosed the major problem for Real Salt Lake on Wednesday as allowing goals at inopportune times, and not necessarily generation of offense.
"I think we played well enough when we had the ball," said Kreis. "We created enough chances that we felt like we were in the game. It's always going to hurt to give goals away right before halftime. I think that crushed us. And then to give away another goal after we'd worked so hard to get ourselves back in the game; that continues to hurt us."
Tarley's finish woke up the defending MLS Cup champions, however, as they scored three goals in the final half-hour. United midfielder Christian Gomez connected in the 63rd minute, Moreno again 15 minutes later, and Jamil Walker added an insurance goal in the game's waning moments.
Tarley, along with Robert Scarlett, were about the few bright spots for Real. The 6-foot-1 Tarley was a powerful presence up top, getting his first career MLS goal, and Scarlett gave United fits on the left flank throughout the evening.
Scarlett, despite a strong performance, said he experienced slight difficulty in getting acclimated to a mid-game position change that saw him retreat from an attacking position into more of a defensive role.
"I started the game up front," said Scarlett, "and then the coach put me to play (more) defensively. It's difficult coming back to play my original position, when, usually, over the few weeks I've been with Salt Lake, I've been playing up front ... but I adjusted."
Scarlett, for his part, also wasn't exactly ecstatic about the outcome.
"The score today was a very big score," he said, "and I wouldn't like to see that score anymore. So we'll go back to the drawing board and work very hard so we can stop conceding goals. We had a lot of chances to score but we never put away our chances."
Omar Garriott is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.