To punch or counterpunch?

Photo: Mike Long

Down in the concourse behind section 234 in RFK Stadium, one of the best traditions in pro sports happens during halftime of D.C. United games.

The supporters section empties out. The drummers proceed from their seats to the concourse.

Then the ultimate soccer jam session happens.

The drums pound and pound, the rhythmic pulse driving the supporters in a steadily rising crescendo. One moment, it sounds like a drum battle. The next, it seems like a pep rally on crack. Then it feels like a mosh pit without the violence. Guys remove their shirts and swing them out. People come in and jump, dance, sing, chant, and cheer. Random passersby pull out their smart phones, line up along the ramp above the drum gathering, and capture the event on video.

It doesn’t matter whether D.C. United craps the bed on the field or not. This tradition happens. And it’s always memorable.

This stayed with me after I left RFK Stadium after Saturday night’s wild 1-1 draw between United and Philadelphia Union and read the quotes from Union manager John Hackworth.

“We were dealing with a lot of changes this week, but we also need to realize that D.C. is a much better team than people realize,” Hackworth said after the game. “The expectation that for us we’re going to come in and automatically get three points is unrealistic at this point.”

For both D.C. United and Philadelphia Union, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The rivalry remains intense, United’s supporters remain raucous, the Union remain cautious, and Hackworth tries to protect his young team by managing fan expectations downward after the game.

Yes, it was unrealistic to expect the Union to automatically get three points in that game. United is improved thanks to the additions of Jared Jeffrey, Luis Silva, and Conor Doyle.

But it wasn’t unrealistic to expect the Union to play for a win they very much needed. United’s back line is garbage. The forwards still don’t score much. This team has been historically bad during the regular season, despite their improbable U.S. Open Cup run. It’s as if the United mystique still hangs in the air for the Union — four league titles, those great uniforms, and that raucous supporters section.

The Union still went into a road game and played for a draw or stolen win, like they typically do under Hackworth. To be fair, that strategy has produced a fairly good road record this year. They keep road games close, and sometimes they steal a win like they did against Kansas City.

But every road game is approached the same: Sit back, wait for a big counterattack, and be content walking out with a draw, regardless of the opponent’s quality.

Saturday’s game was predictable, even if those amazingly wild last 15 minutes weren’t.

In the end, United blew yet another potential regular season win.

In the end, the Union came in playing for a draw or stolen win, persevered, and got a result. The comeback was admirable. Getting outplayed most of the game? Not so much.

Whether it was enough to make the playoffs remains to be seen.

What it takes to make the playoffs

While Philadelphia got a road draw against the league’s worst team, their competitors for the final playoff spot, Chicago and New England, earned road victories.

Now, to make the playoffs, Philadelphia likely have to win one of their final two games: on the road at Montreal or at home against Kansas City, the only MLS club with a winning record on the road this year. Draws are unlikely to secure a playoff spot, considering the remaining schedules for Chicago and New England.

Chicago sits in the driver’s seat among the three, currently in fifth place on 46 points. Philadelphia also has 46 points but is behind on a tiebreaker due to having won one less game than Chicago. (Montreal is also at 46 points, but they have three games left to play, whereas the the Fire and the Union teams only have two.) New England has 45 points. Chicago will play a bad Toronto squad at home and New York on the road. New York may be playing for nothing, which means they could field a team full of reserves, or they could risk a starting lineup to go for the Supporters’ Shield. The Union should obviously hope for the latter.

Meanwhile, New England has a home and away series against Columbus to end their season.

It had seemed those three were in a death match for the final playoff spot, and they probably still are.

But Montreal has lost their last three home games as injuries have finally taken their toll, and they could be in the midst of a spectacular collapse. Montreal travels to Los Angeles for a game on Wednesday, and the Union will get them just three days later in Quebec. The Impact then close the season on the road against a Toronto team that would surely love to knock their Canadian rivals out of the playoff race.

So the Union have a puncher’s chance.

But will they punch? Or will they wait to counterpunch?

Draws won’t cut it the rest of the way. The Union have to play to win.


  1. You guys need to have faith!
    This is the perfect time for Hackworth to unleash his secret weapon.


  2. Sitting deep and depending on counterattacks are perfectly valid tactics with the right squad. The Union do not have the right squad for this tactic.

    • kingkowboys says:

      I disagree it’s been shown that it’s really the only tactic that works. We have never been able to build an attack through possession. Counterattack is all about a solid defense and the ability to quickly deliver the ball back to the attackers. We’ve been doing this all season but recently have lacked the quality in the final third to finish it off. A la Cruz loses possesion, Jack gets stoned yet again, Casey has to play CF and dribble allowing everyone to catch up.

      • How would we know if we can’t build through possession? We’ve never tried putting the right players on the field for possession-based strategy. Cruz just runs like a wrecking ball down the sideline while Daniel brings the central attack to a screeching halt. I would love to have seen Farfan(s) passing and switching off with Kleberson and/or Torres around the opponent’s 18 yard box. Too late for that.

  3. And Dan hits the nail on the head with this point: this endgame is a risk/reward scenario, clouded with the uncertainty of competing teams to get results. By playing for a draw, Hackworth is hedging his bets that at least 2 other teams falter in the final two weeks.

    One key result will come Wednesday, when Montreal exercises its game in hand vs LA. If Montreal finds a win in Carson, that would hurt a ton. That would make it almost imperative that the Union win in Montreal on Saturday. With New England and Chicago both hosting teams lower than them in the table, a draw could be devastating.

  4. Bravo. I was never a big fan of Man U, but you had to respect that Sir Alex always took risks and that is what earned them a few extra trophies. Soccer is a finicky game. You often don’t get the result you expect or even deserve. Statistically, it’s always better to go for the win every time. The risk is higher for each individual game, but the reward pays off in the end. If you only got 2 points for a win, then conservative play would make sense, but that’s why leagues all over the world have rewarded the risk takers with 3 points.

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