Facing a regular season game that felt essentially just like a playoff game, D.C. United needed to come up big against the Montreal Impact. In many ways, this game’s stakes were actually higher than at least some playoff games. After all, if you get into the postseason but lose, you still get to call yourself a playoff team. Missing out entirely, as would have become very likely for United if Montreal had won, means your season goes down in the record books as unequivocally missing something. In MLS, the divide between the teams that get in and the teams that don’t is the shorthand for who was good and who was bad.
It’s safe to say United answered the call. The 5-0 scoreline didn’t reflect the game we saw, but it did reflect the razor-sharp D.C. attack, particularly after halftime. This win won’t get them into the playoffs by itself, but it’s a huge statement to Montreal and to the rest of the league: United won’t buckle under pressure, and if you cross their path on the wrong night they can humiliate you.
Let’s dig a bit deeper into this one:
United loves to throw numbers forward at home, while Montreal is very much a side that defends deep and hits on the counter. In other words, D.C.’s normal approach suited the Impact just fine, and Ben Olsen was understandably wary. His solution? You can’t counter a team that isn’t really pushing up high or taking big risks by sending everyone forward to join attacks.
During the game, I initially read the situation incorrectly, thinking that Montreal was simply taking the game to United. However, after the game Olsen and several players were emphatic about the choice to sit in at first. Montreal was surely surprised to see United giving them the same treatment they gave Atlanta, but were they put off? Frankly, no they were not.
Here are the halftime stats from the game:
Some of this is a product of United’s choice to drop off. Of course their share of possession is low in that case, and having fewer shots is not really shocking either. If a team intentionally sets out to be the counter-puncher on the field, this is a pretty standard stat line.
However, we have to be honest here: this plan worked because Bill Hamid was on his game early, full stop. The Impact may have been surprised, but they weren’t unhappy with the scenario they got. Alejandro Silva was such a menace early that United’s coaching staff called Junior Moreno over to the bench instead of letting him join the celebration on Paul Arriola’s goal to make some kind of change in how D.C. accounted for the speedy right winger.
On another day, or with a slightly less strong goalkeeping performance, this attempted ambush might not have worked. Thankfully, the choice at halftime was clear: let’s shift gears and attack them early. From kickoff, the Black-and-Red started out trying to possess, playing their preferred tempo and pushing their line higher than it had been. Wayne Rooney’s goal, in fact, comes after United’s mid-press forced the ball into a blind alley, where Luciano Acosta and Yamil Asad forced a turnover. That approach wasn’t there before halftime.
So the plan worked, but let’s be real about why it worked. Which brings us to our next item:
Big players coming up big
Both of these teams fielded a Premier League veteran, an attacking midfielder acquired from an esteemed league, and a player with at least one MLS Best XI award on their resume. Let’s compare how they did:
Premier League veterans: Rooney had 2 goals and 1 assist, scoring the crucial second and setting up the third with some wonderful vision. Bacary Sagna...well, it wasn’t quite his night:
Kinda hard to overstate how bad Bacary Sagna's been tonight. #DCvMTL— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) September 30, 2018
Robbed of a goal in the first half by Hamid, Sagna became a liability as the game wore on. That’s him biting badly on a simple fake from Asad on the second goal. That’s him not recognizing how badly he needs to get into a full sprint on the third goal, giving Acosta the unimpeded run into the box. That’s him not really even showing interest in covering for Evan Bush on the fourth goal.
Attacking midfielders: Any comparison between the two playmakers brought in from good leagues is going to go to Acosta, who was brilliant. 1 goal, 3 assists, and all that jazz. Here, just take a second and watch MLS’s assist leader at work:
Saphir Taider, on the other hand? He was probably Montreal’s best attacking player, but 3 of his 4 key passes were from corners. He took 4 shots, but all of them were from over 25 yards out. He completed 55 of 65 passes, including a bunch of raking balls out to the wing, but United forced him to go to the right wing instead of the left. There’s a “but” every time, and I don’t mean the French word for “goal.”
MLS Best XI players: That last note about left vs. right is instructive. Ignacio Piatti was a non-factor throughout. United may not have had their tactical surprise go exactly as planned, but their efforts to shut down Montreal’s deadly left winger worked like a charm. He was held to 0 successful dribbles, and while he did post 2 key passes, they both came after the score was 3-0.
On the other hand, as we said above, Hamid was outstanding in the first half. His first save was tricky, the second was one he should be making, but the third, with Sagna getting an open shot from 9 yards? Classic Hamid, y’all. Again, if he’s not up for this game, we’re probably talking about a devastating loss.
Hey, what about Paul?
This is kind of a sneaky difference between the teams: Montreal has Piatti, Taider, and Sagna, and...some solid guys. United has Rooney, Acosta, and Hamid, of course, but they also have Arriola (and Asad, but this column is going long, so let’s focus on Arriola).
The talk around United, both on Buzzard Point and throughout MLS, is about Lucho and Señor Wayne, and rightly so. But we need to pay more attention to Arriola, who is only a USMNT-quality player who has become the direct, speedy X factor in a midfield full of indirect moving parts. This team doesn’t shred Montreal without him, and they aren’t in the playoff hunt without him.
Arriola is very quietly making a run at a 10g/10a season, which has long been an MLS benchmark for “this player was really really good this season.” He’s on 7g/8a right now, and making runs while Rooney, or Acosta, or Asad is on the ball means he could well get there in the final five games of the season. Remember that knock on Arriola in Liga MX, that he does a bunch of good stuff but doesn’t necessarily get on the scoresheet enough? That is no longer the case.
It’s not just the production, though. Look at him come from completely out of frame to save a probable Impact goal just seconds after United went up 2-0:
Big-time plays don’t just happen on offense. This play started with a long ball from inside Montreal’s half, leaving Arriola with all that ground to cover. Oniel Fisher is down injured (turned out to be a really bad one), Frederic Brillant ends up covering the empty net...there’s no one available to make this play if Arriola isn’t sprinting at top speed to get that tackle in. United paid a multi-million dollar transfer fee for plays like this just as much as they did for his attacking growth.
Swagger like us
Darren Mattocks is doing no-look backheels. Bill Hamid is doing the Mutombo finger wag. I can’t believe this shit.— Kimberly McCauley (@lgbtqfc) September 30, 2018
Yeah, that’s our life now. After nearly a full decade of soccer characterized by gritty play and hoping for one moment of inspiration at best, D.C. United is fun. Not fun by D.C. United standards, not even fun like 2016’s goalscoring outburst. There are few teams more worth watching in MLS than this Black-and-Red side at the moment. Their movement off the ball, the quick combinations, Acosta’s footwork, Rooney’s vision...this team puts on a show more often than not.
I don’t know what to tell you here really, other than to savor it. Savor the backheels, savor the goal celebrations. I don’t know where this team is going to end up. They could still flame out and miss the playoffs, or they could be a playoff nightmare for the rest of the East. All I know is that we’re going to remember the back half of this season for a long, long time.