Back in the dewy morn of the season, United fandom, and BigSoccer in general, were convinced that the Black-and-Red would take the East, if not all of MLS, by storm. By shipping out fan favorite Alecko Eskandarian and bringing in the well-travelled Brazilian hit man Luciano Emilio, the massed ranks of the unwashed punditry began to prophecy a rebirth of the "magic triangle" in the form of Emilio-Moreno-Gomez.
It began with a bang. United's 7-3 aggregate victory in the CONCACAF Champion's Cup over Olimpia of Honduras showed a team that, while rusty, was capable of scoring magnificent goals. Emilio lived up to his billing, putting three goals past his former side in the two matches. On the verge of the semifinal match-up with Chivas, anticipation gave way to unbridled optimism as the club acquired another Brazilian - Fred "No, not-that-Fred" from Melbourne Victory of Australia's A-League.
With the addition of Fred, the prognosticators predicted an expansion to a "magic rhombus" with Emilio at the point, holding up the ball and banging in the goals, Moreno slightly behind making dangerous dribbling runs, and Gomez and Fred buzzing about the attacking midfield, taking on defenders and fashioning chances for the rest of the attack. Despite bowing out 2-3 against Chivas, the team still looked like it would roll into the MLS season and steamroller the opposition.
So, where has the magic gone? Although Emilio started strong, bagging two goals in his first two MLS matches, he's since gone quiet. Moreno looks like age has wrapped him up in cobwebs, slowing down an already patient style to approximately glacial speeds, while Gomez has struggled to influence games with the same élan as in previous years. Fred has only shown glimpses of his quality in fits and bursts.
Recent form suggests that United are starting to fit the pieces together as a trio of 2-1 victories has pushed them up the table and back into the playoff picture, but the manner of the wins is not the awe-inspiring attacking display that many had predicted. Rather, this is a team that is starting to solidify at the back - despite the worrying lack of shutouts - and can typically maintain an edge in possession, but sometimes looks lost in the attacking third.
Of the six goals in the last three games, four have come from set pieces and one of the others resulted from a cross after a throw in. That makes a grand total of one goal from true open play. I suppose a fan could take heart that the last goal of the six was the one that came from open play and it was a pretty goal, with Gomez driving at the defense and dishing to Olsen for the finish.
Another ray of hope has arrived in the surprise package named Guy-Roland Kpene. Picked by United in the third round of the Supplemental Draft (note that it was the Supplemental, not the SuperDraft), the Ivorian is pushing Moreno and Emilio for starting time up top. While he hasn't proven that he can score yet, he has looked good on the ball, making intelligent, quick touches and passes at speed.
That last bit is the part that United has been sorely missing. Throughout the beginning of the season, it seemed that the opposition always had an extra gear that they could switch to that would increase the speed of play and cause United problems at the back. United never seemed to be able to replicate this feat until Kpene got on the field.
So, the magic hasn't arrived, whether it be in the shape of a triangle or a rhombus, and while DC are scoring, they aren't doing it in with the panache that was expected. Whether it be a lack of fluidity in attack, the inability to string passes together at pace in the midfield, an adjustment to a new style of play under Soehn, or simply the poor form of some key players, United should be a more formidable attacking side.
They'll get a chance to demonstrate this tomorrow at the Toolbox when they face a Galaxy side that is struggling massively in the standings and is decimated by injuries, suspensions, and international call-ups. Despite the presence of two of MLS's best in Cannon and Donovan, anything less than three points from this match will be a massive disappointment.