Yes, you read that headline correctly: D.C. United won a game of soccer.
Relying on a stout, composed effort from the entire back four and a new-look formation, United were more or less worthy winners over the Houston Dynamo in tonight's occasionally chippy Carolina Challenge Cup preseason game. United took the lead via a David Horst own goal midway through the first half before Michael Seaton calmly slotted into an empty net just before stoppage time in the second half.
The match started evenly, with United's more narrow 4132 formation emphasizing possession play and patience. All eyes were on the Black-and-Red's midfield, where a right-to-left midfield trio of Davy Arnaud, Luis Silva, and Nick DeLeon had a chance to wean United off of the double pivot that we've seen under Ben Olsen since roughly June 2012.
The Dynamo offered a contrast in style by pushing the ball at a higher tempo down the wings, though the joint efforts of Arnaud and Sean Franklin - as well as Perry Kitchen's ability to funnel play in one direction - helped ensure that most of these forays were down the less dangerous Houston right rather than letting Brad Davis have a slew of opportunities to cross from the left.
The game was quite even to start, with the Dynamo getting further upfield but never quite getting in behind the defense while United worked the ball around looking to pry open the Dynamo. Most United's best work - other than a Fabian Espindola corner kick that Jeff Parke was inches away from getting good contact on - came from the left side as DeLeon continued to look ready to take a big step up from a disappointing 2013.
It was no surprise then that United's opening goal came after Arnaud and Johnson quickly moved the ball from the right touchline to DeLeon in space on the left. DeLeon was not aggressively closed down by Kofi Sarkodie or Tony Cascio, and his driven near-post cross was nodded past keeper Tyler Deric by David Horst, who was trying to block the ball away from a lurking Johnson.
As the half wore on, Houston began to ask more questions of DC, and while the back four was forced to defend more deeply than they should have, the Dynamo produced few actual looks beyond a bobbling shot by Will Bruin straight at Bill Hamid. United, meanwhile, showed significant progress on the fitness side; specifically, the whole team didn't collectively run out of gas after 20 minutes as in the previous three preseason games.
After halftime Houston's slight territorial edge became more pronounced, but as in the first half they struggled to outfox the United back four. The Black-and-Red looked rather comfortable playing on the counter thanks in part to the knowledge that a forward duo of Johnson and Espindola is actually fast enough to chase down the sort of early balls required to break sustained pressure. Counterattacking down the left - particularly through Espindola and DeLeon - proved to be the best weapon in the United arsenal as the game wore on.
I mentioned that the game got chippy earlier, and on another occasion we might be talking about the referee as much as the actual game. While both halves saw scuffles and several yellow cards were handed out, the most troublesome moment came when Christian simply cleaned out Cascio with a tackle from behind. The yellow card given to the Spaniard was a fair decision, but there are MLS referees who would have gone for a straight red.
Both teams made the customary line change after the 70th minute, with Houston going first and United more or less giving the final 15 minutes to the reserves. The mass substitution - in the end, only Hamid played 90 minutes - didn't alter the 4132 formation, with trialist Reuben Ayarna taking over Kitchen's anchor role and draft pick Victor Munoz lining up on the right side of midfield. Elsewhere, Conor Doyle and Michael Seaton ended the game as the forward pairing, and the same back four (Jalen Robinson, Steve Birnbaum, Conor Shanosky, and Taylor Kemp) that we've seen previously took over at the back.
It was only a few minutes after this that United came the closest to conceding. A long ball out of the back for the Dynamo seemed simple enough to deal with, but Hamid found himself outside the 18 yard box and compounded his error by misjudging the high bounce of the ball. His attempted header missed, and two United defenders ended up colliding with Omar Cummings around the penalty spot before the ball was cleared.
A few minutes later, United finished the game off with a second goal. Following a loose ball near midfield resulting from a Hamid goal kick, Doyle laid the ball off for Victor Munoz, who showed great vision to play the ball quickly over top of the Dynamo defense for Porter, who made a good run off the shoulder of Eric Brunner. Deric made the block right at the edge of the 18 yard box, but the ball fell straight to the trailing Seaton, who showed good composure by settling the ball before firing home to make it 2-0.
Overall, tonight's game was an obvious step forward for United. While no one would argue that it was an outstanding performance, there were more positives from this 90 minutes than the previous three games combined. DeLeon continues to look like a changed man, and while Johnson didn't get on the scoresheet his speed clearly worried the Houston center backs (including one instance in which the offside flag was all that stood between him and a breakaway from midfield). Arnaud showed that a more narrow alignment emphasizes his strengths while hiding his weaknesses, and guys like Munoz and Ayarna - who won a few tackles in his short time on the field - gave a good account of themselves as well.
Mostly, though, it came down to the back four. All night long, the defense was organized, calm, and able to snuff attacks out before they ever really got dangerous. While they did spend a 15-20 minute period in the first half defending too deeply, there was little of the dangerous "emergency defending" that we saw pretty much every game last year. Whereas last year's team needed a steady supply of athletic scrambling or brave blocks, tonight United needed just one such play (Kitchen's first half block of a Giles Barnes volley attempt).
That's hugely encouraging considering the formation change did away with the more secure but less attack-minded double pivot. In adding Silva to the midfield while sticking with two forwards, Ben Olsen fielded a United geared towards attacking. While the chances didn't flow, it's probably just as important that the team's defensive shape held up with one less defense-first player on the field.
Next up for the Black-and-Red is Wednesday's match against the Carolina Challenge Cup's host, the Charleston Battery (7:30pm, live stream at dcunited.com/live).