It's always an adventure in the CONCACAF Champions League, but D.C. United managed to cope well enough with a desperate Arabe Unido en route to a 1-0 road win. United certainly bent at times, but some strong goalkeeping from Andrew Dykstra and an ability to force Panama's top club into all-or-nothing passes kept the scores level. Arabe looked vulnerable in their own half for most of the last hour of the game, and they'd eventually pay the price as Michael Farfan's glorious back-heeled through ball sent Miguel Aguilar in behind the defense to notch the game's only goal.
Our Words (Steven Streff): "A point was all that was really needed by D.C. United on Wednesday night in Panama against Arabe Unido in their first CONCACAF Champions League group game this year. A point, combined with a win in the return fixture, would put United through to next spring's knockout stages (provided the Black-and-Red took advantage of the two games versus Montego Bay). But after a side chock full of changes battled back and forth for 80 minutes, Miguel Aguilar gave United all three points with his first professional goal in United's 1-0 win."
MLSsoccer.com (Pablo Maurer): "D.C. sent a mix of reserves and starters south of the border, a group led by assistant coach Chad Ashton; head coach Ben Olsen sat this one out while serving a suspension earned in last year’s edition of CCL play.
They looked a bit out-of-sorts early on. Bolstered by a small but raucous home crowd, Árabe were the more dangerous side in the game’s opening quarter hour. A long-range blast by defender Rigoberto Niño forced Dykstra into action early on. The ‘keeper called on his reflexes again in the 12th minute, expertly parrying away a close-range effort by forward Armando Polo."
Back to Steven's piece: "United's best chance in the first half came in the 35th minute, as the right back Robinson got in on the attack. His move forward was rewarded with a pass to collect in space, and his cross found Arrieta in the box. The Costa Rican rose above Fidel Caesar, but couldn't guide his header on target.
Opare got on the end of Coria's free kick in the 38th minute, but could only get a weak, backwards header on target, before Pontius cut in from the left only to fire right at Lloyd.
Addles had the first chance for Arabe Unido in the second half after the home side won a free kick in a dangerous spot in United's end. The free kick was well struck by Addles, but flew just over the bar."
And now more from Maurer: "D.C. nearly got the game’s opener in the 56th minute. Farfan slipped a ball through for Arrieta, who took a touch and tried to chip an onrushing Lloyd. The goalkeeper just barely managed to get a fingertip to the effort, though, steering it away from goal.
Dykstra was again pressed into action later in the game, first in the 63rd minute when he charged 40 yards off his line to clear a breakaway from danger. Five minutes later, he smothered a José González effort from 18 yards out. A close-range shot by second-half sub Abdiel Arroyo trickled wide in the 70th, while midfielder Édgar Bárcenas missed a sitter from inside the six-yard box just a couple of minutes later."
Washington Post (Steve Goff): "Aguilar, a first-round draft pick from the University of San Francisco, collected Farfan’s audacious, no-look pass between two defenders and tucked a 15-yard shot into the lower left corner of the net."
Stand-in head coach Chad Ashton (overall thoughts on the game): "I think it was a good game. It was a hard fought game. They have a very good team – very athletic, very dangerous. We’re very fortunate to come down here and get a result."
Ashton again (clarifying the pre-game 4231 or 442 debate): "We felt like we could get our second forward in between their holding midfielders and their defenders, allowing our midfielders and forward to make some runs in behind them."
Captain for the night Markus Halsti (general thoughts on the game): "Of course really happy about the win. It wasn’t that good as we would [have] hoped but a win is a win and that’s most important and the second half we were a little bit better in the game. The first half we were not really [able to get] our own game going and just a little too much bouncing and fighting and losing it. But good second half...a better second half so you have to be happy."
Ashton one more time (on the largely second-choice squad): "We felt like we could bring the group that we did and get a result. We have a very long season, including CONCACAF at the beginning of the year, too, as well as the U.S. Open Cup. Some games we have to swap out players just to manage the season. But we brought this group with the idea that we could get a result."
In CCL terms, this result is likely a backbreaker for Arabe Unido. Since the revised format involving three-team group was ushered in, one thing has been made clear: You cannot lose at home and hope to advance. A draw for United would have been damaging enough; going in and taking the full three points is outstanding, regardless of the nature of the win.
And let's not overstate the way this game went. United wasn't under siege, as the aesthetes out there might have you believe. Possession went in Arabe's favor by just 2%; shots were 13 to 10, and United actually put more of their efforts on frame (5 shots on goal to 4). Sure, any game where your goalkeeper is man of the match - and let's not be crazy, Dykstra was the star of the show - is not a great performance, but United did enough to get points.
"United did enough" is the key phrase here. That's what this team is built around at this point. Possession? It's nice, and if it's there to be had without too many risks, DCU will take it. Shot attempts? You get the feeling that the only shots United cares about are the ones that go in. Territorial advantage? United defends deep and prizes security in the midfield to force teams into low-percentage shots and passes. If that means spending more time in their own end, so be it.
