Even the best teams experience second-rate games or star-crossed days at some point, those regrettable occasions when luck vanishes and nothing goes according to plan. But when such a performance takes place in the winner-take-all environs of the playoffs with the entire season on the line -- in your own imposing home stadium, no less -- the repercussions are bound to be felt far beyond one disappointing afternoon.
D.C. United's 4-0 capitulation to the Chicago Fire on Sunday will haunt all those involved with the club for a long time to come, and it left the 2004 MLS Cup champions stunned and groping for answers.
"Just one of those days, I guess," said Josh Gros, normally a fixture on the right wing who unexpectedly gave way to Santino Quaranta against the Fire. "It was frustrating for the guys playing, I'm sure, and it was frustrating for everybody on the bench watching. I don't know how to explain it."
United clearly missed Gros' work rate and end-to-end play, though the Rutgers graduate backed head coach Peter Nowak's decision to go with Quaranta in a role he has filled well for the U.S. national team.
"I just think that they came out and wanted it more than us," he said. "Every second ball they were winning. It looked like every bounce was going their way because they were trying harder. They beat us fair and square."
Quaranta, along with surprise starter Jamil Walker, turned in underwhelming displays in United's nightmare first half and were substituted at the break. But Nowak defended his entire side and their preparation in the extended week of practice leading up to Sunday.
"They worked very hard," said Nowak. "Everything we asked for, they did it. We went over every single scenario that can face us, but we didn't think we were going to be 3-0 behind in the first half. There were so many crucial plays in the first half."
When asked what quality of last year's championship side was lacking in the current squad, team captain Jaime Moreno did not hesitate.
"The hunger for winning," he said. "Sometimes you might not be able to play as well as you think, but if you put in a little more effort and fight for it. ... You need big heart to win these kind of games and I don't think we did a good job."
Sunday's rout was the worst home loss of a taxing season that included four high-profile competitions, and D.C. went empty-handed across the board. The CONCACAF Champions' Cup, U.S. Open Cup, Copa Sudamericana and MLS Cup Playoffs all came down to make-or-break matches where United failed to deliver.
"That's what good teams do," said midfielder Dema Kovalenko. "When there are more difficult times, we have to step up under pressure. And it's a difference from last year. That's what we've got to do, and this year we didn't do that."
The unexpected lack of intensity and loss of composure, highlighted by playmaker Christian Gomez's shocking ejection for spitting at Fire defender C.J. Brown, left a bitter taste that will likely linger through a long offseason suddenly rife with uncertainty.
"It was a strange performance, a disappointing performance," said club president and CEO Kevin Payne. "I didn't think a lot of players played with a lot of conviction today. Obviously we're disappointed at Christian, what he did. There was no excuse for that. It's an automatic red card, the referee has no choice. I realize he was frustrated, but - the odds were against us at that point, but are we capable of scoring three goals in a half at home? Absolutely. But not down a man."
Payne's postgame comments gave every indication that significant self-evaluation will begin very soon.
"I think that we just made more mistakes. Last year we didn't make as many mistakes, pretty simple," said Payne in the United locker room. "There are moments in the game where you make a play. And you don't always know which ones those are, until after you don't make them. I'm very disappointed, especially at home. This is not acceptable, so we'll start to figure out how to adjust it."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.