WASHINGTON - Peter Nowak wasn't happy, and he shouldn't have been. The Union's 2-0 loss to D.C. United at RFK Stadium was without question its worst game of the year.
"There was no substance in that whole game today," Nowak said afterwards. "We weren't active the way we normally are, the movement wasn't there."
Even though these two teams are anchored to the bottom of the Eastern Conference, it definitely seemed coming in that the Union were the better side. But instead, it was United that were full of verve and energy. Led by Andy Najar's thrusting runs down the right wing, D.C. took the game to the Union and clearly deserved all three points.
"The way we played today, there was not even a shred of evidence that we can play the way we play," Nowak said. "I believe that we realize the situation - we're not playing Manchester United and Celtic anymore."
The Union had plenty of problems, starting with clear communication issues between Chris Seitz and his back line. I'm not yet willing to fault Seitz on the goals, and I'll explain why in a moment, but it was pointed out to me in the game chat that Seitz should have done a better job coordinating how his back line spread out.
Not too long after that comment was posted, it was manifest in as bright detail as you could possibly come up with. A long ball was played by D.C. United, and as Seitz came off his line Juan Diego Gonzalez ran right in front of him and swept the ball way. Seitz told me after the game that the two are working on overcoming some language issues, as Seitz's Spanish is as useful as Gonzalez's English. But that was really bad.
As for the goals, I think it was pretty clear that the first one was caused by Danny Califf's botched clearance. There is only so much a goalkeeper can do after an error like that.
The second one, though, is more debatable. Seitz was stuck in no-man's land, and maybe he could have stopped Danny Allsopp's low shot. But I sure do wonder how the Union's back line let the only goalscorer in the game get open in the box with no opposing players within five yards of him. Once Allsopp got the ball, the finish was almost inevitable.
As bad as the defense was, what worried me most was a lack of spark and energy in the midfield. When Nowak talks about substance and movement, that's where those traits come from more than any other areas of the field.
Some of that falls on Nowak himself for starting a midfield of Stefani Miglioranzi, Eduardo Coudet, Fred and Sebastien Le Toux. There's a lot of hustle and workrate there, what you might call engine-room stuff. But there isn't a lot of creativity. Fred made a few runs, but Le Toux didn't do much at all, and it didn't help that Coudet wasn't playing many balls forward.
"We weren't dangerous to test a 19-year-old rookie [D.C. goaltender Bill Hamid] to make sure that he's going to have some stuff to do," Nowak said.
There was also a lack of wing play, as was pointed out by one of the commenters in the chat. Of the four who started, only Fred has real experience attacking from an outside position, and we know that's not what he prefers.
By contrast, a guy like Justin Mapp provides more forward thrust and more wide play. So does Roger Torres, who didn't even make the trip in the first place. I wonder what kind of an impact he could have had - and I asked the question of Nowak after the game.
Nowak said that Torres is still recovering from the ankle injury he suffered earlier this season. He also took some pretty good whacks against Colorado last weekend.
"It wasn't an easy to game to play beacuse first of all, the goal came in the 22nd minute, and then the rain," Nowak said. "It wasn't the best setup for Roger's game - he's a very technical player and the ground was pretty choppy."
Sure, Torres would have taken some knocks from United's midfielders and defenders. And maybe he wouldn't have liked the pitch so much, though I've seen surfaces in Torres' native Colombia that have been just as rough.
Yet despite the beatings Torres took from the Rapids, he still had the energy and vision to play what should have been the match-deciding through ball for Sebastien Le Toux at the end of the game. Had we seen Torres for even 30 minutes against D.C., perhaps he would have found a few more of those passes to dish out.
Torres has the capability to be a special player, the kind who unlocks defenses and wins games. I don't like seeing him get roughed up and I certainly don't want him to get any serious injuries. But I also think he will only get better if he plays more.
The hundreds of Union fans who traveled to Washington made the afternoon fun. Whether or not they knew it, their jumping up and down in the lower rows of RFK Stadium's upper deck literally shook the press box. The announced attendance was a paltry 12,165, but the back-and-forth between the Sons of Ben and D.C.'s supporters clubs made for a genuine soccer atmosphere.
They all deserved a better game than they got. There were a few moments for United fans to celebrate, and there's real reason to believe in Andy Najar. It's between him and Danny Mwanga for Rookie of the Year at this point.
"He plays every game like there is not going to be one next week for him, like someone is going to take it away from him," D.C. United interim coach Ben Olsen said of Najar in his postgame remarks, and that quote sums up so much of what makes Najar and Olsen who they are. It's a shame that D.C.'s front office has already declared that Olsen, a Harrisburg native, won't get a shot at becoming the full-time manager.
As many of you know, I also cover Penn basketball on a regular basis, and I see some parallels between Olsen and Quakers coach Jerome Allen. Granted, coaching professional soccer requires a completely different skill set from coaching mid-major college basketball. But both men are relatively young, have clear visions of how their teams should play and carry deep understandings of the programs at which they built their legacies as players. Both also come to their positions with very limited experience as coaches, and with far more ability as motivators than as tacticians.
All of those traits matter when trying to resurrect teams that have fallen on hard times - and we've seen both United and the Quakers plunge to historic lows over the last few years.
There are still reasons for the Union to hope, too. Not for the playoffs at this point, but for better days and better seasons to come. Players like Justin Mapp, Danny Mwanga, Kyle Nakazawa and even Sebastien Le Toux still have plenty of room to grow and improve, and that is a part of coaching at which Peter Nowak excels.
If there's one quote that summed up the day, it came from Nowak's response to a question about Danny Califf's role in D.C.'s first goal. Nowak was talking about how the loss was much more of a team thing for him than the fault of any individual.
"It doesn't matter if Danny is captain or if he's not; I believe that in certain situtations, Kyle Nakawaza can be the captain, or Danny Mwanga," Nowak said. "I don't give a - I don't care, really, that - ah, you know what I want to say."
All the reporters around Nowak laughed. We definitely got his point.