DC United and the Columbus Crew are two of the MLS’s original franchises and two that are going through the reboot phase. For DC United, the rock bottom came last year with a last place finish, a porous defense, and an offense that at times wouldn’t scare a high school team. Management decided the team needed a facelift, leading to a starting XI tonight that featured five players suiting up for the first time in a DCU shirt. Columbus, conversely, is hoping to avoid DCU depths after an offseason where the club offloaded some of their biggest names to begin a necessary rebuilding process. Despite a tough loss to begin the season in the CCL, the team is looking to see how far it needs to rebuild and if it already has the talent to compete for a playoff spot.
These storylines alone would have made this an interesting match. But at the end of ninety minutes, the story of the evening was Charlie Davies. After a few years of painful rehab and hell on earth, Davies entered the match with DC United holding a 1-0 lead and soon had his first chance on goal. In the 62nd minute, Chris Pontius (who had a great return from injury himself tonight) was pulled down in the box and awarded a penalty. Davies stepped up and cooly slotted it home. After the match, head coach Ben Olsen told the media that he was surprised himself that the new #9 took the kick. “It wasn’t my call and if I had to be absolutely honest with you, I wouldn’t have given it to him,” said Olsen. Instead, he noted that it was DC captain Dax McCarty’s responsibility to give the ball to Davies to take the penalty, leading to a great moment for the 18,000 plus in attendance.
The second goal was a thing of beauty: taking a long pass from Marc Burch, Davies sprinted by a defender on the left, made keeper Will Hesmer commit and flail as he ran by and slotted the ball home to give DC a 3-0 lead. Columbus would add a goal on a Robbie Rogers penalty kick, but they could get no closer as DC United begins the season 1-0. Davies looked pretty healthy during his time on the pitch, showing little rust from his time away from the game. In the 72nd minute, he made a great move on the attack to shake his defender and get in a good pass to Chris Pontius, who failed to convert the chance. Afterwards, Davies was understandably emotional about the game. “Once that final whistle blew and I looked over at the fans, I lost it,” he said to the media afterwards. When pressed what he meant, he said, “I cried. It just came out of me. It was triggered by the support.”
The Davies story line overshadowed what may have been an even more impressive debut, that of 34 year-old Josh Wolff. Wolff started with his fellow new forward Joseph Ngwenya and was a constant threat in the match, mainly taking passes from Chris Pontius and the rest of the United midfield. He notched the first goal on a pass over the top from defender Jed Zayner. He then endeared himself to the fans by whipping off his shirt and jumping into the stands. Ben Olsen noted that Wolff was his MVP of the match, and one wonders if he can find the fountain of youth in the DCU 4-4-2.
While most of the storylines will be written about DC United, let’s take a moment to focus on the Columbus Crew. To be honest, the Crew were ineffective tonight, especially offensively. DC started their rookie centerback Perry Kitchen and for the first sixty minutes or so the Crew failed to challenge him or the rest of the United defense. Jeff Cunningham started and was invisible until he was subbed off in the 60th minute. His fellow starting forward was Andres Mendoza, and Mendoza didn’t offer much, looking a little slow. Columbus star Chad Marshall was stout in the back and was a threat on set pieces, and one of the few highlights of the match. Another was sub Robbie Rogers, who somehow didn’t start but who was effective once he came on in the 66th minute. While Columbus had the same number of shots as DC and even one more shot on goal, they had fewer quality scoring chances. Their defense had a hard time with Chris Pontius and, after a slow start, Andy Najar. Two factors for the poor play were injuries and new starters: rookie Rich Balchan got the start tonight because of an injury to Shaun Francis and Julius James was tabbed to start against his old team over Andy Iro. Balchan was Josh Wolff’s victim on the first goal.
In the grand scheme of things, this was just another match. By September, these teams may have forgotten this one and it may not have any discernible impact on either the playoff race or the race for the second draft pick. It may just be another game. But for one night, for one player, this match was the fulfillment of a long journey that will hopefully continue for years to come. Hats off to Charlie Davies and let’s hope this is the beginning of the next stage in his career.