DC United's refuse-to-lose mentality hits a dead end at MLS is Back

Federico Higuain frustrated - DC United v Montreal

“We blew it.”

That was Steve Birnbaum’s assessment of D.C. United’s 1-0 loss to the Montreal Impact in their Group C finale of the MLS is Back Tournament on Tuesday night, in a postgame press conference that clocked in at under 13 minutes, pauses and breaks included.

It might end up as the shortest media availability of the tournament, and sadly for the Black-and-Red, their captain’s three words summed up all too much of United’s first-round exit. D.C. could’ve won the group with a win against the heretofore pointless Impact, but labored in the attacking end, conceded a hopeful and heavily-deflected Saphir Taider strike and are flying home to Washington as a result.

“When you're here and you're caught up in it, and you want to be in this tournament and you want to advance [out of] the group stage. You want your three points, and you want your points for the regular season, so we're disappointed in both of those parts of today,” said a frustrated Ben Olsen.

“It was a journey and not a lot went our way. But we gave, I think, a pretty good performance overall. We put ourselves in position to win that game. Unfortunately we just didn't make any plays. We made one, unfortunately, for them, and then on the offensive end we got plenty of looks, and we just didn't see out any plays. And you're not going to move on in the tournament if you can't see out a play.”

Highlights: Montreal Impact vs D.C. United

Aptly reflecting the identity of their head coach, D.C. have been the diehards of this event, almost literally. They were outplayed for long stretches by both Toronto FC and the New England Revolution and fell behind in both games, yet showed admirable resourcefulness and fighting spirit to battle back for draws in both cases. The 2-2 result against TFC was particularly amazing given they walked into the locker room at halftime down a man and trailing 2-0.

Doggedness and grit will take you a long way in this league, especially in draining and mentally challenging conditions like MLS is Back. Olsen is a tenacious personality who’s overcome a great deal en route to his success and longevity as both a player and coach, and he’s instilled that intensity in most of his teams since he first took the United helm back in 2010.

We may have just seen the limits of that particular aspect of this team, however.

D.C. have been unlucky on more than one count. Their star attacker Edison Flores was limited by a hamstring injury, in addition to the long-term absence of Paul Arriola due to a torn ACL, and as Olsen pointed out, they faced shorter turnarounds in their schedule than New England and Montreal, playing their three games across nine days rather than 13 days. They’re probably a case study in the phenomenon that TUDN’s on-site reporter Nico Cantor noted on Tuesday:

That probably doesn’t make this setback sting any less, however. While Olsen made clear his disinterest in discussing his team’s identity after the game, it seems the capital club are still discovering exactly who they are as a group in the wake of Wayne Rooney’s early departure at the end of last year.

Their new arrivals are still finding their feet. Homegrown talents Moses Nyeman, Griffin Yow and Kevin Paredes – the latter a bright spot against Montreal – are still green. And their impact performer at MLS is Back was Federico Higuain, a 35-year-old newcomer still working his way back to full speed after a serious knee injury. Their attack has stagnated as a result of all that, piling further pressure on the usually-dependable backline. Even the midfield graft of trusted veteran Felipe has become a double-edged sword; the Brazilian flirted with expulsion more than once in Florida.

“I don't think that our movement was good enough off the ball as a group,” said Birnbaum. “I think it was hard for us to create chances that way. And we needed to be better than the final third with them. Letting up a goal like that in the first half, right before the water break, was really tough. They didn't have any other chances until late in the second half, I think. It's frustrating because we felt like the game was there for us today and we didn’t play good enough.”

Now D.C. have an indefinite amount of time to ponder things as they regroup, hunt for reinforcements and wait, like so many others across MLS, for further clarity about the fate of this strange 2020 season.

“We go home tomorrow. And we take a few days off, because it's been 20-something days here,” said Olsen. “And then we'll get back to work, probably Monday, and get better – and look to not only get better on the field, but get better outside of the field, in the transfer window, and bolster this group. I still think we're short a piece or two.”