United out of MLS is Back Tournament after losing to Montreal

By José Umaña/The Sports Pulse Contributor
Photo by Matthew Stith/Major League Soccer

WASHINGTON – From false-positive coronavirus tests and multiple schedule changes, D.C. United has gone through a roller-coaster experience during its trip to the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, for the MLS is Back Tournament.

The off-the-field calamities did not add extra fuel to the Black-and-Red’s play once the group stage began. Despite all the negatives, United earned two draws, putting itself in a position to control its destiny. One win against the Montreal Impact Tuesday night separated United from a place in the knockout round.

Instead, United’s lack of attack stunned goal-scoring opportunities. An inadvertent deflection for the game’s only goal was enough to seal their fate as D.C. United lost to their Canadian opponents 1-0, knocking themselves out the tournament.

July 21, 2020: Montreal Impact defender Jorge Corrales gains possession of the ball away D.C. United’s Julian Gressel during an MLS is Back Tournament game in Orlando, Fl. (Xavier Dussaq/D.C. United)

D.C. (1-2-2) leaves Orlando with more questions than answers. It finished group play in last place with two points and no wins. With the group stage matches transferring over to their regular-season record, United ends their Walt Disney trip sitting in ninth place in the Eastern Conference.

Thoughts of the future were not immediately on the minds of head coach Ben Olsen and his players following the match. Even after only having three days off between games, Olsen said he did not think his players were overly fatigue heading to their match against Montreal (2-2-1).

“When you’re here, and you’re caught up in it, and you want to be in this tournament, and you want to advance to the group stage.” Olsen said. “You want your three points, and you want your points for the regular season, so we’re disappointed in both of those parts of today.”

“I think we felt pretty good actually,” defender Steve Birnbaum said. “You know everyone’s in the same boat. It’s no disadvantage to anyone. Obviously, it’s the way the tournament is set up, and it’s a little awkward for everyone.”

Three changes were made from United’s starting lineup that played against New England on Saturday. Peruvian midfielder Edison Flores was out due to a hamstring injury but Junior Moreno returned to start after serving a red-card suspension. Former University of Maryland star defender Chris Odoi-Atsem made his first start in over a year, replacing Oneil Fisher at left back. 

Early on, United fired multiple shots, including a right-footed attempt by Ulises Segura that flew over the crossbar. Other attempts were quickly stopped by the Impact defense.

In the 31st minute, Montreal’s Saphir Taider attempted a long-range shot, which bounced off defender Frederick Brillant and flew past a stretched-out Bill Hamid for the game’s only goal.

As the match continued, United struggled offensively. Despite having more shots (12-7) than Montreal, only three were on target. D.C. brought more firepower in second half with midfielders Federico Higuaín and Kevin Paredes and striker Ola Kamara entering the game. Their influence was limited and did not trouble goalkeeper Clément Diop.

“I felt like we were ready as a group today,” Birnbaum said. “We had good training before this, and we had a good game plan going into it, we just didn’t execute.”

The tournament was, Olsen said, a realization of the team’s lack of depth in talent and it will be important to add “a player or two” during the transfer window. However, when asked about the lack of team chemistry, Olsen shrugged the question off, repeating the word “no” multiple times.

United will take the next few days off after returning to D.C. and regroup for training next week. With the future of how the rest of the regular season’s schedule will look like going forward, United needs to be ready for the next challenge.

“We’ll wait for the league to see what’s next, whether it’s another tournament, whether it’s a league, Eastern/Western Conference setup, regional league games. I’m not exactly sure,” Olsen said. “But I know right now, we will get back, and we’ll get training and try to get better.”

The Sports Pulse’s Mario Amaya contributed to this story.

Sky Blue FC ends the Spirit’s Challenge Cup dreams in PKs

By José Umaña/The Sports Pulse Contributor
Photo: Bryan Byerly/ISI Photos

Bayley Feist slowly walked back to the center of the field at Zion Bank Stadium into the waiting arms of her Washington Spirit teammates. Goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan saved the midfielder’s penalty kick attempt to end a best-of-five shootout in their NWSL Challenge Cup quarterfinals match vs. Sky Blue FC.

