by JAKE NUTTING
The first taste of action of the year is always highly anticpated by fans and players, but it usually doesn’t take long for that feeling to subside and the realization that the team needs time to coalesce kicks in. So it shouldn’t come as a shock that the Rowdies never fully clicked in their opening preseason match against D.C. United, a 1-0 loss courtesy of a controversial first half goal from Fabian Espindola.
We’ll split the halfs into separate sections considering head coach Stuart Cambell tossed out two completely different lineups in each one.
Lineup (4-3-3): GK Matt Pickens – D Darnell King, Justin Chavez, Frankie Sanfilippo (C), Zac Portillos – M Junior Burgos, Juan Guerra, Michael Nanchoff – F Kalif Alhassan, Danny Mwanga, Walter Ramirez
The opening half, which saw seven newcomers to the Rowdies in the starting lineup, was predictably choppy for the home side. The visitors held most of the possession in the opening stages as the Rowdies struggled to develop any rhythm going forward.
Fortunately, the Rowdies back line held its shape for the most part under the pressure and kept D.C.’s attackers in check. D.C. slipped through several times in the half, but were always thwarted by defenders or keeper Matt Pickens at the last second.
The only major lapse by the back line was the result of a frustrating, and avoidable, sequence in the 28th minute. D.C.’s Acosta appeared to pull the arm of right back Darnell King while battling for a ball rolling toward the endline. The referee, though, saw no foul on the play and also allowed play to continue after the ball seemed to roll out. Quickly realizing the referee had swallowed his whistle, Acosta took a touch back toward the box and played a rolling pass back for an on-running Espindola. The MLS veteran one-timed a low shot to the far post with a crowd of Rowdies players, all frozen waiting for the whistle, surrounding him.
Another scary moment arose only a minute later when Acosta was sprung behind the back line by a through ball from the midfield. Pickens handled the breakaway adeptly, though, charging out to cut the angle and make the close-range save.
Notables: Of all the new Rowdies in the front five, Michael Nanchoff looked the most comfortable. The midfielder showed an aptitude for defense with a couple clean tackles that created counter opportunities. He also showed composure on the ball the few times he was challenged going forward.
To the delight of many, left back Zac Portillos slotted back into the lineup and showed some of the promise that excited fans last year before his Achilles injury. He demonstrated his speed going forward in a few bursts and never got beat in a one-on-one situation.
Junior Burgos didn’t manage to deliver a brillaint set piece like the ones he did for Atlanta last year, but he did show technique and vision to set up his teammates in open play. One superb no-look flick into the box stands out in partucular.
Walter Ramirez looked as if he had the most rust to shake off of anyone. He looked a step behind the play on the left side early on and was exposed badly in a one-on-one situation while defending on the sideline. To his credit, he showed better as the half wore on, though he did hang back surprisingly far in defense for an attacker.
Danny Mwanga made use of his physicality in certain moments but still came up a bit short in other areas. The awareness and understanding with his teammates was, understandbly, not up to snuff yet. His first touch was also a tad too strong in a few instances.
Lineup (4-3-3): GK Michael Langer – D Jeremy Hall, Chavez, Stefan Antonijevic, Ben Sweat – M Veneri Valimaa, Keith Savage, Georgi Hristov – F Jeff Michaud, Tommy Heinemann, Darwin Espinal. * Note: Hristov played an adavnced attacking role often and Michaud dropped back into midfield quite a bit.
Chavez was the only player to go the full 90 and he looked solid doing so. The choppiness, though, did not dissipate with the total lineup overhaul, especially with D.C. making a handful of substitutions throughout the closng 45 to give trialists a shot at some minutes.
The game remained back and forth, opening up more on the attacking end for the Rowdies after next to nothing in the first. Each side looked overeager when they had the ball and seemed in a rush to try some things that never materialized into much.
The Rowdies did produce the best looks on goal in the second half, with only their finishing preventing them from notching their first goal of the preseason.
Notables: Tommy Heinemann showed the tremendous work rate that he was known for in Ottawa. The center forward was all over the field for the Rowdies and, in comparison to Mwanga, his chemistry with his teammates seemed stronger. Heinemann came close to equalizing in the 81st minute, but he telegraphed his intentions on a breakaway and D.C.’s keeper made a superb kick save.
Georgi Hristov also covered a lot of ground in his first action of 2016. He and Heinemann seemed to have an understanding and were always mindful of where the other was on the field. The Bulgarian slipped his teammate the terrific ball to create the breakaway in the 81st that nearly tied things up. The most troubling sign for Hristov was the tame long range effort he delivered right to the keeper with ample space in front of him. His finishing was a major concern last year, so hopefully this was just a case of opening night jitters.
Darwin Espinal made D.C.’s defender’s put in a hard night’s work on down the left side. The attacker was a pest whenever he touched the ball. The only factor missing for Espinal was his final ball into the box to connect with his teammates.
Overall the attack and the midfield looked, unsurprisingly, like a work in progress and the defender showed encouraging signs of sturdiness in the face of pressure. Hopefully, things begin to click in the possession game soon and the attack becomes less one-sided. The Rowdies would do well to work on developing their game down the right side of the field to avoid becoming predicable.
IMAGE, TAMPA BAY ROWDIES