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Sounders vs. D.C. United: Three Questions

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JOEtv is carrying the match at 7:00 p.m. Saturday night. These are things you should know.

MLS: D.C. United at Seattle Sounders FC
 D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen walks back to the locker room following a 4-3 defeat against the Seattle Sounders FC at CenturyLink Field. 
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Before Seattle Sounders joined MLS, before the LA Galaxy started their dynasty under multiple coaches, before Peter Wilt’s Chicago Fire, there was a dynasty pure and true. D.C. United dominated the pre-Garber league better than any team since. Then things went sideways and they crashed. Currently the original MLS United is in a multi-year struggle on the field, though they finally have a hope off of it. Seattle Sounders host that team of extraordinary history looking to avoid the path DC took to the bottom.

Jason Alexander from Black & Red United answers Three Questions. We exchanged questions on Friday evening.

SaH: OG United had the highest of highs early in their existence. How did you deal with it when they slid away from that? Asking for me.

B&RU: Because it’s an actual club tradition to mention just how good things were, I’m obliged to say that D.C. United won 8 trophies in their first 4 years of existence. 2 a year, every year. It was something truly special, and as I get older I really appreciate being around for it.

To answer your question, I’m not exactly sure. Their 2000 season was a bit like Seattle’s now: a sudden, shuddering halt that was not supposed to happen. They lost 4-0 at home to the Galaxy, and it just never got much better. I was blessed with the distraction of college, and tried my best to compartmentalize the upsetting realities of game day purely to the time I spent at RFK Stadium and the surrounding environs (or on the road, because naturally I chose that era to start going on the road). I would invite folks along, but mostly they said no, and so I’d go, I’d suffer, and then I’d come back and put it to the side. I had a wonderful time living life from 2000-2003, but it was in part because I kept the rotten soccer side of things quarantined from the other things I enjoyed that weren’t spoiled by the MLS salary cap.

It didn’t always work, but it taught me a lot about how to lose with more dignity than I did as a hotly competitive, temperamental kid. The good news is that you (Dave and, most likely, your readers) are an adult who probably handle life far better than I did at 18. And your team, believe it or not, is actually a lot better than United was when they fell off a cliff.

If I can give two more recommendations: gallows humor and embrace the rare good moments.

SaH: I’m intrigued by Zoltán. Is dude supposed to be carrying the attack?

B&RU: Zoltan Stieber, our happy-go-lucky Hungarian international, is a fun player to watch for anyone who has struck a ball trying to make it do something a little unusual. Stieber is a technician; in the 90s, you’d have long grown tired of hearing “cultured left foot” and Stieber in the same sentence. Shooting from distance or on a dead ball, serving in free kicks for others, switching the point of attack, sending in dangerous crosses from 50-60 yards away... the man is a wizard at placing soccer balls where he wants them to be. He’s not necessarily United’s playmaker, or the guy everyone else looks to pass to when the chips are down, but when he gets on the ball he tends to make things happen.

Earlier this season, he was the fourth attacking midfielder on a team that played with three, but Ben Olsen’s recent choice to move Paul Arriola into an unlikely (but very effective) central midfield role has opened up a path to get Stieber out there with Arriola, Luciano Acosta, and Yamil Asad. Throw in his understanding of how to set Darren Mattocks up (no one on United understands where Mattocks wants the ball more than Stieber), and you have an actually kind of dangerous attack.

He should play inverted from the right wing, but he has a weird knack for finding angles to cross with his left foot anyway. That’s not to say he only hits crosses, as Stieber is also comfortable moving inside to combine with others at the top of the box. He’s a multi-faceted player, and when United makes sure he gets the ball, they usually have success.

SaH: Is the defense soft because of the lone DM, or something else?

B&RU: The answer to this has changed throughout the season. United’s best defensive midfielder is Russell Canouse, but a knee injury in the first days of the preseason has kept him off the field ever since. It wasn’t supposed to be a particularly long-term injury, and his absence has forced Olsen to rush the acclimation process of offseason signing Junior Moreno (a Venezuela international) and the development of US youth national team starlet Chris Durkin. At first, Olsen clearly preferred Moreno, who like many MLS imports struggled to figure out when and where pressure was coming from. But then Moreno pulled his hamstring, and Durkin got the nod. At times, he truly lives up to the hype any #PlayYourKids acolyte can heap on him. At other times, like the second half against LAFC, it’s clear that the speed of play can still get away from him on the defensive side of the ball. Fortunately for United, Moreno seems to have figured this out, and has quietly been quite good in his last couple of appearances.

