It’s as overused a cliché as there is-“It was a tale of two halves” – but often it’s apropos and the 1-1 draw between DC United and Chicago Fire played at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC certainly fits that description.
United squandered another lead and the Fire came from behind on the road for the second consecutive week, earning four of a possible six points in their first two matches as the guests of two home openers.
United dominated the first half taking the lead in the seventh minute on a fantastic goal by Luciano Emilio, his first of the season. The Fire allowed a sensational 9th minute goal to Kenny Cooper at FC Dallas in their first match before taking over on their way to a dominating 3-1 result.
“We started the game very well. I thought we put a heck of a lot into it and then denied them all over the place,” said D.C. coach Tom Soehn. “I wish we would have come out with a little bit more in the first half because we put so much into it and it showed, because our legs were a little heavy coming out in the second half.
“The tide changed and then we were on the defensive end. And you know any time we play each other that it’s going to be a battle, and they’re going to compete right down to the wire.”
However, after a stern talking to and some tactical adjustments by coach Denis Hamlett, the Fire completely swung the momentum to their side in the second half, equalizing the match in the 53rd minute on a classy finish by Patrick Nyarko that was aided by a poor decision by United goalkeeper Josh Wicks.
“I’m not sure I can tell you,” said a smiling Hamlett, referring to the actual words he said he used during his halftime talk. “We put it out on the table. It was an honest talk as far as ‘look we need to step our game up’ we knew we didn’t play well.
“We didn’t pass the ball well, we didn’t move well but sometimes you are going to have that but the most important thing is that you still have to compete; you still got to want to win and the 50/50’s and the second balls that is what was disturbing about the first half because we talked about it prior to the game. When you play DC that is what is what this game is always about; two teams that are always competing.”
In the first half, United won nearly every 50-50 ball and held most of the possession despite Christian Gomez’ getting few quality attacking touches and needing to be a critical factor. Both coaches concurred that the difference was winning the second balls was the primary difference in the two halves.
“I think it was a lot tougher. The first half we were first to every second ball and 60-30 balls we were winning,” said Soehn. “The second half it went more to their side. I think we put a lot into it. Overall, I don’t think the structure of things changed as much as what we had at the start.”
“The first half was not a particularly good half for us,” agreed Hamlet. “But we talked about a few things at halftime and each guy as a group we needed to step up the intensity and competing and the will to want to win the game.”
“He said 50/50 balls, pick up your energy, they are beating us to every loose ball, just make it hard on them. If they have time and space, they are tough,” said Justin Mapp, giving a synopsis of Hamlet’s pleas at the break. “We were losing all the second balls in the first half and we brought more energy which made it harder on them and that is what got us back in the game.”
“DC came out with a great mentality in the first half. We knew they were going to do that for their home opener and it’s always tough to play here,” added goalkeeper Jon Busch. “We didn’t do good enough with that in the first half and we were fortunate to only be down one. In the second half our mentality was fantastic. We started picking up all of the second balls, started winning tackles and those were things we were missing in the first half.”
A soggy field after two straight days of rain didn’t help either team with good possession but United was definitively the more commanding side through the first stanza. The extra man in the midfield within United’s 3-5-2 formation caused significant marking problems for the Fire.
Emilio collected the ball around 20-yards from goal with open space directly into the Fire penalty area. He let a strong low, left footed shot go from 17-yards before the Fire’s Wilman Conde could close him down, beating an extended Busch just inside the right post to make the score 1-0.
Then matters got worse for the Fire when defender C.J. Brown injured his right quadriceps forcing him to come off in the 14th minute. Dasan Robinson came on for Brown in central defense, himself nursing a hamstring injury.
Brown and Daniel Woolard started on the back line in the absence of both Gonzalo Segares and Bakare Soumare who are away on international duty. Segares suited up for Costa Rica in their World Cup qualifier against rival Mexico at Estadio Azteca while Soumare was with Mali’s side for their qualifier against Sudan.
“We knew missing Bake and Gonzalo, they are two important guys on our team but at the same time we feel with the roster that we have it was an opportunity for other guys to step up and tonight I think Daniel (Woolard) stepped up and held his own and I’m disappointed for C.J. but he is a warrior and he’ll continue to work hard to get himself back up and running again,” Hamlett said. “We have a deep team and guys know that and that is what makes us a team that will compete.”
Chicago briefly got some quality attacking time midway through the half but after Wicks worked his way into traffic to knock away a John Thorrington free kick, the rebound fell directly to Marco Pappa whose shot sailed just over the top in the 24th minute.
United should have extended the lead three minutes later but Chris Pontius’ open attempt from 12-yards sailed harmlessly over the top. The rookie was set up by 40-yards of creative and crisp combination play down the right flank from Jaime Moreno and Bryan Namoff, with Namoff making the final ball off the touch line to Pontius standing alone near the penalty spot.
