D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen spent his 35th birthday on Thursday flying from San Jose to Toronto. Along with checked baggage, Olsen and United are saddled with mixed emotions ahead of Saturdays road match against Toronto FC and it has nothing to do with long airport delays that slowed their journey to Canada.
The mid-week 5-3 loss to the Earthquakes ended Uniteds seven-game unbeaten run. It was a curious game. Dwayne De Rosario provided the dream start for the Black and Red with a wonderful goal eight minutes into the match. The Earthquakes responded later in the half with three goals in a 12-minute span and led at halftime 3-1.
I was proud of the way the guys fought and came back, Olsen said. Overall, Im disappointed in the loss, but there is a lot of fight in this team, and when we get healthy, I think that we are going to be OK.
As United prepares to face winless Toronto, health and fatigue are issues. With three goals and 21 shots Uniteds offense is threatening. On defense injuries have led to inconsistency. The absence of center back Emiliano Dudar, who Olsen described as a stud this season, because of a hamstring was glaring against the Earthquakes.
I think we missed a center back today, and thats not against Perry (Kitchen) or Robbie (Russell), but theyre not center backs, Olsen said after the loss in San Jose. Dudars out, and Dejan (Jakovic), they would have really helped out on a big (guy) like (Steven) Lenhart, who had a good day.
Against the earthquakes, both Kitchen and Russell logged time in the middle of the defense. Kitchen started on the back line, but was shifted to defensive midfield after Marcelo Saragosa struggled there in the first half. Russell then moved into the middle with Andy Najar introduced in Russells position at right back.
Against that backdrop the focus remains on Uniteds defense against Toronto. If Kitchen remains in midfield, the question will be who will partner centrally with Brandon McDonald. Dudar is not an option and Jakovic is listed as questionable with a sprained ankle. Also, goalkeeper Joe Willis should not be blamed for allowing five goals, but Bill Hamid is eager for his second start of the season.
At forward, designated player Hamdi Salihi came off the bench and was finally able to open his United scoring account. Salihis first goal probably should have come earlier, but he was denied by the crossbar and an incredible save by Vancouvers Joe Cannon. On Wednesday Salihi was able to run on to a precise pass from De Rosario and chip it over charging Earthquakes goalkeeper Jon Busch.
With Rapid Vienna in Austria, Salihi scored 36 goals in 67 appearances. Salihis last start was on April 14 against New England when he was pulled after 65 lackluster minutes. Now Olsen must weigh whether to reward Salihi with a start against keeping Chris Pontius and Maicon Santos together.
He (Salihi) looked sharp, Olsen said. He was able to connect on some passes and made some nice runs. Thats what he does. He makes great runs. If we are able to find like De Ro did then he is going to score goals. Its not been an easy road, but he has been a real pro.
Pontius and Santos have formed a strong strike partnership, but failed to connect with each other Wednesday against the Earthquakes. United also needs to get its wide players more involved. Nick De Leon and Danny Cruz were not as effective as in previous games and with Saturday marking the third game in seven days change is possible.
Toronto FC is looking for change in the form of results. The Reds as they are known have yet to win in seven MLS matches. As a team they have six goals and seven assists. De Rosario alone has seven assists and Santos has six goals by himself. They also played mid-week and drew 0-0 to Montreal in the group stage of the Canadian Championship.
I have watched them and they (Toronto FC) are better than their record. Olsen noted. They are low on confidence but can be dangerous because they might just say lets go play free to make the best of the situation.