From Dwayne De Rosario's D.C. United debut to the suddenly more-intriguing Eastern Conference, here are three thoughts from Saturday's early MLS action:
1. Old problems resurface for new-look United. D.C. United stole the Major League Soccer spotlight on Monday with its trades for Dwayne De Rosario and Brandon McDonald, two moves that are supposed to help fortify the team during its quest for the postseason. While they might ultimately do that, United still has to find a way to protect a lead at home.
For the second consecutive match, D.C. succumbed to a late goal to settle for a 2-2 draw against a conference foe. Last week, Houston's Brian Ching netted the equalizer in the 88th minute to snatch a draw from the jaws of defeat at RFK Stadium. On Saturday, Sheanon Williams got in behind a tracking-back Chris Pontius down the right flank in the 84th minute and fired a pinpoint cross for Carlos Ruiz to tap in for a repeat result.
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De Rosario, who helped open the scoring by assisting on Josh Wolff's 44th-minute goal, has taken notice of the team's late-game flaws.
"There's stuff we need to work on," said De Rosario, who arrived from New York and trained for the first time with D.C. on Thursday. "I watched four of the last games, and it's pretty much the same thing -- doing well, but going forward mental errors and not seeing games out. Especially against a team like Philadelphia, you win that game and it's great momentum to build off. The errors we can correct, which is a good thing. They weren't breaking us down, we basically broke down ourselves."
D.C. is now 2-2-5 at home, and instead of being right in the mix behind first-place Philadelphia, it's wallowing in the middle of the conference pack with games at New York and at Dallas on tap.
"Finishing out games is something we've been stressing," said Wolff, who inherited the D.C. captaincy when Dax McCarty shipped off to New York. "It's something that we discussed based on our last result. We're going to look back in September and October, and these are points that we can't make up. We're disappointed in ourselves. That's a game we had no business giving away."
The Ruiz goal, which followed Andy Najar's 35-yard wonderstrike that put D.C. ahead, 2-1, was the second one United conceded while holding a one-goal lead. Rookie Perry Kitchen was guilty of an own goal after a Pontius giveaway allowed Veljko Paunovic to send a cross toward the far post that Kitchen inadvertently put into his own net.
"It's obviously disappointing to tie again, and it hurts a little bit more because it was the second one (in a row)," D.C. coach Ben Olsen said. "We just have to find a way to close our games when we are up."
As for De Rosario, his first performance for his second new team of the season was an overall individual success. In addition to setting up Wolff for the opener -- and doing his trademark celebration strut to the delight of the RFK faithful -- he helped spray the ball around, covered a ton of ground while tracking back, made himself available for the ball and managed to stretch Philadelphia's defense.
It wasn't a flawless performance by any stretch. There were periods of time where the link-up play was a bit disjointed, which is to be expected of a player who had one full training session with D.C. and is playing with his third set of club teammates this season.
De Rosario, who shifted up top for the final 22 minutes after playing a central midfield role, has a history of playing well at RFK. He captured the 2007 MLS Cup MVP award there by scoring the game-winning goal against the New England Revolution. In May, 2009, he notched a brace at RFK with Toronto FC, and in last year's regular-season finale, he spoiled Jaime Moreno's farewell match with a late brace to steal a victory for Toronto.
Making a home for himself in D.C. is hardly the issue, though. As the last couple of week's have shown, United must minimize it's late-game woes to be considered a true contender.
"To have an immediate impact like that, it's always good to get my team ahead," De Rosario said. "If we can continue to build on that communication, we'll be good."
2. FC Dallas continues to rise to the challenge. Despite reigning league MVP David Ferreira being injured and Designated Player attacker Fabian Castillo being away on Under-20 duty for his native Colombia, players continue to step up for FC Dallas.
Brek Shea tallied for the fourth consecutive league game and Jackson scored in his third straight as FCD coasted by the Columbus Crew, 2-0, in a Pioneer Cup battle.
Shea was recently rewarded with a four-year contract extension that will keep him at Pizza Hut Park through 2015, and instead of putting himself on cruise control with his future sorted out, he continues to blossom and progress.
The overall team effort has been impressive, especially the feel coach Schellas Hyndman has developed for how to deploy his players (that is after he sent Shea on a journey from center back to forward back to his natural left wing position). Dallas started Saturday night without a true forward in its lineup, though Honduran winger Marvin Chavez assumed that role against the Crew. It didn't seem to matter.
The collective versatility of Shea, Chavez and Jackson, the bite in central midfield provided by Andrew Jacobson and Daniel Hernandez and the lockdown back line combination of Zach Loyd, George John, Ugo Ihemelu and Jair Benitez are all on the same page in front of steady goalkeeper Kevin Hartman and have FC Dallas looking like a contender for the second straight year. Even with losing a player as key as Ferreira, FCD has the horses that have allowed it to follow up its 1-3-1 start by going 9-1-3 in its last 13 games.
3. The ever-changing Eastern Conference landscape. Between D.C.'s acquisitions, Toronto FC bringing in Designated Players Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans and Sporting Kansas City finding its form after a 10-game road trip to start the season, the race for the playoff spots in the Eastern Conference will be more entertaining than previously thought. And that's before the madness that may accompany the opening of the summer transfer window.
Philadelphia, Columbus and New York are all within one result of each other atop the conference table. Despite Houston's inconsistent play, the Dynamo paces a group of teams lurking in the middle of the pack. D.C.'s personnel improvement and Sporting KC's backloaded home schedule makes them two teams capable of making a jump up the standings during the latter half of the season.
TFC is the real wild card. As poor as the team has looked at times, the Reds are riding a wave of momentum after capturing the Canadian championship on Saturday and the 2011-2012 CONCACAF Champions League berth that goes along with it. Combine that with their new reputable acquisitions, and there's grounds for new-found optimism at BMO Field for a fan base that's been yearning for a playoff team.
While the Western Conference is still likely to have the majority of the 10 playoff teams come October (entering Saturday, the West's fourth-place team, Real Salt Lake, had as many points as the East's first-place team, Philadelphia), there's plenty of reason to stay tuned for how the chase for the three automatic Eastern Conference playoff spots unfolds.