I'm confused. I know that getting a result, any result, in Central America has to be regarded as a positive. And yes, we did manage to advance to the group stage of the Champions' League. But then I look over the notes I took during the match, and the positives are few and far between. In case you were sleeping or just couldn't stomach Bretos' dubious charms (A Peruvian ref for a CONCACAF competition? Check your atlas, Max!), United went down a goal (again!) when Burch's magnificent (/sarcasm!) marking on a set piece resulted in his blind flailing at a ball approaching the head of his mark, resulting in a PK. Fortunately, Gomez can still hit a dead ball, and he leveled matters just minutes later. The rest was interminable waiting, waiting, turnover, waiting, defensive flub, waiting, Wicks in no-man's land, waiting, Fred seeing the red mist descend, waiting...and PK's, where we apparently rock. Talking points?
* Old and slow, but where's the savvy? Soehn (as he always does when push comes to shove, and as Nowak did before him) trotted all the old warhorses out of the stable. I guess that was supposed to result in a patient game where cooler heads would prevail and the creamy quality goodness would rise to the top. And I suppose there were spurts of that. Benny generally valued possession on a night when many others did not. And Gomez had a couple of moments of real danger. But for the most part, we looked old and slow. Moreno had a couple of nice touches, but mainly I noticed when he held the ball too long or tried to find a pass that wasn't there. And Benny, as much as I love him and as tidy as some of his short, simple passing was, is a defensive liability--too slow to track runners from midfield, too small to challenge for balls in the air, all too liberal with the grabby hands and late, ugly tackles. With three at the back, and Wallace, for all his energy, not really as tactically aware as he should be, that led to holes we were lucky not to have exploited.
* A $200,000+ brain fart. If the FO doesn't ship Fred back to Australia this off-season I'll be hugely disappointed. I can understand Wallace, being a rookie and playing in an unfamiliar position, hitting stupid balls that get picked off, but what's Fred's excuse? If he wasn't misfiring on the passes, he was getting stripped of the ball, losing concentration and watching (or not watching!) the ball slip under his feet, trying to bang a ball off two closing Firpo players deep in his own end with no defensive cover in sight (leading to a good chance for the opposition), or kicking his frustrated way (after losing the ball yet again) to a red card. I'm sure he's a lovely man, and he certainly has his moments on the field, but, sad to say, he's a liability. A $200k+ liability.
* Clear the damn ball! I've said this time an again in these pages since Soehn took charge. What is he drilling into their heads that our defenders usually try to play their way out of danger rather than booting it clear? Look, I'll be the first to stand up and say that I prefer to keep the ball and play things on the floor, and there are times I applaud Jakovic for a particularly nimble turn and rush up the field, but some times safety should come first. Especially when legs are getting tired and the entire defense is on yellow cards and can't afford to have to drag somebody down if they lose the ball. Or when the only chances your opposition are likely to get are if they strip one of your defenders in the final third and make a mad dash for goal. I wonder if this pattern would continue if we had quick, energetic front-runners who fought to get on the end of cleared balls? And is this a pattern that should really be encouraged with only three at the back (and thus little to no cover if the ball is lost)?
* Soehn the tactical "genius." Never mind the whole issue of trying to play in a 3-5-2 when we don't have the horses in defensive midfield. Never mind trotting out the oldest possible lineup and leaving some of them on the pitch long past their sell-by date. Just a couple of questions. I know Pontius eventually ended up playing as a forward, and didn't do much once there, but surely, when he subbed on for Moreno with 20 minutes to go, he should have been up top looking to capitalize against tired defenders to score the goal that would have forced Firpo to get two and spared our aged lineup an extra 30 minutes? Instead, he goes to the wing to do what? Defend when Firpo is attacking with 2-3 at the most? And what coach stays with three at the back in extra time when all three are on yellows and tired legs are starting to leave wider and wider gaps? We're damn lucky we got away with that.
* At least we're good at PK's. And damn, did we take some nice ones, including Gomez' final nail in the coffin off the post. I wish I could say the same of Wicks trying to keep them out, but for all of the FSC's team praising him for "reading" the Firpo takers, he was nowhere near quick enough to keep anything out of his net.
* Quaranta's mad dash up the middle, resulting in a foul and the free kick that Gomez subsequently buried, is the reason we're in the group stage. The question is, what more would we be capable of with a more energetic (read as: younger) attack? And was he injured or just out of shape after spending a month not playing for Bob at the Gold Cup? Otherwise, why pull him?
* Wicks was making some awful decisions out there and gives me no confidence whatsoever.
* Our passing game often looked disconnected and lacking in confidence. It almost looked like we were the team in pre-season at times, rather than Firpo. The other frustrating aspect was that we rarely looked incisive in attack. Rather, we dithered, waiting patiently for gaps to appear, and when they didn't, inevitably losing the ball.
* Olsen did dive into a few tackles and generally throw himself about, but I was shocked to see how tentative some of his challenges were, especially in critical positions. Makes you wonder how much pain and fear of further injury he's playing with.
So we're through to the group stage, adding another six games to our fall schedule. Sure it'll be a strain, but realistically, all we've got to do to make the playoffs is maintain reasonable league form. KC and the Bulls are dead, the Revs are battered and struggling, and for all of TFC's promise, they're still saddled with inconsistency and a defense that relies on Frei to keep bailing them out. If we can just add another defender to fill the gaping void on the left, we should be fine, even if we're not threatening the Crew and Fire for one of the automatic qualification spots in the East. As for the Champions' League, run out the second team on the road and try to grind out unlikely results and focus on winning the three home games.
I wish I could be more enthusiastic about this performance because, despite my disappointment in the play on the field, we got a result in an environment where we've traditionally crapped big steaming piles all over the pitch. But I'm still saddled with this sinking feeling that Soehn can't, won't, or just doesn't see the need to make changes. Even if he's not Nowak, riding the tired old horses to their deaths and then leaping off to beat them for good measure, he's got his preferred team shape, he's got his guys, and he's sticking to both for better or worse. Color me suspicious that there's a big iceberg of "worse" lurking around the corner.