1) Hurricanes and nor’easters aside, this 2012 D.C. United squad may be the perfect storm.
United proved they are more than the sum of their parts by closing out the regular season on a 5-0-2 run after Dwayne De Rosario was lost to a knee injury. Now, despite increasing stakes, tougher competition and a suddenly threadbare roster, they’ve somehow found another gear that has enabled them to survive, adapt and advance.
In leg one against the Red Bulls, it was Andy Najar’s turn to fall by the wayside thanks to a stunning red card. On Thursday night, goalkeeper Bill Hamid made the questionable decision that put his team in a hole. And still D.C. made it through, as it was Nick DeLeon’s turn to step up.
“We bailed another guy out,” said head coach Ben Olsen. “We bailed Bill out. That’s the M.O. of this team right now. They continue to do that. When the chips are down, there’s a certain spirit about them. It has nothing to do with me. It’s these guys that have just come together by themselves, in particular in the absence of Dwayne.”
Sorry, coach, we don’t buy it. This gutsy team has your fingerprints all over it.
2) Hans Backe may be “a dead man walking” in the eyes of many, but he got his tactics dead-on.
Last week in Washington, the Red Bulls were ripped apart down on the flanks as Chris Pontius tormented New York right back Connor Lade, while Najar and Nick DeLeon enjoyed nearly as much success on the United left.
Backe responded with a more aggressive approach, directing Thierry Henry and Kenny Cooper to harass the D.C. backline while the midfield snapped at the ankles of anyone in black. The home side enjoyed far more of the ball, Pontius was fully frustrated and the game was New York’s to win.
“We were so much more aggressive in our pressing game, the pressing intensity,” said Backe afterwards. “We closed down both [Brandon] McDonald and [Dejan] Jakovic for these diagonal passes to Pontius, that was the key.”
Most people around the Red Bulls organization believe it’s a mere formality that the club’s new executives will select a new manager. Backe, while vulnerable to criticism in some areas, has handled the league’s toughest coaching job with dignity and composure and sounds at peace with his efforts.
“We knocked on the door for 90 minutes, played a good game, [created] a number of chances,” he said. “We were able to create enough chances to win this game. But you can say that’s football: they will get one or two chances, and they were effective on the last one. But I can’t in a way be negative over our team effort.”
3) Robbie Russell plays the unlikely hero, again.
Russell will always be a Real Salt Lake icon for netting the winning penalty kick in RSL’s Cinderella run to the MLS Cup 2009 championship, and while he declined to discuss his old team Thursday night, it’s hard not to wonder if he’s brought some of that stardust to the nation’s capital.
The veteran has been a casualty of Najar’s successful move to right back. But thanks to the D.C. Homegrown’s suspension and hamstring troubles for Chris Korb, he had to make his first start since July 15. A bit rusty and well short of match fitness, Russell helped pitch a shutout and even roamed forward to set up DeLeon’s game-winner.
“I made that run a couple of times and somebody had come with me – and this time nobody came with me,” he recalled. “I saw their whole defense shifting this way, so I was like, ‘I’ll take it this way and maybe if Nicky gets lucky.’ Nice little through ball and he had a great finish, it was unreal.”