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Wayne Rooney sent a corner into the box. Midfielder Lucas Rodriguez sent the set piece in to the roof of the net to equalize against Toronto FC in the first round of the 2019 MLS Cup playoffs.

United roared to life.

But the energy didn’t last. Toronto quickly ravaged United’s defense, scoring four goals in less than 15 minutes of extra time to advance 5-1 Saturday night at BMO Field.

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“It’s an unfair scoreline when you look at the game itself in regular time, but they also scored five goals and we scored one,” DC coach Ben Olsen said. “It’s hard to process that.”

In the first half, the battle to advance took place mostly in the middle of the park, with a few chances both ways in the final third. While United started in a high press, it was Toronto which got four shots on goal.

The Reds got a good look on goal in 23rd minute thanks to a ball into the box from Justin Morrow. Alejandro Pozuelo, with his back to goal, quickly redirected the ball to Nicolas Benezet, whose shot hit off his teammate and out of danger.

As Berhalter pointed out, sheer desire is a huge part of it. You know it when you see it, and if you watched that game on Tuesday you certainly saw it from Sam Piette, Liam Fraser, Jonathan Osorio and Scott Arfield. But there are two other things we need to explain that go beyond “try harder.”

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The Player Pool
Tyler Adams is literally a world-class ball-winner. Paxton Pomykal looks like he will be there soon. If you just slot them into the US midfield things naturally improve by about 90% because winning the ball in those situations is a fundamental piece of who they are as players. It has never been so for Michael Bradley (he prefers to contain rather than challenge) and does not appear to be so for Cristian Roldan or Weston McKennie.

Is it so for Jackson Yueill? He’s made huge strides this year, but he didn’t win games for the Quakes with his defense the way that Pomykal did for FC Dallas, or that Adams has for the Red Bulls both here and in Europe. Alfredo Morales? He’s done dirty work in the Bundesliga, but we may have seen the limit of his abilities vs. Mexico. Russell Canouse was my big hope heading into this MLS season, but Russell Canouse is now a right back.

Hopefully Brandon Servania gets there – he did the job well for the U-20s this spring in the U-20 World Cup – but he played as more of a No. 8 for Dallas down the stretch for a reason. His and Pomykal’s teammate Edwin Cerrillo has promise, and North Texas SC coach Eric Quill is specifically working with him on the “be more nasty and inflict some pain” part of his game, but we’re talking about a 19-year-old USL player here.

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Hassani Dotson was excellent for Minnesota United this season and was, according to a few folks who were there, one of the outstanding players at this most recent U-23 camp for the US playing as a pure, ball-winning No. 6. But Hassani Dotson is not an MLS starter, and as of right now the U-23 are the right spot for him.

With Adams, Pomykal and Morales all hurt… I mean, in retrospect the answer was “play Yueill to see if he can do it against a better team than Cuba or a stuck-in-third-gear version of Uruguay.” At least then, even if the US lost in this exact same way, Berhalter could’ve learned something new about a young, promising player on his roster.

Here is something I wrote last week in a preview of this international date:

For this camp the question is “Can Bradley, Yueill or Trapp show they’re a defensive answer – or at the very least, not a liability – against a team with as much attacking firepower as Canada?”

That’s as crucial a question as Berhalter’s of Adams. And if the answer is no, then it’s probably time for the coach to start re-thinking what he needs from that spot on the field.

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As it stands, this loss as a come-to-Jesus moment on the central midfield is the only possible silver lining I can see for the US here.

It is absolutely essential that the US get ball-winners into midfield even if it means sacrificing some distribution from the No. 6 spot. If Adams gets healthy, write his name in pen. If Dotson can translate what he’s done at the club level and with the U-23s up to the full national team in January (yes, he should be there in January, if not sooner), then glory hallelujah we suddenly have a smidge of depth. If Pomykal gets healthy and keeps progressing, we have ball-winners in two spots. If Yueill shows that he can dive into a scrum without the ball and come away with it, then we have depth and flexibility.

The tension broke in the 32nd minute when Pozuelo evaded defender Russell Canouse. Toronto’s shot leader rocketed a ball toward Hamid, who had kept a clean sheet for more than 480 minutes prior the Saturday’s game. Hamid blocked the first shot, but in an uncharacteristic mistake, parried into the sprinting feet of midfielder Marky Delgado.

Delgado easily put the rebound past Hamid, who was still getting off the ground.

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The first half goal left United in a tough position. D.C. finished the regular season with a record of 1-9-5 after conceding first.

United also lost midfielder Felipe Martins to injury in the 44th minute. Not only did it take away a veteran who has been the glue of United’s spine, but it also forced a switch in formation. Canouse shifted from right back to defensive mid, while Paul Arriola moved from the wing into Canouse’s vacant spot. Forward Ola Kamara came on for Felipe and played high with Rooney moving behind him.

“It’s tough. I think we put a lot of attackers out there to try to score that goal,” Kamara said. “A lot of people were out of position.”

Toronto started the game shorthanded. While forward Jozy Altidore was an expected absence due to a hamstring injury suffered in the final regular season game, the Reds were also without Omar Gonzalez. The defender was a late scratch after suffering a hamstring injury and failing a fitness test, according to TSN reporter Kristian Jack.

While the Reds have found goals without Altidore, the loss of Gonzalez presented a challenge for the Toronto defense. The 31-year-old defender joined Toronto in June from Pachuca in Mexico’s Liga MX. His veteran presence helped Toronto finish the regular season with a 10-match unbeaten streak.

The absence of Gonzalez opened opportunities in the final third for D.C. United. In what was ultimately his final appearance in Major League Soccer, Rooney desperately searched for the back of the net to keep his team’s season alive. He had two close calls around the 64th minute, both coming from distance. And both were saved in acrobatic fashion by goalkeeper Quentin Westberg.

“You’ve got Wayne’s three (chances) and Ola’s 1-v-1,” Olsen said. “We didn’t, over the course of the day, make enough plays to win it in regular time and then we threw so much at it in the end.”

In stoppage time, Westberg made a gutsy play and came well off his line to head a ball away. Arriola took advantage of the open net and attempted a chip in goal, but Chris Mavinga headed the chance away.