United working to right road woes
WASHINGTON -- D.C. United sat atop of the Eastern Conference table as recently as a month ago based solely on their play at home. However, United have still won just one match away from RFK Stadium -- needing two goals in stoppage time to steal a win from the league's worst team -- and the ninth-best away record in MLS has left the club sitting in third place in the East heading into this weekend.United's enigmatic play on the road has shown some definitive patterns that head coach Tom Soehn and the players are working hard to correct with a full week of training. Away from home, they have consistently forgotten what they do best -- possess the ball and attack.United (6-4-10, 29 points) sit just one point ahead of Toronto FC, whom they face in the lively atmosphere of BMO Field on Saturday in their most important road test of the season to date.Though undefeated at home, United are just 1-4-6 on the road and have earned, or given away, points in every conceivable manner.In eight of the 11 matches, United have had the lead and either squandered immediately or late in the match. In two of those matches, the season opener against Los Angeles and their tie two weeks ago against San Jose, United had two-goal leads, only to see the home side come back to draw level."We drop off on the road and let teams come at us," said United midfielder Santino Quaranta. "I think attacking is our strength and we kind of get into this protective mode that if we score early we get into this mode of trying to worry about teams coming back at us. San Jose was a great example -- you take your foot off the pedal and it funnels through the team. One guy drops (back) and another guy drops and before you know it you've got 11 guys behind the ball and you are in your own half and you are not attacking anymore."United typically dominates possession but tentative decision-making allowed San Jose to equalize that match in the 62nd minute and pressure United for the duration of the match.In the following match against Houston, they conceded three goals in four minutes in the last 10 minutes of the first half to seal their fate despite a valiant comeback in a 4-3 loss. They forged ahead in the 34th minute against Seattle in mid-June only to see the home side equalize four minutes later. A confident Seattle side then took the lead in stoppage time of the first half, tacked on another 12 minutes into the second half before United stormed back for a 3-3 draw, despite needing an own goal to get the result.United's lack of concentration, but more importantly, their inability to maintain simple shape as a unit, have been Soehn's biggest concerns."It still goes back to the way we pressure. We get sloppy and we can't afford to do that," said the United boss. "I just don't think we've been on the same page and I really saw it in Houston. We made a big effort to correct that and I thought in El Salvador we did a good job. It's not in so much pressuring high but making sure we are organized and doing it the right way; back shifting when they need to and we have been focusing on that a lot and the last two games have dictated that we are starting to do a better job of it."United plays its best when they pressure high, dictate tempo and attack quickly. Following that loss to Houston, United traveled to El Salvador and got a 1-1 draw on the road before winning on penalty kicks to advance to the group phase of the CONCACAF Champions League."Tommy has talked about it so much that it doesn't matter what shape we play or whatever. It has to be 11 guys on board here from the front forwards to the back. It all starts up top with our pressure," said Quaranta. "We have enough guys who can change the game with a free kick or whatever so if you keep the game close you always have a chance."Breakdowns have also occurred in the back and to a man they are keenly aware of that deficiency."I think just communication. We have good athletes, really good players in the defense but we just have to communicate better. I think that's the biggest concern," said backup goalkeeper Milos Kocic. "It's different with three in the back or four in the back so you have to communicate more because there is more space to cover."During training sessions, goalkeeper coach Mark Simpson sits behind each of the goals, advising Kocic and starter Josh Wicks what to say and to whom during scrimmages.Though loud and cozy, playing at BMO Field should be no more of a problem than the recent crowd experiences United have faced. Having played in Houston and Seattle and the challenging environment of El Salvador, hostile crowds are nothing new for United."We know what is and we know what to expect. I don't think BMO is any more hostile than the last two crowds and in some ways it brings out the better in us," said Soehn.