Mornings aren't for me. Or at least, a normal American working person morning isn't for me. You probably know how it is: You wake up via a highly unnatural, horribly aggravating buzzing noise - a noise whose maker you bought and who you set to torment your future self of your own free will - and you hurry around trying to get yourself cleaned up and fed so you can go work without raising any eyebrows. Most likely, since you're a D.C. United fan, you probably have to endure a commute that borders on going to war with hundreds of thousands of people who also think they're at war with you.
I was thinking about all that when I saw the scorching hot takes in some quarters toward United's 2-0 loss to Queretaro in the CONCACAF Champions League. I know we live in an era of instant reactions being definitive, so I'm already taking up a losing cause, but can we get through one game before we conclude that United is terrible? We're talking about a team without their undisputed star player in Bill Hamid as well as a brand new midfield largely controlling the tempo for over an hour in their first competitive game against an in-season Liga MX side, on the road, at a higher altitude than any team in MLS plays at. That's something a bad, doomed team can't pull off.
So let's not do the harried morning routine. Let's wake up without the alarm. Let's have the time to make a nice breakfast and brew a good cup of coffee. Let's take this game for what it is: A team in preseason form trying to go on the road in tiring conditions and somehow avoid a catastrophe against a team that can and does spend millions on players. The odds were stacked badly against United, who still hit the crossbar twice and are hardly in a worse situation than Real Salt Lake (or even Seattle, who need a series of miracles to advance past Club America at the Azteca).
Nonetheless, this was a first impression that matters for this team, and a first impression for several players too. This isn't a "woe is us" defense of United's play on the night; rather, it's just an attempt to place it in context. This was a mixed bag of a performance. There's plenty to build on, but also some red flags for the Black-and-Red as well as certain individuals. Let's look at it from a long view rather than deciding how the season will go based on one game played in extreme circumstances that will not be replicated at any point for the rest of 2016. Let's relax over a good cup of coffee and think about this one rather than merely react to it like we do with the alarm clock.
We should start with Marcelo Sarvas, who arguably was the most important player on the field Tuesday. Sarvas provided two very key contributions for a United team that wanted to keep the game's tempo slow: He made sure his pass attempts got where they were going, and he picked up loose balls. Sarvas - who probably is at his best with more freedom than the role he had as United's most defensive-minded midfielder - managed to complete 89.1% of his passes against Queretaro, which is critical in a game where a lack of possession was always going to be disastrous. United still only ended up with 41% of the possession in the game, making the Brazilian's contribution even more valuable. When United found their new #7 on the ball, they tended to keep the ball.
Perhaps more importantly, Sarvas contributed 17 recoveries for United. If you don't look at these stats after games, you probably don't have a frame of reference as to whether 17 is a lot, so let me put it this way: In United's 3 MLS playoff games in 2015, Perry Kitchen - playing the same role - had 20 recoveries in 270 minutes. Here's another way of looking at it: United's field players, as a whole, had 57 recoveries. Sarvas had about 30% of them by himself.
In other words, when Queretaro was imprecise with a pass, or had a shot blocked, or United half-cleared a cross, it was Sarvas who was most likely giving DC a valuable spell of possession. He even had time to be fouled 6 times while only committing 2 fouls himself. Ironically, he ended up being the only player to receive a booking despite Queretaro making a point of kicking him to prevent United from building through the midfield.
So Sarvas had a great debut...except for one thing. Yerson Candelo certainly scored one hell of a goal for los Gallos Blancos, but it probably never happens if Sarvas isn't pulled forward in the moments before. That's not to say the entire goal is his fault. For one, United was already disorganized from the previous passage of play, where Queretaro had taken a corner that the Black-and-Red needed four attempts to actually clear spread over half a minute.
Furthermore, the player making the run trying to attack that cross from Sarvas? His central midfield partner Nick DeLeon. If there's one thing DeLeon has to work on in this new role, it's recognizing when he has to stay home. This was one of those times, and when Tiago Volpi punched the cross from Sarvas away United was badly out of shape. Rob Vincent, playing left midfield, had gone two-thirds of the way across the field to cover for both players and prevent Queretaro from having a 80+ yard central gap to attack. That is not how this is supposed to work.
Getting that central midfield balance right is critical for United, and it may yet see Markus Halsti push his way back into the team in the coming weeks. In the meantime, it will remain a work in progress. Sarvas and DeLeon mostly did well to prevent Queretaro from turning their ownership of the ball into danger, but both players should know that at this stage of the game, someone has to stay home.
Moving on to another player making his United debut, we saw some good things out of Luciano Acosta. He ended up with the most key passes from open play for the Black-and-Red, and his willingness to take people on - he attempted 6 dribbles - adds a new element for DC. A team that previously didn't really threaten from the middle ended up seeing half of their key passes happen within the width of the 18 yard box rather than down the flanks. Acosta's ability to draw opponents in before finding a teammate is a big part of that, and it happened despite several obvious breakdowns between him and Fabian Espindola. If those two figure things out, United will be a more diverse attack than they've been in years.
The other first impression we probably need to consider is that of Patrick Nyarko, who everyone agrees had a quiet game. Or did he? Nyarko attempted just one fewer pass than DeLeon, and ended up with 2 key passes on the night. So why was there a widespread assumption that he had a very quiet night? His best attribute was not on display at all. Nyarko did not attempt a single dribble per Opta, and in a game like this that's a decisive tactical victory for Queretaro.
With Espindola, Acosta, and Chris Rolfe, United should be looking to suck teams into getting compressed towards United's left. That should leave plenty of space for Nyarko to isolate himself against opposing left-sided players, and plenty of space to feed him the ball in those situations. Queretaro didn't let that happen, though, and United didn't really force the issue either. The home side, possibly after seeing how right-sided United's preseason games were and certainly after seeing their last two league opponents mercilessly pick on Jonathan Bornstein, took care to give United other options. United, for their part, mostly just shrugged and took what was on the table.
That's not to let Nyarko off the hook entirely. Teams are going to do this to the Black-and-Red all year, and "take what they give you" doesn't really get you very far in soccer. Nyarko has to demand the ball more than he did in Mexico, and when he gets it he can't be satisfied with sideways passes. There has to be an element of risk in Nyarko's game that wasn't really there on Tuesday.
All in all, though, United's flaws were not big ones. This wasn't last season's trip to Alajuelense, where the game careened out of control from kickoff. Ben Olsen's squad got the tempo they wanted, and they created chances even with Nyarko avoiding risk and with Acosta and Espindola unable to get into a groove. They handled this game much better than they did last year's CCL first leg, and they did it without Kitchen and without Bill Hamid. Those are all signs that the new-look midfield can match or exceed last year's group (particularly when Lamar Neagle and Miguel Aguilar are also available to contribute). Taking the long view, United's overall play in this game are a sign of good times to come. It's just a shame that the long view doesn't apply in a two-legged knockout series.