Marco Etcheverry would have had a tough time this past Saturday night. Marco used to always get so upset any time the referees made a critical bad call that cost United. And there were many times over the course of Marco's career that these calls occurred. Marco saw it all from the officials, hand balls from the opponents in the box without a penalty, linesmen who made terrible off-sides decisions, unjust red cards and even a penalty kick that was made to be re-taken because a player was in the box too early. But even with all of those inexplicable decisions that Marco dealt with during his career, the penalty called against Brandon Prideaux in the 90th minute on Saturday might have sent el Diablo into a coma.
Brandon had his hand on the jersey of Frankie Hejduk in the box as the ball rolled toward the end line. Hejduk realized that he couldn't catch up with the ball so he belly flopped onto the turf and looked hopefully at the official Terry Vaughn. There was an unusually long pause as Hejduk was on the ground, and then the referee blew his whistle and dramatically pointed to the penalty spot. More than 18,000 fans at RFK Stadium were in shock. Shocked at the mysterious delay, shocked at the call and shocked that, after totally dominating ball possession and chances on goal, D.C. United was going home with an infuriating tie. Vaughn missed the call undoubtedly. The play was much closer to being a yellow card for diving than a penalty. It was a critical call that cost D.C. United two points in the standings. The result was an unfair one to put it mildly, but the referee is not the only one to blame.
Once again, D.C. United had a number of clear chances to score and couldn't convert. Dema Kovalenko scored an absolutely beautiful goal in the 4th minute. Prideaux started the play by finding Jaime Moreno near the attacking third. Jaime played a through ball to Ben Olsen near the corner of the box. Olsen crossed it to Kovalenko who smashed a header off of the inside of the post and into the goal. At that time, it looked like D.C. United might go on to get a few more goals and have an easy time of it, but the inability to get the second goal cost them.
Coach Peter Nowak has done a very good job of giving everybody on the team a chance to contribute on the field. His flowing offensive tactics seem to really use the strengths of all the players. At times this season, D.C. United has looked like the best team in MLS. They possess the ball for minutes at a time, they show great individual skills all over the field, they demonstrate pinpoint passing, they have beautiful interplay and they send in accurate crosses. But after creating so many quality chances, the team needs more goals.
Perhaps more than just more goals, D.C. United needs an on-the-field leader, a player who can really change the team's attitude and drive his teammates forward. In the old days that player was Etcheverry, last year it was the world-class veteran Hristo Stoitchkov who at times changed entire games single-handedly. This year there are a few candidates to take over this role.
Jaime Moreno has started every game and has given opposing defenders fits. He is not the player he was five years ago, but he still can score or get an assist at any given time and, as he continues to get used to his striking partner, the offense will continue to improve. Jaime's skill on the ball in close quarters is amazing and, when he has the ball at his feet in the penalty area, he might still be the league's most dangerous player.
Ben Olsen has been playing great soccer all season. This year, he is playing centrally as opposed to his former role on the wing. He's on the ball a lot more and has shown great skills as he keeps possession and orchestrates the attack for United. Ben has a goal and an assist this year and is one of only three players to have played every minute for United.
Dema Kovalenko was last season's MVP and leading goal scorer. He has scored in back-to-back games for United and his emotional play usually makes his teammates play harder, on the practice field as well. Dema is the only player on the team with more than one goal this year, and every goal he has scored for United has been a critical one.
Ryan Nelsen is the team captain and anchor in the center of the defense. Ryan made a critical play in the Columbus play when he surged forward from his center back position and ventured all the way into the attacking third; normally he only goes forward for set pieces. Nellie tried to make sure that he made the most of his trip forward and played a perfect pass to Moreno who cranked a shot off the post. If the shot had gone six inches to the right, Nelsen would have had the game sealing assist, but even though United was unlucky, Nelsen made the type of play that can change a game.
It is possible that the squad doesn't need one clear leader, but if United could find a player to consistently provide a spark to guide the team forward it would make a major impact. The player doesn't have to score a lot of goals or earn a lot of assists, but the leader of the team must do the things necessary to put the team in the best position to win each week, and so far no single player has done that.
When you look at the overall play of D.C. United, there are many good things. It's much easier to start finishing chances than to find an attacking style of play that creates as many chances as United has had this year. D.C. United is right back to work this Saturday evening against the Kansas City Wizards and a goalkeeper who has always brought out the best in D.C. United, Tony Meola.
The schedule has presented United with an entertaining test at RFK. In a match where D.C. needs to start scoring more often, the goalie standing in their way is the MLS all-time leader in shutouts. Meola has been a rival of D.C. United since the inaugural season of MLS and his presence is one more reason why D.C. should take full advantage off their scoring chances this coming Saturday.