Sky Blue FC players rushed to celebrate with Sheridan as Feist walked towards head coach Richie Burke. He hugged her immediately, reminding her that she was a good footballer. Despite playing exciting offensive soccer throughout the tournament, Burke said their lack of experience in critical situations proved to be a difference.

“When you get in a situation like that, sometimes nerves take the better of you, and some young players don’t take the same penalties that they take in training for whatever reason, and here we are,” Burke said.

The Spirit remained scoreless by the end of regulation time against Sky Blue FC. Their run came to an end after two missed attempts in a 4-3 loss on penalty kicks Saturday.

Washington was riding high following the primary stage, finishing as the No. 2 ranked team and highest seed remaining in the Challenge Cup following the North Carolina Courage’s loss on Friday.

Against the No. 7 Sky Blue FC, the Spirit were without captain Andi Sullivan due to a meniscus tear injury. U.S. Soccer, who monitored all U.S. Women’s National Team players conditions throughout the tournament, placed a minute’s restriction on midfielder Rose Lavelle, which forced Burke to start her on the bench and bring her in midway through the second half.

Both teams struggled to find an offensive rhythm in the first half. Washington’s best chance came in the 42nd minute came as Tori Huster delivered a cross from the edge of the penalty area to find a diving Ashley Sanchez for a header. Sheridan slapped the attempt down for the save.

Sanchez tired again two minutes before halftime with a one-timer from behind the penalty spot, but it was stopped yet by the Canadian international. Sheridan finished regulation with seven saves.

Eight minutes into the second half, forward Kumi Yokoyama received a pass from fellow striker Ashley Hatch to connect with a volley attempt at the Sky Blue goal. While the shot flew past Sheridan, the ball ricocheted off the goal post, keeping the match scoreless.

“I think that’s something we are going to have to work on, just being clinical on the final third, and not just down to [Hatch] scoring a game-winning goal,” Huster said.

Following a scoreless 90 minutes, the game went to a penalty kick shootout to settle who would go to the semifinals. After both teams scored in the opening first two rounds, Washington goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe dove to her right to save midfielder Dominique Richardson, opening the door for the Spirit to take the lead.

HERRIMAN, UT – JULY 18: Aubrey Bledsoe of Washington Spirit blocks a penalty kick at Zions Bank Stadium on July 18, 2020 in Herriman, Utah. Photo by Rob Gray/ISI Photos.

However, Spirit defender Sam Staab fired her shot over the crossbar, keeping the score tied at 2-2. After another round of converted penalties, Elizabeth Eddy scored for the New Jersey-based side, putting on the pressure on Feist to score to send the game to sudden death.

However, the midfielder’s right-footed attempt was safely handled by Sheridan, eliminating the Spirit.

“We didn’t lose today; we lost in a penalty shootout,” Burke said. “We didn’t lose a game. We dominated it, and one of the things we need to take from this tournament is, and the take away from a lot of [this] game is a little bit more danger.”

Going forward, the Spirit will use the tournament to springboard them as one of the elite teams in the NWSL. Burke said he was proud of the growth all the team’s draft picks made, becoming talented role players to their possessive-based attack. He expects all the players to feel prideful about their success as they transition to the next part of their season.

“We’re a young team.,” Bledsoe said. “I know we’ll bounce back. Hopefully, the offseason isn’t too long this year. We’ve got lots of growth ahead for us.”

Higuaín’s second-half goal helps United earn 1-1 draw over New England

By Mario Amaya/The Sports Pulse Contributor

Photo by Xavi Dussaq/D.C. United

Federico Higuaín’s goal in the 72nd minute was enough to help D.C. United manage a 1-1 draw against the New England Revolution Friday night in Orlando, Florida, in Group C play in the MLS is Back Tournament.

United was down a goal once the veteran midfielder entered the game in the second half. It would only take three minutes for Higuaín to make an impact as he intercepted an attempted back pass from New England defender Antonio Delamea Mlinar to goalkeeper Matt Turner.

