Well, I've just about got enough coffee in me to get this ball rolling after a long, long trip home last night (word to the wise for PA folks taking the 270/15 route back from RFK...avoid 270 northbound until you're north of Frederick...ugh). So let's kick out the talking points for the latest victory by your Eastern Conference-leading DC United...
* Wicks for the win. The loudest cheers in my section weren't for the goals, but for Wicks' PK save in the second half. I'd like to say he came up big when Conde was in alone on net as well, but that was more a case of him just being big and Conde kicking the ball into him than anything else. The one bone I have to pick was with Wicks' distribution, which was erratic at best. Still, in a big match, he proved his mettle and made the saves that made the difference in what has to be the final bell tolling on the DC United career of Louis Crayton.
* Old-timers and dead balls. I'm generally a nervous wreck before PK's, but I was pumping my fist before Jaime's foot even met the ball, so confident was I that he would beat Busch. Of course, let's leave aside whether that was really a penalty or not (it wasn't) and move on to Christian Gomez, who capped his return to form with a lovely free kick that was well deserved on the balance of his play--holding the ball, doing that spin that corkscrews defenders into the ground, and always with his head up. But what did both of these goals have in common? Fouls (or supposed fouls) on Chris Pontius, playing up top in place of Emilio...
* R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Remember early in the season when I was complaining about Pontius not getting the benefit of the doubt from the Whistlemen when it came to the fouls he was suffering? Well, maybe he's getting a bit more respect now, a few months into what looks to be a promising professional career. Speaking of the rook, I was impressed with how many headers he won in the early going off of goal kicks and long balls. There are so many odd dimensions to his game that make him such an interesting player. Reading of the game, unusual patience for a rookie, a knack for popping up in the right place, the long throw ability, good aerial presence, confidence on the ball and to hit a shot.
* Highway Left Revisited. Chicago's attacks in the first half came in two particular flavors. (1) Direct balls (or McBride-flicked on direct balls) to runners (Rolfe, Thorrington, Pappa, Nyarko) in the channels between Jakovic and his wide defenders and (2) the highway they paved down our left flank, particularly with Pappa. Anybody else notice how much that latter route dried up once we swapped in Quaranta for Fred on that side of midfield? Of course, the damage had been done, with Wallace closing down the crosser and Pappa running in all kinds of space with his hand in the air between Burch, frozen on the back line, and Fred, trailing the play. Burch had some eye-rolling defensive moments, but in the main, he was passable. Which brings us to...
* Summer fixes? I'm not willing to concede that Burch (or John for that matter) is the long-term solution at left back, but he's slowly emerging as a competent defender, making me less certain that left back is the primary spot we need to address in the summer transfer season. So the question will have to be: if we clear up some cap space by letting Crayton go, can we find somebody to pair with Simms in the middle of the park who has the range and energy of Wallace coupled with a bit more positional sense, so that we can swap Wallace back to the left flank to shore up the defensive effort there? I know some will be whispering "what about Benny?", but, as much as I love him, I don't think this formation works best with our hobbled old warhorse pairing Simms in the middle. Heresy I'm sure, but to my eyes it seems obvious.
* The depth up top. N'Silu was a great disappointment to me when he came on for Jaime. He didn't win nearly as many high balls as Pontius did, and never really seemed to "click" until Boyzzz got on the field. One of my abiding memories of the night was Gomez throwing up his hands after he slotted a lovely ball through that N'Silu failed to make the run for. A couple of Latin guys nearby and the father patiently explaining things to his kids behind me groaned right along with me, and we all shared commiserating glances. That said, when Khumalo entered the game (to great effect with buzzing energy on the counter, I might add), N'Silu seemed to grow in confidence, working one-twos with Boyzzz and starting to make more and better runs. If it's just a comfort factor with the rest of the team, maybe N'Silu and Boyzzz need to be getting more minutes? Because we're pretty damn sure going to need the depth as we roll into late summer and the Champions' League as the injuries and suspensions mount.
* First live look at Jakovic. The worrying moments are still there, but, despite his penalty giveaway, the goods outnumbered the bad when it came to Jakovic. I found myself on more than one occasion muttering "love that guy" or giving appreciative grunts of approval at interceptions, astute passes made, or balls shepherded out of play. If we can hang onto this kid for a couple of seasons, he's going to be a perennial All Star. Of course, he did come off somewhat worse in aerial combat with McBride, but that's freakin' Brian McHead, who's been dominating American skies for a decade plus!
* About a girl (or girls). We arrived at about the 30-minute mark of the first half of the Freedom-Red Stars game. It wasn't exactly enthralling stuff, with my wife, a casual soccer fan, in particular noting how much larger the field looked during the first match and wondering at the lack of basic trapping skills on several occasions. The one exception for my money was Cristiane for the Red Stars. Very, very slick in possession and passing, she was the most watchable of an admittedly dour selection. And I'll have to relate a "proud papa" moment from the United game as well...My six-year-old daughter, after Salvatore passed us around the 10 minute mark to get the ball rolling, kept up a steady stream of chanting, a sort of robotic five-part "D-C...U-ni-ted" that left her voice a bit ragged by the end. She punctuated it with a bit of "ole, ole, ole" and the requisite response to the drums whenever they got going, but I was as impressed by her stamina and commitment as I'm sure some of the early twenty-something crowd nearby were annoyed by her high-pitched piping.
Finally, I'll close with the question I'm sure you'll all be wondering about given my match preivew. Did I make it to the final whistle, or did I walk out in protest when we started sitting back and relying on our defense and on the counter--a move that seemed as likely destined to fail (were it not for poor Chicago finishing and Wicks' PK heroics) as it was to succeed (Boyzzz's counter tries, N'Silu's failure followed by Gomez' crossbar ping, and, of course, that woeful miss by Quaranta with the net gaping)?
I was still there when the whistle blew.
I was wondering where we were going to look for a winner if Chicago had equalized, considering most of our creative force (Gomez, Moreno, and Fred) had been subbed out, but I was still there...singing with my daughter.