D.C. United have changed a great deal since their last road match against the Los Angeles Galaxy, a 2-2 draw in last year’s season opener on March 22, 2009. United’s current roster looks dramatically different and interim head coach Ben Olsen is the third man to lead the team during that time.
Yet Saturday night’s 2-1 loss to the Galaxy at the Home Depot Center played out in eerily similar fashion to that match some 18 months ago.
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On both occasions, DC outplayed their hosts for much of the game and took a deserved lead, only for LA hit man Landon Donovan to snatch a brace in the final stages to ensure a deflating conclusion for the Black-and-Red.
One key difference: A road draw on opening day stings far, far less than fumbling away a stirring upset of the league’s top team in a showcase match on national TV.
“I’m just gutted for the guys because they put so much effort into it and they want it so bad,” said Olsen afterwards. “At the end of the day, whether it’s a defensive lapse or – let’s face it, we’ve got some chances to kill that game off.
“So it’s not just a defensive display, it’s both side of the play, making sure we’re finishing the game off and making the plays that matter down the stretch.”
United have now lost a whopping 17 league matches this campaign, but each setback seems to serve up some new degree of pain and frustration. For the first 80 minutes of Saturday’s showdown, DC did everything they needed to do to engineer what would surely have been one of the most unlikely results of the 2010 MLS season.
They defended with shape and composure, got forward with purpose and rendered Donovan and his prolific teammate Edson Buddle invisible for long stretches.
The reward arrived in the form of Andy Najar’s 60th-minute strike, the final touch of a scrambled goalmouth sequence, which the teenage winger began with an angled pass to Santino Quaranta.
The Galaxy are pursuing the Supporters’ Shield trophy and home-field advantage in the postseason while United are primarily playing for pride. But the visitors’ passionate celebration of the goal left little doubt about their hunger for a giant-killing result.
Those ambitions looked well within reach – until everything unraveled in the final 10 minutes.
Clyde Simms had just entered the game when a tame long ball bounced between him and teammate Dejan Jakovic, but still, few DC fans would have expected two of their team’s most capable defensive players to make such a mess of the play, allowing Donovan to nab possession and bear down on goalkeeper Troy Perkins.
It was a gift-wrapped opportunity for the league’s most ruthless attacker, and Donovan made no mistake with his finish. He was equally clinical when Jakovic and right back Jordan Graye inexplicably left him alone in the box on Tristan Bowen’s right-wing cross just five minutes later.
“I thought we were better, plain and simple,” said Santino Quaranta, who captained United for the evening. “I thought we should have won the game."
“We’ve said this all year, but tonight really hurts because for 80 minutes, we fight hard, and then seven or eight minutes of letdowns and that’s the end of that.”
Moments beforehand, United designated player Branko Boskovic had wasted a breakaway chance that would have restored his team’s lead, hitting a soft shot right at Galaxy ‘keeper Donovan Ricketts.
“We’ve got talent, we’ve got guys that we believe in,” added Olsen. “I really like this team, I like the way they’ve responded. But again, it’s not always enough to play hard. We’ve got to be smart and we’ve got to be clinical and we’ve got to get cutthroat when we’ve got the chances to do so.”
The margins between worst and first in MLS can often appear wafer-thin. But Olsen and his colleagues will be lamenting a missed opportunity to turn the standings on their head.