WASHINGTON – Entering Saturday evening’s match against the Chicago Fire, D.C. United’s 2014 had been one of baby steps.
After a 3-0 home drubbing from Columbus and a 1-0 road loss at Toronto, United’s players and coaches had preached patience, choosing to focus on a handful of positives – incremental improvements in team chemistry and rhythm – rather then address the obvious negatives, like just three shots on goal over 180 minutes.
On Saturday evening, D.C.’s progress was much easier to see.
For the first time in months, United looked dangerous. They were dominant during stretches of a first half that saw them move the ball at will. After a performance in Toronto where United’s attacking corps seemed hesitant to pull the trigger, the club put nine shots on goal, tripling their season total.
“It’s still a step forward.” United head coach Ben Olsen said after the match. “In this process that we knew was going to take some time, this was another step forward. All of the things we’ve worked on in the past couple of weeks, we’ve gotten better at. If we had just a bit more class in the final third, we could’ve won that game.”
Though United’s back line looked shaky at times, their attacking corps displayed a rhythm and flow that hadn’t been present in their play at any point in recent memory. Nick DeLeon, Fabian Espindola and Eddie Johnson combined on a number of dangerous chances, stretching Chicago’s already-depleted back line to the breaking point.
DeLeon and Espindola even combined on a set piece goal – certainly not something observers of United have seen much of over the past year.
“I thought Fabian was busy, I thought he trusted his teammates more than he did last game,” said Olsen. “I thought Eddie was a threat all game long up top. I thought Perry [Kitchen] was fantastic. I thought Davy [Arnaud] in particular gave us a real bite and energy."
After Kitchen’s 73rd-minute strike, D.C.’s fans were given a taste of something even rarer: joy. The midfielder was joined by most of his teammates for an impromptu slip-and-slide in the near corner. After a dreadful 2013 and a frustrating start to the new season, the rain-soaked celebration looked cathartic.
“When things aren’t going well,” reflected Eddie Johnson, “if you get caught up in all the negativity – all the ‘They’re not jelling, the chemistry isn’t there' [talk] – your mind is very powerful and you’re not going to play with confidence on the weekend. One thing that Benny keeps preaching is that we need to stay positive, upbeat.
“We’re positive of our ability. We’re positive of what we can do. The work that we’re putting in week in and week out, it’s not going unnoticed.”
The key for United, of course, will be to build on this progress. Though Saturday's performance was a leap forward, there were also negatives. Both of United's goals were the result of a defensive breakdown: A miscommunication between outside backs Christian Fernandez and Sean Franklin led to a wide-open Jhon Kennedy Hurtado notching the Fire's first, while Chicago's second falls squarely on the shoulders of Fernandez himself.
None of this was lost on Olsen, who tempered Saturday evening's praise with a reality check.
"We should win games that we score two goals in.”