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Confident Luciano Acosta is leading D.C. United’s playoff charge

The Argentine is playing at his best as United close in on a playoff spot

Over the course of his first two and a half seasons with D.C. United, there was plenty of times when Luciano Acosta would get the ball in the box, with an opportunity to score a goal, and wasted the chance. The Argentine play-maker, who made the move to the States from Boca Juniors back in February 2016, had nine goals in 75 games to his name before the arrival of Wayne Rooney in July this year. A decent total for a creative player.

But on so many of those occasions, Acosta would look to be the supplier for someone else, passing up scoring opportunities.

“How many games have you seen where he gets himself in these great spots in the box?” Acosta’s coach, Ben Olsen, said during an interview with B&RU on Friday afternoon, referencing Acosta hesitancy in front of goal for the past two years.

With the arrival of Rooney though, Acosta has reached a new plateau, having scored eight goals since Rooney’s debut. For the month of September, in which he scored four goals and had six assists in five games, Acosta was given the MLS Player of the Month award, as the Black-and-Red got within two points of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

“Something has clicked where he now understands how to manufacture goals,” added Olsen. “So many times, the ball from Yamil [Asad], he cuts that back five months ago. He doesn’t take the touch, and understand that he can change the game in that moment,” Olsen said of Acosta’s goal last weekend against the Montreal Impact, in United’s 5-0 win.

The payoff of course has been United’s ascendancy up the table in the Eastern Conference. Before the July 14th opening of Audi Field, the Black-and-Red were cemented to last place in the East. Rooney, the return of Russell Canouse, Paul Arriola’s efficiency in front of goal, have all aided United as they currently sit in 7th place, just two points off of a playoff spot.

The real breakout though has come from Acosta. He notched his first career hat trick in August against Orlando City, netting a late winner from Rooney’s heroics in chasing down Will Johnson. In September, Acosta scored twice against Atlanta United, assisted twice against Minnesota United, and notched goals and assists against both the Impact and New York Red Bulls.

“I do feel that I’m at a great level. I’m playing my best,” Acosta said last weekend through a translator, in response to a question from B&RU asking if he thought he was playing the best he ever had in his career. “There are things to improve. But continue believing, continuing growing, continue working hard and getting better, that’s what makes you better every day.”

When Acosta first joined United in 2016, he took some time getting adjusted to the league, unsurprisingly, given he was moving to a foreign country at a young age. He wasn’t a surefire starter week in and week out early on, and he had just a goal and four assists to his name before the arrivals of Lloyd Sam and Patrick Mullins in July of that year. He finished that campaign with 3 tallies and 11 helpers in a solid, yet not overachieving firsts year.

Last year, as United struggled, Acosta went through peaks in valleys in form. His goals went up to five, but his assists fell down to five over the course of the season, as United finished the year with just 33 points. Acosta’s modest production continued for the first half of this season, most of which was spent on the road.

All of that added up, it’s made Acosta’s recent tear all the more surprising.

“His growth was slow. He was growing, but he certainly changed the trajectory of his growth over the last couple of months,” Olsen said after the Montreal game last week, talking about how Acosta was starting to exceed even his expectations. “It’s coincided with Wayne’s arrival. He’s been a lot of fun to watch.”

Rooney, having spent so much time in England playing with world class players while with Manchester United, recently compared Acosta to Carlos Tevez, when asked who Acosta reminded Rooney of as a teammate on the field. But even Rooney noticed Acosta’s hesitancy in front of goal when he first got here, prodding United’s number 10 to take more chances in front of goal.

“I’ve said to him a few times he should have shot when he hasn’t,” Rooney said in the locker room after last month’s win over Atlanta. “I think he’s starting to enjoy scoring goals. He’s just been clinical.”

“Credit to him for what he’s doing,” Arriola added of Acosta after the Impact game. “It seems like anything he’s touching now is a goal.”

For all the talk of Acosta’s exploits offensively, his manager couldn’t help but point out Acosta’s work defensively as well. For as much joy it must bring Olsen to see his side go out and score goals every game, many of his tactical principals are rooted in a strong defensive performance.

Acosta hasn’t always been up to that task, whether it’s been high pressing as a team, or defending in United’s half. But as Acosta has improved in front of goal, so has his work rate on the other side of the ball, as Olsen noted when talking to B&RU on Friday.

“What people aren’t talking about with Lucho is his willingness to work his ass off for the team defensively,” said Olsen. “He’s in very good spots, so we consistently group defend. And there were times where we weren’t able to do that, he wasn’t in the right spot.”

“That part has really improved,” added United’s manager. “I know he’s getting a lot of accolades for the finishing, but in some ways, I’m more proud of him for his defensive efforts.”

United host the Chicago Fire this weekend, and might have a chance to get into a playoff spot for the first time this season. At the same time, Acosta could become the first D.C. player since Jaime Moreno in 2008 to notch at least 10 goals and 10 assists in a season, needing just one more strike to accomplish the task. And with a gluttony of assist in the last three games, Acosta currently leads the entire league in helpers with 16.

All of this will mean more, for Acosta, for United, if the Black-and-Red find a way into the playoffs in 2018. That’s always the goal for D.C., even given United’s awkward schedule while waiting for Audi Field. If they fail to do so though, the form of Acosta over the second half of the season will be plenty to build on for 2019.

On the other hand, if United do get into the playoffs, their a good chance that it’ll be down to the exploits of Acosta.

“Right now, he’s a killer in front of goal,” said Olsen on Friday. “He needs to continue pushing us forward.”