However, the street-smart soccer that implies has been absent for a while now. United has been giving away goals and big chances for much of the summer, and has only kept themselves in the Supporters Shield race via huge comebacks and winning despite being outshot 25 to 1. United made a step towards being "typical DC" at Yankee Stadium, but it only lasted for 45 minutes.
Wednesday night, we saw United play in a rather familiar manner. It wasn't them at their best, but it seems crazy to expect United to fully correct weeks of erratic play over the course of a few days. United was able to take advantage of the pressure Arabe was under to win the game, and used it against them. The home side tried plenty of over-ambitious through balls, and one of Dykstra's best saves came on a 40 yard shot from their right back. It's United's plan in a nutshell: If you can score from that range, so be it.
Tactically, the game swung on two substitutions. Sergio Guzman's decision to send on striker Abdiel Arroyo in the 33rd minute for uninjured defensive midfielder Leslie Heraldez was basically like going all-in immediately upon seeing one's cards at the poker table. Abdiel Macea was left as the lone holding midfielder, and the rest of their front six was apparently told to attack with abandon.
This was probably a bad decision. Arabe didn't gain all that much going forward from the move; it mostly served to make every Arabe player think that their next pass had to be a killer ball. The main outcome was actually defensive: Arabe went from leaving manageable gaps at the back to looking in danger every time United attacked with more than forwards Facundo Coria and Jairo Arrieta.
United ended up winning the game because Macea was simply too tired to do more than jog in the general vicinity of both Coria and Farfan as their combination pulled Jean Cedeño out of position. That set up the lane Farfan used to play Aguilar in on goal, and La Furia Colonense's emergency defending finally let them down.
The other crucial sub? That'd be Farfan's entrance in the 52nd minute for Steve Birnbaum. My guess is that Birnbaum was taken off with an eye on tomorrow's game rather than due to an injury, but United doesn't like to talk about injuries. We might not find out about what was going on there until around 6pm Saturday, so let's stick to what it meant in Panama.
Halsti moved back into Birnbaum's center back spot, leaving central midfield to Farfan and Jared Jeffrey. This, too, was a risk, but it appeared to be a bit more thought-out than Arabe's "well, they're playing conservatively, so let's throw the kitchen sink at them ASAP!" move. United moved into a 4132, but also got more narrow all over the field. As a result, Arabe's constant desire to play a striker in behind for a breakaway became even less productive.
The move also forced the home side into a lot more crosses, something United is generally very used to seeing. There was still some luck involved - Yoel Barcenas was about an inch away from getting enough on his attempted heel flick to send it past Dykstra - but by and large United were better after their move out of the flat 442 than Arabe was.
Finally, let's talk about Farfan. Until subbing in against NYCFC, he had been out for roughly three full months. I thought his signing was underrated at the time it happened, and his absence was not discussed enough (which is on us at B&RU as much as anyone). I'd say part of that is rooted in the fact that Farfan was not as effective when having to play wide in the 442, which is where he was playing at the time of his injury.
In the center, though, Farfan has showed some tantalizing playmaking abilities when deployed ahead of an anchor midfielder. We first saw this back when United beat the Whitecaps in Vancouver (another game where playing one rather than two defensive midfielders paid off), and against Arabe he was excellent: 22 of his 25 attempted passes got to their intended destination, and one of those was one of the best passes anyone has had for United this season:
Here's the thing, though: We all know that Ben Olsen isn't going to start a player who only delivers on one side of the ball. Farfan managed to throw in 4 interceptions defensively, and his general work rate was good. This is the sort of play that keeps a guy like Chris Rolfe - in his Fire days, thought of as more of a "luxury" - on the field under Olsen. If Farfan can do this much defensively while still providing United's offense with some guile in the middle, he won't just be stuck on the right or left all the time.
The Last Word:
Going forward, United needs to find a way to incorporate Farfan - and the 4132 - into their plans more often. It seems like a smart move from the start against Montego Bay, who are likely to take a very conservative approach. It might also be a good idea for United to prepare for this as an in-game tactical change when they need a goal. At home, scoring goals hasn't been too much of a problem. On the road, however, United has six 1-goal losses and has struggled all season to create chances (much less put the ball in the back of the net).
The lesson from this game going forward is two-fold: First, sometimes taking a bit of a risk is the only way to get the result you need. Second, what seems like a risk might not actually be a risk. Remember, United improved their defensive structure by getting more compact after moving into the 4132 in this game, and that was despite losing quite a bit of mobility at center back, playing Jared Jeffrey instead of Perry Kitchen as the lone defensive midfielder, and fielding their 4th and 5th best fullbacks. If it can work with this squad, it can work with United's best players.