Higuaín took the ball and quickly connected a low strike past Turner to help United tie the game. Since joining the club in March, the 35-year-old has attempted to prove that he still can be a high-level contributor after suffering an ACL injury last year with the Columbus Crew SC.

In two tournament games, Higuaín has shown to be an asset for United off the bench, scoring twice in critical moments.

“This is probably the first time in his life that he has been considered a super sub,” Head coach Ben Olsen said. “He is a guy who is always the focal point of a team from the beginning, and you build around him, but that is the mindset he has and the attitude he has had since coming here, his willingness to do his best to the team.”

With the result, the Black-and-Red ends the second round of group matches in third place (two points) behind Toronto FC and New England (four points).

United made multiple changes from the starting 11 that played in their 2-2 draw against Toronto FC on Monday. Defender Oneil Fisher made his first start since Sept. 29, 2018, due to a year-and-a-half-long knee injury. Argentine Yamil Asad took Ulises Segura’s spot in the midfield.

Lastly, Erik Sorga, a 20-year-old striker from Estonia, made his first start for United after Ola Kamara sustained a quad injury. 

New England Revolution defender Antonio Delamea Mlinar (left) delivers a pass as D.C. United’s Ulises Segura (right) attempts a late challenge during a MLS is Back Tournament match on July 17. Photo by Matthew Stith/Major League Soccer

After a scoreless first half, New England would find the back of the net first. An attempted shot from midfielder Cristian Penilla rebounded off a United player and landed in front of Adam Buksa. The striker headed the ball over a diving Bill Hamid for a Revolution goal.

 “It’s frustrating going down 1-0 and having to fight from behind again,” United midfielder Russell Canouse said. “But there is a big belief in this team, a good mentality.”

United bounced back with Higuaín’s goal, putting themselves in position to advance with a win over Montreal Impact in their final group match on Tuesday, July 21, at 10:30 p.m.

“It’s good for us,” United captain Steve Birnbaum said. “Right now, we control our own destiny…We have to get something out of this game, and we know it.”

The Bad Hombres FC – Episode 13: United, Spirit game recaps

Featuring  José Umaña and Mario Amaya

Tune in for The Bad Hombres Podcast every week on Thursdays at 8 p.m. as soccer journalists José Umaña and Mario Amaya talk on the main topics dealing with D.C. United, Washington Spirit and any soccer news in the DMV.

Shorthanded D.C. United mounts comeback for heroic draw in MLS is Back debut

By Mario Amaya/The Sports Pulse Contributor

Courtesy photo/D.C. United

WASHINGTON – In their MLS is Back Tournament debut, D.C. United mounted a heroic two-goal comeback, scoring twice in the last 10 minutes while down to 10 men, to tie last year’s Eastern Conference Champions Toronto FC 2-2 in Orlando, Florida, on Monday.

With the result, United (0-0-1) earned a critical point against a former MLS Cup contender, which will carry over into their regular season after the tournament. The game was originally scheduled for Sunday, but due to COVID-19 testing complications, Major League Soccer postponed it for a day.

United struggled early on offensively to create chances while being unable to stop Toronto FC academy product Ayo Akinola defensively.

The 20-year-old striker made an impact during the 12th minute when he received a pass from teammate Alejandro Pozuelo from the top of the penalty area. 

Akinola made a quick turn before unleashing a 21-yard strike into the lower right side of the goal net to give The Reds (0-0-1, 1 point) a one-goal advantage.

Despite multiple attempts on goal by United striker Ola Kamara, Toronto struck again moments before halftime. Toronto’s Pablo Piatti headed a loose ball forward toward United territory, but miscommunication by defenders Steve Birnbaum and Frédéric Brillant allowed Pozuelo to regain possession. He quickly passed it through goalkeeper Bill Hamid to Akinola for the tap-in.

