Breakdown: D.C. United reclaims identity through application and diligence

Fabián Espíndola captures the framework of D.C. United's revamped outlook with his relentless industry.

Brad Mills/Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

FOXBOROUGH, Mass.

D.C. United coach Ben Olsen illustrated the growth of his side with his reaction to the 2-1 defeat at Eastern Conference leaders New England on Saturday night.

Olsen and United submitted a typically gritty and organized display with a lineup tattered by fatigue and illness. Those efforts nearly earned a point against a side yet to concede at home this season before Fabián Espíndola’s second-half equalizer, but the visitors ultimately succumbed Diego Fagundez’s winner inside the final quarter of an hour.

This performance captured the progress of a team that won just three times a year ago. The result reflected the ethos of the side. It isn’t necessarily about who steps on the field for a given match. It is about establishing a concrete set of expectations to guarantee the proper output when they get there.

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“It’s mostly just that I’m proud about the way we went about the game, barreling back to get to 1-1,” Olsen told reporters after the match. “We should find a way to get a result out of that (match), but, overall, I’m very pleased with the way we played and fought. I think we were unlucky not to get something out of it.”

The revamped mindset stems from the offseason injection of veteran players designed to make this side more obstinate. The callow nature of last year’s squad allowed losses to pile up with minimal resistance. This group – bolstered by a raft of experienced MLS campaigners acquired during the close season and strengthened by Chris Rolfe’s arrival in April – possesses the sort of defiance and resolve to make life difficult on the opposition.

As expected, it took some time for everything to congeal. The first victory did not arrive until April, but the second and third triumphs followed swiftly enough to validate the pragmatic direction charted by Olsen and general manager Dave Kasper. It also pointed the way for a squad still trying to cultivate its identity and find its footing by relying on the strength of the group in its entirety.

“Well, it’s been kind of a whirlwind, to say the least,” United midfielder Perry Kitchen said. “We’ve played a lot of games. We have a lot of great pieces. I assume it’s tough for the coaches to pick an XI because we have so many good pieces, but whenever somebody has stepped on the field, they’ve put in a shift and put in a good performance. We need to keep that up.”

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The shared responsibility within this group offers a firm foundation for the toil ahead with CONCACAF Champions League duties on the horizon later this year. It isn’t just about Espindola (perhaps the standout performer so far with his relentless industry and his potency in front of goal) or Eddie Johnson. It is about a group of players – from Bill Hamid in goal to Bobby Boswell and Jeff Parke in central defense to Davy Arnaud, Nick DeLeon and Kitchen within this versatile midfield group – raising the collective level to a standard more in keeping with the objectives set forth.

“I feel like here – as opposed to teams of the past – it’s not like there’s a first team and a second team,” Boswell said. “I feel like everyone feels like they can contribute and will get their opportunity. The coaches have stressed that. There are expectations from the 33-year-old to the 18- or 19-year-old guy.”

It is down to Olsen to prod this group back into the playoff mix. Most of the components – the commitment level and the consistency from week to week, the defined structure to keep a solid shape, the experience to manage a setback or two, the incisiveness in the final third – are in place to make the push, though United will certainly require more from Johnson (one goal and one assist in 10 appearances) over the long haul. It is a matter of whether those strengths and the veteran legs throughout the side can endure the hectic schedule without suffering a drop off in form or production.

Those concerns loom in the distance, though. The present mandates include continued focus on the collective output and consistent application in every match to consolidate the progress made during the first third of the regular season.

“We’ve been getting better every game,” Kitchen said. “We’ve been jelling as a group. We have to respond like we have been after losses. We can’t let one loss follow another loss. We’ll get right back at it.”

Five Points – Week 12

1. A few more words about Landon Donovan: Donovan captured the attention of a nation by missing out on a place at the World Cup on Thursday. He responded to the heartache by scoring twice and setting up a third in LA Galaxy’s 4-1 victory over Philadelphia on Sunday night.

Donovan now stands alone atop the MLS scoring chart with 136 career goals. His display against the Union – a side barely equipped to cope with the Galaxy’s dynamic movement given its pervasive issues – suggests he will add to that haul significantly over the next few weeks as the debate about his U.S. exclusion tumbles onward.

2. World Cup snubs ease back into their MLS duties: Brad Evans (deployed in a central defensive role he played during U.S. camp in Seattle’s 2-2 draw at Vancouver) and Michael Parkhurst (offered a brief cameo during Columbus’ 2-0 victory over Chicago) featured as substitutes on Saturday. Donovan and Edu started at the StubHub Center and Clarence Goodson watched from the bench in San Jose’s 3-0 victory over Houston on Sunday night.

3. “I don’t know what to say,” offered Kasey Keller: The former U.S. international goalkeeper tried to figure out why referee Ismail Elfath awarded a penalty kick when Jay DeMerit won a header over Cam Weaver at B.C. Place. He couldn’t. Neither could anyone else, in truth.

The only silver lining for the neutral in the shocking decision that lifted Seattle to a 2-2 draw at Vancouver: it provided Gonzalo Pineda with the opportunity to delicately clip home from the spot. The entire sequence – including the awful verdict, the commentary from Keller and the wonderful finish by Pineda – is worth a viewing:

4. Just another night for Federico Higuaín: The classy Argentine schemer prompted two Columbus goals inside the first 25 minutes to deliver the points against the Fire. Any side attempting to take points off the Crew – and several teams have mustered the feat as of late – must first and foremost figure out a way to blunt the effectiveness of its talismanic linchpin in order to increase the chances of success.

5. Sporting Kansas City somehow plunges into a deeper defensive crisis: Sporting manager Peter Vermes entered Friday’s 2-2 draw over Toronto FC without a natural center back at his disposal. Makeshift choice Chance Myers then compounded the misery by rupturing his Achilles in the first half. Erik Palmer-Brown will return from suspension for New York’s visit to Sporting Park on Tuesday night, but the MLS Cup holders must once again cobble together a back four to secure a result.