A steady, soaking rain began to fall on RFK Stadium shortly after the conclusion of D.C. United’s 2-1 loss to the LA Galaxy on Sunday night, drenching players, staff and a few lingering fans as they headed for home in the wake of another stinging defeat.
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United are 3-11-3 in league play with only 12 points to their credit. But head coach Curt Onalfo has done an admirable job of keeping his charges in a positive mental state and, on Sunday, they stood toe-to-toe with the league’s best side, only to once again “shoot themselves in the foot,” as Onalfo put it.
Challenged of an unyielding injury epidemic, DC have been buoyed by the contributions of several fresh-faced youngsters this year. But there are inherent risks in a reliance on inexperienced players and the second half of Sunday’s match proved that reality.
Minutes after teenage rookie Andy Najar cancelled out Edson Buddle’s opener with a fine set-piece header, the Galaxy restored their lead thanks to a miscue from another rookie, Jordan Graye. Although he has performed admirably since being pressed into service along the DC back line, Graye now finds himself the scapegoat for a second consecutive match.
Three days after his late turnover helped hand Seattle Sounders FC an 89th-minute winner at RFK, the rookie had a short pass intercepted by Sean Franklin. The Galaxy winger’s ensuing shot was handled in the box by Julius James to set up Landon Donovan’s game-winning penalty kick.
“Coach is telling me to go with my first instinct during the games and I’ve kind of been hesitating ever since that play [against RSL],” admitted a crestfallen Graye.
“On [Donovan's] goal, I didn’t go with my first instincts. I should’ve probably taken it out wide, but instead I just tried to give it up because, in my mind, I’m not trying to dribble it out of the back. I tried to pass it quickly and he ended up deflecting it and it was right down our throats. It was an unlucky handball, but it still goes back to me.”
The eventual winner for Los Angeles also reminded United of the fine margins that can separate success and failure in MLS. United equalized, missed a chance to seize the lead, then surrendered the deciding goal within a five-minute stretch.
“Those are moments in the game where you’ve got to just continue with it," said Onalfo. "You feel the momentum, we have an opportunity to make it 2-1 right before that play, and we didn’t. So it’s a lump. It’s devastating.”
But everyone involved recognizes the futility of pinning blame on a 23-year-old who was never expected to contribute to the first team so soon and now finds himself the incumbent starter in an unfamiliar position.
“He’s a young player; that’s what you get,” added Onalfo ruefully. “At the end of the day, he’s playing left back – he’s our third left back. [Graye] is a fourth-round draft pick who’s had some very good games for us, and he’s made some errors that have cost us. Unfortunately that’s what young players go through.
“Just like every one of our players, I care about him and I want him to learn from it and we’re going to do everything possible to help him.”
The pluckiness and potential of their young Turks suggest the Black-and-Red can look forward to a bright future, but that offers limited comfort while frustrating losses continue to mount in the here and now.
To make matters worse, Sunday’s loss also featured injuries to mainstays Dejan Jakovic and Chris Pontius.
“It’s just unfortunate that we can’t get the result,” said Najar, who now leads United in goals. “When you score, you’re happy about yourself, but obviously, I want the rest of my teammates to be scoring as well so we can win games. In the end, it’s not fun, because we’re losing.”