“We weren’t able to make them uncomfortable enough; [Toronto] is a very good team where if they have time and space, they’re going to get good looks, but saying that, the goals are very soft.” United head coach Ben Olsen said. “We had plenty of numbers around the ball for the first goal and in the second one, we gift it to them. So, we find ourselves in a two-zero hole.”

Adding to its woes, United also went down 10 men before halftime when midfielder Júnior Moreno was ejected from the match after receiving his second yellow card on a late tackle from behind to Toronto midfielder Marky Delgado.

Heading into the second half, Olsen decided to make several substitutions, including giving 17-year-old Kevin Paredes his professional debut and defender Oniel Fisher making his second appearance since a 1 1/2 year injury. However, the changes did not lead to immediate results.

Things changed in the 80th minute when veteran midfielder Federico Higuaín made his United debut. The Argentine playmaker would not take long to make an impact.

Four minutes after entering the match, a Toronto pass was intercepted by midfielder Russell Canouse and quickly distributed to teammate Felipe Martins. 

D.C. United midfielder Russell Canouse (4) handles the ball. Photo by Phil Peters/The Sports Pulse)

The Brazilian knifed a pass in between the Toronto backline to finding a running Higuain wide open. The 35-year-old lobbed the ball over Westberg for his first goal with the Black-and-Red.

“And at the moment, I faced the goalkeeper, I knew the distance between him and I and how it will give me the opportunity to chip it,” Higuain said. “I’m confident of my game, my teammates, trust in [myself], and that’s why I tried that shot. It was a good goal, and it was a goal that helped us believe that we can tie the game.”

A minute into stoppage time, after being awarded a foul near midfield, Martins centered a long cross to Birnbaum, who headed the ball across the penalty area to a waiting Brillant. 

The French defender connected with a header of his own past goalkeeper Quinten Westberg to tie the match. The goal, his second of the season, was more than enough to avenge his first-half mistake.

“I was sad for the team with this mistake, (but) the team didn’t blame me,” Brillant said. “During halftime, they push me and it gave us a good mentality that we have to keep it for the rest of this tournament. We have to be a group as strong as we were with everything we did today.”

With seconds remaining, Akinola attempted a last-ditch volley to complete his hat-trick. Still, goalkeeper Bill Hamid made a fingertip save, pushing the ball over the crossbar to preserve United’s result.

Olsen credits his team for their gutsy performance and believes that, despite their first-half performance, United showed promise after a four-month layoff.

“To get something out of that game, I think it says a lot about our group,” Olsen said. “Yes, we can get better. But this is a marathon and the trick in these tournaments is to keep pushing and getting better throughout the tournament.”

United’s next match is against the New England Revolution on Friday, July 17, at 8 p.m.

Spirit defeats Dash in final game of preliminary round of Challenge Cup

Spirit lose Sullivan for rest of NWSL Challenge Cup competition

By José Umaña/The Sports Pulse Contributor

Photos courtesy of ISI Photos

WASHINGTON – A 16th-minute goal by midfielder Bayley Feist was enough for the Washington Spirit to capture a 1-0 victory over the Houston Dash in their fourth match in the NWSL’s Challenge Cup.

Washington (2-1-1) ends the preliminary round with seven points. Pending the results of the final three matches in the stage, the Spirit could finish as high as second place in the eight-team tournament before the knockout rounds begin.

It did not take long for the Spirit to start pressing forward with several opportunities on goal against a fatigued Houston side. The Dash (1-2-1) last played on July 8, their fourth game in 12 days, whereas their Washington counterparts had a six-day layoff.

HERRIMAN, UT – JULY 12: Washington Spirit players celebrate during a game between Houston Dash and Washington Spirit at Zions Bank Stadium on July 12, 2020 in Herriman, Utah.

With their opponents unable to wrestle the ball away, Washington bombarded ahead with forwards Kumi Yokoyama and Ashley Sanchez setting up attacks from the flanks. Using their speed, the Spirit fired three shots on goal in the opening 15 minutes.

