ROME (AP) – The vibe in the D.C. United locker room was a happy one, and a confident one, such a stark contrast to the mood in the very same room almost exactly one year ago. On April 21, 2011, D.C. United were demolished, 4-0, by the New York Red Bulls in a match that had the Red Bulls looking like world beaters and D.C. United looking like a pub team.
One year later, the roles have been reversed, with D.C. planting a 4-1 thrashing on the New York Red Bulls , leaving the Red Bulls locker room in a state of shock and star forward Thierry Henry lamenting the team's terrible defending.
The win was just the latest solid result for a D.C. United team that's really coming together, and doing so despite the fact that the team's two Designated Players (Hamdi Salihi and Branko Boskovic) are not playing key roles. Instead of high-priced players leading D.C. United's six-match unbeaten streak, it is new faces like Nick DeLeon, Maicon Santos, Danny Cruz leading the charge alongside veterans Chris Pontius and Dwayne DeRosario.
D.C. is still dealing with some bouts of inconsistency, as evidenced by their underwhelming scoreless draw versus Montreal on Wednesday. Yet, the team has shown the ability to put pressure on defenses and punish mistakes.
Two areas D.C. has shown considerable improvement from last year is in overall team speed and work rate. Large credit for that goes to the tireless work of rookie DeLeon and Cruz. The childhood friends and midfield partners not only put pressure on defenses, but their work without the ball helps put pressure on opponents that leads to noticeable mistakes from opposing teams.
Effort is contagious, and you can see that with this D.C. especially when they're at their best. Though the team tends to fall into some ruts and struggle to generate chances, Ben Olsen finds the personnel combinations that work best. D.C. continues to work out the kinks and have the players to become Sporting KC's biggest competition for the Eastern Conference title.
That is a label the New York Red Bulls were supposed to own. New York's on-going defensive struggles were finally laid bare for all to see on Sunday. Markus Holgersson, the Swedish center back, Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe couldn't stop raving about, has looked like an abysmal flop. His lack of foot speed and non-existent lateral quickness,make him an easy target for faster forwards; as Pontius clearly exposed during his hat trick performance.
The Red Bulls' horrific defending on Sunday had to disgust the more than 200 fans who braved a cold, rainy night at RFK Stadium to cheer on their team. It certainly disgusted Red Bulls star Thierry Henry, who stated clearly after the match that the team's defense just wasn't good enough.
"If we carry on defending the way we do, we're going to get punished and we were punished today," Henry said. "They could have scored more. We need to work harder and see if we can rectify that against New England ."
After the match, Backe insisted that Holgersson wasn't struggling too badly, even though most observers would agree he has been beaten for goals repeatedly this young season. Several D.C. United players admitted privately that the team had targeted Holgersson because of his lack of pace. Backe chose instead to blame Holgersson's issues on the team's midfield being unable to pressure opponents.
As shockingly awful as the Red Bulls defense was on Sunday, it can't be forgotten that the team was missing several key players; Wilman Conde and Roy Miller, Rafael Marquez (suspension) and Teemu Tainio. Without those four, the Red Bulls defense is a flawed patchwork unit that will struggle to contain opposing offenses.
The next month will tell if United's a legitimate contender in the East. They play Houston twice in the next three weeks, along with matches against West-leading San Jose and winless Toronto FC . If D.C. can duplicate the recent form in the upcoming weeks, they could emerge as the team most capable of mounting a legitimate challenge to Sporting KC's supremacy in the Eastern Conference.
Here are some other developments from MLS Week 7:
SAN JOSE RUMBLES THROUGH
If you asked most experts who they would have projected to be leading the Western Conference after seven weeks of the season, you would have had a hard time finding anyone who would have named the San Jose Earthquakes. Yet, this is where Frank Yallop's team currently sits after Saturday's 3-1 victory over Real Salt Lake .
Say what you want about Jamison Olave's questionable red card. The Earthquakes earned the result by playing quality soccer, and doing well to overcome losing Victor Bernardez and Shea Salinas to injuries last week.
The Earthquakes didn't miss a beat, plugging in Simon Dawkins and Ike Opara, who both played well against RSL. Opara filled in admirably in central defense before suffering a head injury, while Dawkins provided a game-winning goal.
Earthquakes head coach Yallop deserves major credit for the team's strong start. His decision to pair Bernardez with converted fullback Justin Morrow in central defense, resulted in an outstanding start to the season for the defense. Incorporation of newcomers Marvin Chavez, Shea Salinas and Rafael Baca, have helped the Earthquakes find a successful formula for stifling opposing attacks.
You can't talk about San Jose's strong start without talking about leading scorer and team leader Chris Wondolowski. Wondolowski has managed to play even better soccer than he did in 2011. Currently the leading scorer in MLS with eight goals, Wondolowski could become even more dangerous when Steven Lenhart returns to full strength.
In other words, don't assume this fast start is some hoax. The Earthquakes are a team unlikely to fade from the top of the Western Conference standings any time soon.
HELP PAYING OFF
It may have taken a month to find their form, but the LA Galaxy are slowly moving toward the level of play expected when the season began.
Yes, the Galaxy nearly squandered a two-goal lead, and came within a bad Omar Cummings penalty kick from dropping two points. The fact still remains that the Galaxy were able to score two goals on the road and kept Colorado contained defensively until Cummings' beautiful strike.
The victory was the Galaxy's second straight, and improved the team to 3-3 on the season. Perhaps it isn't a coincidence that the team has won both matches since Bruce Arena made an interesting trade for back-up Chivas USA defender David Junior Lopes, Lopes' insertion into the starting lineup added strength and toughness to LA's soft defense.
The revamped Galaxy defense is going to face some tough tests in the coming weeks, with FC Dallas and the New York Red Bulls both coming to Home Depot Center. Those matches should help tell us if the Galaxy defense really is improving or if the team's recent two-game winning streak wasn't more about weak opponents in LA's schedule.
TORONTO FC HITS ROCK BOTTOM
When Torsten Frings was cleared to return to the Toronto FC lineup for the first time since the start of the season, his return figured to help a TFC defense that had been a key factor in the team's 0-5 start. Unfortunately for Toronto, the German's return wasn't enough to keep TFC from making the kind of history teams try to avoid.
Toronto FC fell to 0-6, tied for the worst start in MLS history. Head coach Aron Winter finally started to show cracks, stating publicly that the team's defensive personnel just wasn't good enough (something the rest of the league has known for months). Woefully, Toronto faces the harsh prospect of having to rebuild for 2013 before summer has even arrived.
TFC ownership will almost certainly push Winter out the door and begin yet another rebuilding process. This is certainly a sad scenario for a club that has yet to make the playoffs since joining MLS in 2006.
THIS WEEK'S TOP HONORS
Player of the Week: Chris Pontius. The D.C. United striker torched the New York Red Bulls for three goals in Sunday's 4-1 romp. The hat trick performance came just a week after Pontius nailed the game-winning goal against New England.
Rookie of the Week: Nick DeLeon. The D.C. United rookie just keeps on impressing, with his stellar work in midfield playing a key role in his team's romp on Sunday. DeLeon's goal was his third of the season to go along with three assists.
Team of the Week: San Jose Earthquakes. Overcame the loss of Victor Bernardez and Shea Salinas to beat Western Conference power Real Salt Lake and move into sole possession of first place in the West.
Comeback of the Week: Chicago Fire . Overcame a pair of Reggie Lambe goals and pulled a 3-2 victory on the road against Toronto FC.