The real defensive problem has been individual errors, mostly from the fullbacks but also in the midfield. We’re talking about failed clearances without pressure, or simply letting your man run away from you without explanation. The kinds of errors that make you want to pull your hair out. United’s goalkeeping has been solid, if not quite what it was with Bill Hamid around. Steve Birnbaum has bounced back from a miserable 2017, and while his partnership with Frederic Brillant is short of dominant, it is generally respectable. Oniel Fisher, as you well know, is prone to mistakes, and he’s had a few moments where he just gets lost in space. Newcomer Joseph Mora had a solid debut against Houston, but since then he has an undeniable tendency to lose focus. Let me sum up his last two games: at RSL, he lost Corey Baird to concede a goal, then committed a totally avoidable foul 90 seconds later that, via VAR, got him sent off. Upon his return at LAFC a couple of weeks ago, he threw away two separate chances to clear the ball, and the second one rolled right to Diego Rossi, who deposited it in the back of D.C.’s net.

Why does he play? Injuries. Taylor Kemp hasn’t played since the middle of last season, and there’s no timetable for his return. Nick DeLeon picked up a knee injury recently, and now United is starting two players who would probably be second choice if everyone were healthy. Chris Odoi-Atsem would probably have gotten a chance to compete due to all the errors, but he’s out after surgery to alleviate compartment syndrome.

Some of the defensive problems can be attributed to coaching, as United’s ability to stay organized consistently comes and goes, but the large portion of the blame right now falls on individual players letting the team down.


B&RU: As a D.C. United fan, I know all about being at the bottom of the table, and I know the “What has gone wrong?” sort of question is one you’re having to deal with all the time right now. So let me go in the other direction: what is going right with the Sounders at the moment?

SaH: Probably the best thing is that they are playing the kids. For all the theory-crafting about the Seattle Sounders age the outfield player with the most minutes is 23-year-old USMNT player Cristian Roldan. Nouhou, at just 20, has the 5th most minutes. Alex Roldan, yes, Cristian’s brother, is only 21 and has the 8th most minutes. I’m going to keep this list going, because it gets fun with Handwalla Bwana, an 18-year-old Nagbe clone who already finished two college seasons. He has the 13th most minutes.

No, not all of them have looked great when out there, but Cristian and Nouhou are clear starters while Alex, Handwalla and Henry Wingo can contribute minutes even when the old dudes are healthy. This is invaluable experience, and if they learn from their errors, they can continue their growth. Plus, Cristian’s the captain now. A team with Dempsey, Alonso, Lodeiro, Torres, Marshall and Frei is captained by the the region’s adopted son (he sometimes claims he’s from the Rainier Beach neighborhood in Seattle).

B&RU: Nicolas Lodeiro’s return feels a bit like Seattle has found a small oasis after stumbling through the desert. How much of an impact on the team (both in terms of the soccer side and the mental side) do you expect him to have?

SaH: Best case? He can repeat what he did when he originally joined the Sounders -- back in 2016, in only 13 games, he had 4 assists and 8 goals as the team went 5-2-4. He then had four goals in the playoffs went Seattle went 4-1-1 and won MLS Cup.

He probably won’t put up those kind of numbers, largely due to the kids and the injuries. Lodeiro can do a lot to improve the squad. He’s capable of playing either wing, as a central attacking player and even dropping back to play as a deep-lying playmaker. Even in this poor season he is averaging 4.2 key passes per game. How good is 4.2 key passes a game? Good enough that if Lodeiro had played a majority of matches this season he would be the league leader and be better than second place by a whole number (4.2 v 3.2 for Kjestan). If you only included Nico’s short key passes he’d still be a top 13 provider in MLS. If you only included his long key passes he would merely be 34th in MLS.

Sure, maybe the Sounders don’t have anyone that can finish those passes, but damn it’s going to be great seeing that kind of creativity again.

B&RU: Beyond getting healthy, what needs to change for this Sounders team to turn it around?

SaH: They need to demand victory from themselves. They need to pursue the goal as if it is a trophy. They need to shoot. While the Sounders are the team that gets the highest percentage of shots from within the 6-yard box they are also only 18th in shots per game.

You know that mythology about Arsenal and how they try to pass it into the net? Seattle’s like that except they don’t enter the area often enough to do anything. Maybe that changes now with the improved health of the team, but there’s also reason to doubt everything about the offense right now. A team with only seven goals and that’s only scored in three games won’t inspire confidence in the attack until they’ve scored a couple goals in a game, and then another game, and another few games too.

Hopefully the players have more confidence in themselves and each other than I have right now. I may be broken.