It takes more than just attitude to take over a game, but combined with team rhythm and smarter tactics, it sure helps. DC United finally put two good halves together to knock off the Red Bulls 4-1 as Chris Pontius charged into the role of instigator and finisher to earn an MLS Player of the Week accolade. He did not do it alone.
The game began with both sides struggling unsuccessfully to create a rhythm. The same lack of flair that cost DC United a win against the Montreal Impact seemed to linger in the damp and chilly air of RFK Stadium. Then Pontius surged past Thierry Henry, fairly charging him off the ball and streaking toward the goal. He found a bit of space for his right foot and slammed home the opening goal.
A few days before, the same sort of move would have encountered several more defenders as the forward would have had more distance to cover. While the Impact had imposed their line of restraint well into United’s turf days before, United learned the lesson and set their own collective resistance well into the Red Bulls’ turf with great good effect.
Nick DeLeon explained, “We can’t afford to have that start (against Montreal). We came out bangin’.“ He went on to point out how at practice the team emphasized total defense up front, “We preached that pretty hard….bring the energy right from the get go.” He clearly enjoyed the approach and wants more of the same against Houston next Saturday, “We gotta keep that going.”
The emergence of DeLeon and Danny Cruz as aggressive players who also maintained their width freed up the entire center of the pitch for the trio of Dwayne DeRosario, Maicon Santos, and Pontius. Yet, it was an attack from the left side by Santos, who refused to give up the ball until he was almost on the goal, which gave Pontius a deflection with which to put United up 2-0.
Attitude combined with variety left a depleted Red Bull side with too many problems to solve. Not to be outdone, Dwayne DeRosario took on a series of players and forced the issue to set up DeLeon who happened to show up in front of the net just in time to make the score 3-0.
Deleon, whose selection by DC United had been panned by some, has proven himself to be a most aggressive and confident rookie. He believes that the main thing he learned from his father, a former professional player himself, was to have confidence and to use, “My attitude of going at defenders without fear. Sometimes you lose it, sometimes you get by them; but you just gotta keep going.” It was this quality that inspired DC’s Coach Ben Olsen to choose him.
The stunning success of both Deleon and Cruz pushed Pontius out of the starting lineup as he continued rounding into form after his broken leg from last season. Andy Najar, a former rookie of the year was also pushed aside as he went off to have a successful tournament for the Honduras National U-23 team.
Both had become too predictable for MLS opponents who knew that both tended to attack too directly into the center, thereby closing off options for their entire team. The switch of Pontius to forward simply played into his natural style.
Najar has been coming off a minor illness after the Olympic qualifying U-23 tournament, but seemed to stay wider in his stint on Wednesday and should continue to push for a starting slot.
Perry Kitchen, who suffered through a horrible spell as a central defender for the US U-23s, has grown rapidly into a leader in his defensive midfield role for DC. He could be seen directing traffic constantly while working smoothly with Emiliano Dudar, whose communication comes mostly from confident body language.
United’s strength down the middle left the Red Bulls with some options down the wings, but Daniel Woolard was just strong and wise enough to keep Dane Richards from wreaking havoc down the Red Bulls’ right. Good backup by the rest of the defense and hard work by DC’s wings kept the score sheet clean until Henry curled a classic free kick in to console his teammates.
The win continues the recent alternating win/tie pattern but the margin of victory and obviously improving team cohesion may portend the first successive MLS victories in Olsen’s coaching career when Houston comes to town on Saturday at 7:30.