It was a simple strategy, really. D.C. United finished with the third best record in MLS last season and advanced within a match of hosting MLS Cup. While a few part-time players were replaced, Andy Najar was the only regular starter to exit. And captain Dwayne De Rosario — without whom United went 6-1-4 — was back in the fold.
But it hasn’t been that simple. At 1-4-1 with just two goals scored heading into Sunday’s clash with the Philadelphia Union, United are looking for answers. So why isn’t United’s formula for success working? Here are some of my conclusions:
• Not enough consideration was given to United’s weak schedule down the stretch. Yes, United finished the season on a 5-0-2 tear to move from beyond the playoff field to the No. 2 seed. But let’s not forget how soft that schedule was — the games came against New England, Philadelphia, Chivas USA, Portland, Toronto, Columbus and Chicago. Of those teams, only Chicago (a fading side poised for an early playoff exit) made the postseason. And United then edged a talented Red Bulls team that was firmly in “self-destruct” mode in the conference semifinals. Perhaps these results gave United, who made few offseason splashes, a misleading sense of confidence going into 2013.
• Andy Najar’s loss was a bigger blow than many thought. I was among those who downplayed the Honduran’s sale to Anderlecht, saying he was a luxury player United could afford to lose before re-investing his transfer fee elsewhere. With Chris Korb, Daniel Woolard, Robbie Russell and the newly acquired James Riley at fullback, D.C. had plenty of options. But I underestimated how key Najar’s forays forward from right back were as a wild-card aspect of United’s attack last year once coach Ben Olsen adopted a more defensive philosophy. With Najar gone and Nick DeLeon injured, the right side just hasn’t produced much offensively this season. Which means …
• Opponents are zeroing in on Chris Pontius, and United haven’t figured out how to counter. After an all-league campaign in 2012, Pontius has struggled to get going this year. Sure, Pontius needs to adjust. But if defenses are going to shift defenders over to his left side, United’s other attacking players need to find the game and take advantage of this space. Thus far, however, the likes of Lionard Pajoy and Marcos Sanchez just aren’t doing so.
• The importance of Hamdi Salihi and Maicon Santos was undervalued. Both of these players were overpaid considering their contributions. But it’s easy to forget that by the end of May last year, Santos had seven goals and Salihi had four while essentially sharing the starting striker position. That’s fantastic production out of the No. 9 spot, and at that point United were in first place and clicking on all cylinders. With Lionard Pajoy, Rafael and Carlos Ruiz up top this year, it just doesn’t look like D.C. has a goal-scorer capable of finding the net at such a prolific rate.