WASHINGTON, D.C. — At a time when it desperately needs wins, Real Salt Lake just can't shake the expansion blues.
Despite moments of real promise, RSL had way too many breakdowns Wednesday night, and defending MLS Cup champions D.C. United exploited them early and often for a 5-1 win at RFK Stadium.
"We quit," said RSL coach John Ellinger.
Defender Eddie Pope admits it might have looked that way from the sideline, but he didn't see it that way.
"I know I didn't quit," said Pope, who won three MLS Cups with D.C. United early in his career. "I think in the second half there wasn't one aspect of the game I think we did correctly. I'm sure from the coaches' standpoint it looks like the team is quitting."
In many ways, the loss to D.C. United epitomized the entire season for RSL. It started out sluggish, falling behind 2-0, battled back to make it 2-1, but then was ultimately embarrassed in the final 12 minutes as D.C. scored in the 78th and 86th minute.
Things were so bleak at the end of the game, the referee didn't even add a single second of stoppage time.
At this point, RSL is nine points out of the Western Conference's final playoff spot with only eight games remaining. Reaching the playoffs seems like an impossible task at this point.
Salt Lake, still winless on the road, is now 5-15-4 on the season.
Wednesday's game was supposed to be different. The team arrived in Washington, D.C., on Sunday, giving the players plenty of time to acclimate themselves to the East Coast humidity and time zone. RSL also acquired a new player, Melvin Tarley, to come in and inject some scoring into the team.
At the end of the day, however, the team equaled its worst showing of the season — a 5-1 loss to Chivas in July.
"Even in the first half we had moments when we played well, but in the second half, we broke down, we broke down and broke down again," said Ellinger. "It's just unacceptable."
Despite surrendering a first-half stoppage-time goal to fall behind 2-0, RSL responded quickly in the second half as newcomer Tarley slotted home an empty netter following an excellent volley from Andy Williams in the 51st minute.
D.C.'s defense locked down after that, not allowing RSL another shot on goal the rest of the game. At the same time, D.C. picked things up offensively.
In the 64th minute, United's Christian Gomez pounced on his own rebound to ice the game at 3-1. Fourteen minutes later, that lead ballooned to 4-1 as Jaime Moreno finally put away one of his six shots. In the 86th minute, second-half substitute Jamil Walker added to RSL's humiliation on a perfectly timed run and finish to make it 5-1.
"I thought we gave the ball away. I thought we stood there and watched them attack our goal," said Ellinger. "The first principle of defending, once the ball is lost you fight to win it back, and we didn't fight to win it back."
From the opening whistle, it was pretty obvious D.C. was trying to exploit RSL's troublesome defense in the opening 15 minutes of the game. It pressured the ball intensely, no doubt hoping to become the 12th team to score on RSL's defense in the first quarter hour.
It would have paid off just five minutes in, but Jay Nolly used every inch of his 6-foot-3 frame to dive and punch a Gomez free kick into the post.
The rookie keeper wasn't quite so lucky nine minutes later.
In the 14th minute, Gomez timed a run through the middle perfectly, and easily running in behind RSL's defense. At that point it was a foot race between Gomez and Nolly, and Gomez's toe got there a split second before Nolly's outstretched hands. Nolly tripped him, and the ref wasted no time pointing the spot — a penalty kick that Moreno buried for the 1-0 lead.
Just before halftime, RSL's defense allowed 16-year-old Freddy Adu to run unimpeded straight through the midfield, and he unleashed a 30-yard shot just inside the left post.
"Gomez, Jaime, Freddy, they can play some ball," said Ellinger. "If you don't put pressure on them, they're going to pick their spot and they're going to bury it. It really doesn't matter who was in goal."
RSL returns to action this Saturday when it hosts Eastern Conference leader New England.
ENDLINES: Nolly made 11 saves despite the loss . . . D.C. United committed 16 fouls to Salt Lake's 11, but RSL had five yellow cards, while D.C. only had one. Two of those yellows belonged to Kenny Cutler, who was sent off in the 79th minute.