The New York Red Bulls were soundly beaten in the end, 2-0 on the road in DC. RBNY came out strong at the beginning of both halves, but faded as the attack repeatedly foundered and D.C. United found ample opportunity to break forward and catch the back line out of shape.
The loss sinks the Red Bulls back below the red line in the standings that separates playoff teams from pushovers. And sends them into a mid-week home game with Chicago - and the middle third of the season - still hoping to fix the problems that derailed the team's start to MLS 2016.
Three quick thoughts about the match:
...finishing. Not for the first time this season, RBNY created good chances but couldn't put them away. Call that unlucky if it happens every once in a while, but this was the sixth time the team has been shut out this season - and its seventh loss in 11 league games in 2016.
Firing blanks has become a habit. A habit the Red Bulls must shake if they are to shake off the issues that keep dragging them back below the red line.
...defending. The defense was static and out of position for DC's first goal - derived from a pass played into space about the size of a tennis court in RBNY's back line. It was a good pass by Nyarko and a better run by Sarvas, but both were allowed the freedom of the final third by a flat-footed, shapeless defense.
DC's second was courtesy of a very good finish by Nyarko, but was also facilitated by some slapdash work at the back. The Red Bulls had scrambled the ball out of their area, with six men bunched around the penalty spot. A loose pass turned an exit ball into an interception, and DC simply broke forward and played the ball around RBNY's hopelessly narrow cluster of defenders.
...substitutions. Not so much the subsitutions to be fair, but the tactical thinking behind them. This is hindsight, of course, but Jesse Marsch's decision to yank Kemar Lawrence after the second goal - minutes before half-time - seemed to violate the coach's general principle of sticking by his players and his process through thick and thin. Lawrence wasn't playing outstandingly well, but a petulant coach won't fix whatever problems the player is experiencing, or his confidence.
Marsch then withdrew Gonzalo Veron, shortly before the hour-mark of the game. Fair enough: Veron has proven fragile thus far in his career, and perhaps it was best not to risk him for what looked increasingly like a lost cause. In the Argentine's place came Lloyd Sam, who had been back to his dominant best on the wing in recent weeks. Marsch stuck Sam in the middle of the field, and the winger offered a reprise of the largely invisible and futile performances he'd been putting in when asked to play a similar role earlier in the season.
Finally, with 20 minutes to go and nothing to much to do other than frantically chase forward for a goal, Marsch replaced Felipe with Alex Muyl - the least experienced player on his bench. Getting minutes for young players is an important part of the work of the RBNY head coach, but so too is making up for a slow start. Perhaps Sean Davis or SWP - either of whom might have freed Sam to play wide - would have been a better selection.
All of this is hindsight, but that is the nature of the game: when you win, you're very good; when you lose, you're not. When you lose seven out of 11 and have only scored four games so far this season: you're terrible.
The team can turn itself around, as the recent three-game unbeaten streak suggested. And the next opportunity to do so will come on Wednesday, May 18, against Chicago Fire - one of the few teams in the East with a worse record than RBNY. There aren't many must-win games that arrive 12 matches into a season, but this will be one of those rare occurrences: it's still early in the season, but the Red Bulls need the tonic of three points as quickly as they can get it.