Yokoyama elected to slow down the pace in the 16th minute and send a lateral pass to striker Ashley Hatch on the top of the penalty area. The former Brigham Young University star elected to pass the ball to an approaching Feist, who took two dribbles before unleashing a right-footed shot for the goal.

“That one felt good; I was due for a goal,” Feist said. “I saw (Hatch) dribbling the ball up the sideline, and she cut it back. I kinda opened my body up a little bit, took a touch, placed it well and it went in.”

Washington continued to dominate as they finished the first half with 69% of the ball possession and outshoot Houston, 8-2, in on-target attempts. One of the Dash’s efforts did almost tie the game as striker Rachel Daly beat defender Tori Huster to a loose ball and hit a shot off the crossbar moments before halftime.

Five minutes into the second half, Washington captain Andi Sullivan came down with a non-contact injury on her left knee. She limped off the field on her own power when subbed out. 

In his postgame press conference, Washington Spirit Head Coach Ritchie Burke said team doctors believed that she reaggravated a previous injury on her meniscus and will have an MRI performed after the game.

“Hopefully, she is ready to go 90 minutes next week in the next round,” Burke said.

However, today, the team announced that Sullivan suffered a torn meniscus and will miss the NWSL Challenge Cup. 

“The team is rallying around our captain and incredible leader, and we are now highly motivated to play extra hard in her honor,” Burke said. “It’s amazing how many well-wishes I’ve received from everyone in football about Andi, and it’s a testimony to her popularity as well as the amount of respect she has from people at the highest levels of the game.”

Sanchez looked poised to help Washington add a second goal when she ran down the left flank and cut inside into the penalty area, sending in a low pass to Hatch. However, goalkeeper Jane Campbell denied her attempt to score with a quick save.

Houston continued to struggle until forward Katie Stengel’s left-footed shot in the 67th minute flew over goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe’s head towards Washington’s goal. However, defender Paige Nielsen headed the ball out of danger for the Spirit’s first shutout of the tournament.

While being seeded high for the knockout stage is important, health is a more significant concern going forward, Burke said. Star midfielder Rose Lavelle missed the Houston game due to a reported ankle injury. 

“They are well bought-in to our tactics and methodology, and we are well unified,” Burke said. “I think we are in a good place.”

COVID-19 testing results postpone D.C. United’s opening match in MLS is Back Tournament

By Mario Amaya/The Sports Pulse Contributor

WASHINGTON – D.C. United’s first match in the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando against Toronto FC, scheduled for Sunday, July 11, has been postponed following the results of two COVID-19 tests, Major League Soccer officials said. 

In a statement released prior to the scheduled kickoff, MLS said one player tested positive for COVID-19 while another received “an inconclusive test” result. Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott told multiple outlets in an impromptu press conference that a United player tested positive. 

“Because of the arrival time of the clubs in Orlando, the league’s protocol called for retesting both teams this morning and to await the results of those tests prior to playing the match,” the league said. “Major League Soccer will continue to prioritize the health and safety of all participants of the MLS is Back Tournament in making these decisions.” 

League policy states that the player will be moved away from the team’s accommodations at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort and be quarantined for 14 days. 

United arrived at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex for the match, slated to kick off at 9 a.m., whereas Toronto FC did not before the match was called off. The Washington Post reported United trained for a few minutes before boarding back on the buses to return to their hotel rooms. 

Both teams were making their debut in the tournament in group play. 

D.C. United has yet to play in the MLS Is Back Tournament. Photo by Phillip Peters/The Sports Pulse.

Both teams are in Group C with the Montreal Impact and the New England Revolution, who had played earlier in the week. The Revolution won 1-0. 

Prior to the game’s start, United players showed their excitement leading up to the match on their social media platforms. It would have been United’s first game in four months. However, following the cancellation, the mood of their posts changed. 

This is not the first time MLS rescheduled tournament games. FC Dallas was pulled from the competition after 10 players, and a member of their coaching staff tested positive for COVID-19, causing a reworking of Group B teams. 

