The sweltering heat, their third game in seven days and fifth in fifteen days was a just a bad combination to overcome for the Montreal Impact and DC United took advantage it with a resounding 3-0 decision to vault themselves back into sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference.
United (10-5-3, 33 points) got a brilliant goal from Chris Pontius on the 45th minute with Robbie Russell , his first with United, and Hamdi Salihi each adding goals in the second half to extend their home winning streak to five games. Since an opening day loss to Kansas City, United have amassed the league’s best home record as well going 7-1-2.
The game opened slow and sloppy as one might expect in 90+ degree heat on a heavy field following an incredible rain storm that left significant portions of the Washington metropolitan area without power and in many places, cell phone service. Regardless, 18,302 fans showed up for a bit of respite from the conditions, the largest crowd of the year at RFK Stadium.
It took United a while to figure out that Montreal’s basic plan was to sit back and absorb in hopes of a draw or perhaps steal a goal on a counter and hold on for the win. The Impact offered nothing dynamic in the attacking half of the field, mustering only four attempts at goal with Sanna Nyassi the only one finding the target with an innocuous shot in the 11th minute.
After they recognized how the game was playing out in these conditions, United did what they needed to do and professionally executed their game plan. They were smart and efficient with their movement, got the lead and kept the ball but still went searching for that second, and even third, goal for the dagger.
“I thought it was a pretty professional performance today. A pretty complete performance,” said United boss Ben Olsen.
Branko Boskovic started in the attacking midfield role but played very deep, close to holding midfielder Perry Kitchen. Meanwhile, Pontius and Andy Najar played wide and very high freeing up Dwayne DeRosario to play a bit withdrawn, and expend less energy, in front of Maicon Santos.
United have been lacking for quality possession in several of their previous matches, especially in their last outing, a 3-2 loss at New York. After scoring the fastest goal in team history (31 seconds), New York basically had the ball for the next 60-minutes and took a lead they never relinquished.
“It was an important game to have the ball,” Olsen said. “Knowing that it was going to be a hot day, the fact that we weren’t sharp in possession the last two weeks – that was something that we needed to have today, and we had it. Now, let’s be realistic, they sat back and gave us a lot of possession, but I thought we moved the ball pretty well at times, and Branko has a lot to do with that.”
“We stepped on them, and I thought we struggled a little early with the tempo, trying to break them down; they obviously came here to sit back and get a tie, and it took us a little bit to figure that out but we did, and found Branko, and found Maicon back underneath,” Olsen said. “We knew they were going to be a little leggy from the travels, so it was an important day for us to make them work as much as possible, and I think we did that and I think you saw they started to wear down.”
The Pontius goal, his 9th of the season, just before halftime not only came at a critical time but was the element that transformed the game completely in United’s favor.
“I didn’t even know I was going to do that” said Pontius about his cut back. “I just saw both of them come by and was looking for the opening on the right, both defenders went to the right, then I cut it to my left thinking I can either serve it right there or if I’m clear for a shot I’ll try to put it far post. And I was clear for the shot, so I put it far post.”
After picking up the ball on the left side some 35-yards from goal, he cut to the right as he got to the top of the penalty area, but without a sufficient shooting lane, cut it back sharply to the left around a stumbling Calum Mallace and another defender, before unloading a left footed shot past a diving Evan Bush to the far side netting. Both Bush and Mallace were making their MLS debuts.
“It was huge. It’s always a killer to get a goal before halftime; you saw what it did to us up in New York,” said Pontius about the importance of the goal. “It was a tough night to play, especially when they were sitting a lot of the game. So, we had to break them down, and it was a little difficult at times, but that goal allowed the game to open up.”
DeRosario was not at his sharpest and Lewis Neal came on for a tiring Boskovic in the 60th minute. Neal had a superior performance, continuing with the tempo and possession that United had established to finish the game off. He repeatedly made himself available in good spots on the park and made smart decisions on and off the ball.
“We’ve been waiting to put him in [central midfield], we know he can play here and we know he understands that position. It’s just that we’ve had more of a need for him in the left midfield at times, and left back as well,” said Olsen about Neal’s performance. “It’s just another position we know he can play now, and he’s just a versatile, smart kid. He’s been through a lot, you know – not many people know Lewis Neal. He played some real games over in England and he’s a really nice addition to the group.”
Russell’s goal was off another superb free kick from Boskovic after Najar was fouled some 38-yards from goal relatively straight away, though not in the eyes of Montreal’s first year coach, and former United player, Jesse Marsch. Frankly, Marsch didn’t really like anything referee Paul Ward did the entire night.
“A goal at the end of the half. Goal at the end of the game. Set piece goal. I don’t think it’s a foul. I thought the ref was terrible. This was one of the most one-sided refereed games I’ve seen. We look at ourselves, anytime, but the ref did us no favors. There were three hand-balls in the box that could’ve been called. He was just going to keep his whistle in his pocket,” said Marsch.
When one team has the ball over 66% of the match, the fouls are not going to be even…or even close?
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