Gomez made his most significant and direct impact four minutes later floating a perfect diagonal ball from the right flank to Ben Olsen near the 6-yard box but Busch was equal to the task, flicking the header with a sharp reflex save diving to his right.
The subtle tactical adjustment of moving Logan Pause closer to Gomez, further limited the crafty and aggressive Argentine’s time and space. Outside of the Emilio goal and the occasional thrust forward by Moreno, the other two of United’s attacking threesome were also limited.
“That is simply all down to Logan Pause,” said Thorrington. “The way we went out in the second half he was able to be closer to Gomez rather than have multiple responsibilities and I think he showed why he is the best defensive midfielder in our league.”
“In the first half they were able to take advantage of their extra man in midfield,” Thorrington added. “We went out there and positioned ourselves in such a way that they didn’t have as much time to play. In the first half, we worked so hard to get the ball and then we gave it away a bit too easily.”
“I think we should have pumped the ball down the field a little right at the beginning. That’s what we did in the first half, got it into their half and pressured them;” said United defender Marc Burch. “As soon as they started knocking the ball around us on our home field, I felt like we dropped a little bit when we should have got stuck in a couple tackles early in the second to get the crowd back into it. Instead they got a couple shots, a couple breaks, we had some turnovers, and all of a sudden it’s swinging their way.”
“They came out with some intensity,” added rookie midfielder Rodney Wallace. “I don’t know if we were ready to match it. I think we should have been prepared, we knew they were going to come out hard. They had three chances and they capitalized on one of them. We just got to move on and get the next three points we need.”
Pappa’s ball down the right channel set up Nyarko’s superb equalizer with the slick young forward slipping around Dejan Jakovic, gathering the ball and firing past a charging Wicks from 17-yards, who inexplicably came out of his goal and made a poor effort as well against the low shot in the 53rd minute.
Moments earlier, Wicks let a harmlessly slow rolling cross from close in on the right touch line slip between his legs and tantalizingly near the goal line, scooping it up before Brian McBride could get a foot on it.
“The goal that they scored, you know, he should’ve stayed in his goal. But he did a lot of positives for us too, especially that save at the end on Chris [Rolfe],” said Soehn about his young goalkeeper. “Chris has a quick trigger and put it where he wanted to and Josh got across the goal very well. Unfortunately, the one time that he comes out, he gets punished.”
Rolfe had two significant opportunities after coming on for Mapp in the 81st minute. Wicks made his best save of the night fully extending high and hard to his left to get a hand on Rolfe’s blast from the top of the penalty arc. That was preceded by another Wicks bobble before any of the shocked Fire attackers could pounce on the loose ball in the 89th minute
The energetic, University of Dayton graduate nearly stole the full three points for the visitors just seconds before the final whistle but Wicks got down nicely to gather in his left footed shot from 22-yards out.
DC — Luciano Emilio 1 (unassisted) 7
CHI — Patrick Nyarko 1 (Marco Pappa 1) 53
Chicago Fire — Jon Busch, Tim Ward, C.J. Brown (Dasan Robinson 14), Wilman Conde, Daniel Woolard, Marco Pappa (Cuauhtemoc Blanco 70), Logan Pause, John Thorrington, Justin Mapp (Chris Rolfe 80), Brian McBride, Patrick Nyarko,
Substitutes Not Used: Mike Banner, Stefan Dimitrov, Nick Noble, Brandon Prideaux
D.C. United — Josh Wicks, Bryan Namoff, Dejan Jakovic, Marc Burch, Chris Pontius, Christian Gomez (Brandon Barklage 86), Ben Olsen, Clyde Simms, Rodney Wallace, Luciano Emilio, Jaime Moreno (Francis Doe 65),
Substitutes Not Used: Andrew Jacobson, Thabiso Khumalo, Milos Kocic, Ange N’Silu, Anthony Peters
D.C. United Chicago Fire
Total shots: 9 (Ben Olsen 3) 10 (Brian McBride 3)
Shots on goal: 3 (3 tied with 1) 7 (3 tied with 2)
Fouls: 13 (Ben Olsen 5) 6 (Wilman Conde 2,
Logan Pause 2)
Offsides: 4 (Francis Doe 2) 0
Corner kicks: 3 (Christian Gomez 3) 2 (Marco Pappa 1,
Cuauhtemoc Blanco 1)
Saves: 6 (Josh Wicks 6) 2 (Jon Busch 2)
DC — Ben Olsen (caution; Reckless Foul) 30
DC — Dejan Jakovic (caution; Reckless Tackle) 79
DC — Marc Burch (caution; Dissent) 91+
Referee: Mark Geiger
Referee’s Assistants: Thomas Supple; Bill Dittmar
4th official: Andrew Chapin
Time of game: 1:50
Weather: Cloudy -and- 51 degrees