Nashville SC was also pulled out before matches began after nine players tested positive before arriving in Orlando. MLS changed many matchdays, including moving United’s game with Toronto, initially scheduled for Friday, July 10, to Sunday. 

“To every DC United supporter, our families & friends, I’m sorry you woke up so early to see us play, to then have the match postponed AGAIN,” United goalkeeper Bill Hamid said on Twitter. “Especially after so many people planned originally to watch the game which was meant to play on Friday! Have a beautiful Sunday, regardless.” 

Update*

United is still scheduled to play against ND.C. United’s first match in the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando against Toronto FC, scheduled for Sunday, July 11, has been postponed to Monday, July 12, following the results of two COVID-19 tests, Major League Soccer officials said. 

The schedule change will also affect United’s game against New England Revolution, moving it from Thursday, July 16 to Friday, July 17 at 8 p.m.

The Bad Hombres FC – Episode 12: MLS is Back Tournament begins

Featuring  José Umaña and Mario Amaya

Tune in for The Bad Hombres Podcast every week on Thursdays at 8 p.m. as soccer journalists José Umaña and Mario Amaya talk on the main topics dealing with D.C. United, Washington Spirit and any soccer news in the DMV.

Set-piece magic helps Spirit post draw against Thorns

By José Umaña/The Sports Pulse Contributor

Photo by ISI Photos

WASHINGTON – A simple corner kick turned into a magical moment for the Washington Spirit against the Portland Thorns in the NWSL Challenge Cup on Sunday.

Midfielder Dorian Bailey fired off a short-lobbed pass to striker Ashley Sanchez standing on the edge of the penalty area. The former UCLA starter flicked a backheel in the air, keeping the ball in play and floated it over a sea of defenders, before finding teammate Samantha Staab.

The Spirit center back connected with a snapping header that beat a save attempt by Meghan Klingenberg for a surprising goal.

“I saw the ball going out and tried to get something on it to keep it in the mix,” Sanchez said about her surprise assist. “We were down one, so I was doing whatever I could.”

“That was not a rehearsed play,” Washington head coach Richie Burke said. “That was not something that we expected; I don’t think she expected it. It was more like a kung-fu move, but we will take it under the circumstances.”

The corner kick magic capped off multiple attempts Washington failed to capitalize on. Staab’s goal helped the Spirit earn a 1-1 draw over the Portland Thorns.

With the result, the Spirit (1-1-1) regained some of its momentum back it had lost after losing to the North Carolina Courage in their second tournament match. Washington sits in fourth place (four points) heading into their final non-knockout game.

Washington tested its depth once again, starting the match without striker Ashley Hatch and midfielder Rose Lavelle. Ashley Sanchez and Kumi Yokoyama returned to the starting lineup, and rookie Averie Collins made her first professional start in the midfield.

The squad rotation allowed Portland to have most of the ball possession and scoring opportunities in the first half. The Spirit regained its composure after the hydration break midway through the half with two of its three shots going on target.

After halftime, Hatch was subbed on and immediately impact the game as Washington pushed the ball onto Portland’s half. In the 63rd minute, Hatch almost equalized with a left-footed crossbody shot that goalkeeper Bella Bixby saved.

Portland opened the scoring six minutes later as Klingenberg floated a midfield free kick to a diving Lindsey Horan into the penalty area for a header goal.

Despite the goal, Washington continued its offensive push, subbing on Lavelle to add more attacking firepower that paid off with Staab’s goal.

In the 88th minute, Horan attempted one more shot for Portland, a right-footed attempt from outside the penalty area. However, Spirit goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe made a diving save to smack the ball away from the far post to keep the game leveled.

The Spirit faces the Houston Dash in their final fixture before the knockout rounds on Sunday at 12:30 p.m.

The Bad Hombres FC – Episode 11: NWSL’s Challenge Cup

Featuring  José Umaña and Mario Amaya

Tune in for The Bad Hombres Podcast every week on Thursdays at 8 p.m. as soccer journalists José Umaña and Mario Amaya talk on the main topics dealing with D.C. United, Washington Spirit and any soccer news in the DMV.