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D.C. United 2018 season review: Junior Moreno

It took some time, but the Venezuelan became a fixture in the midfield

When D.C. United signed Junior Moreno, no one was entirely sure where he would line up within the squad. The assumption was that Russell Canouse would be back sooner rather than later, and would be first-choice as the defensive midfielder in the 4141 Ben Olsen favored at the time, while Moreno was billed as someone who could play as a #6 or as a #8. It seemed obvious that a player on Venezuela’s national team was going to push for time right away, but the whole thing felt very wait and see.

Moreno mostly looked the part when he arrived, but you know...mostly. Moreno would get through most of a game looking completely at home in MLS, only do make some kind of inexcusable defensive error, or a turnover right outside the box, or some other thing that wasn’t good. There were howls about him not being goal-side on Stefano Pinho on Orlando’s goal in the season opener, and the fact that he dropped too far into the area on Miguel Almiron’s game-winning goal in Atlanta eight days later.

But lost in those obviously large moments was an otherwise steady, reliable holding midfielder. Moreno plugged the gaps you would want him to; he clogged passing lanes when that was the right choice, and he stepped up to make a tackle when it was appropriate. United’s structure at the beginning of the season was chaotic, but handed a gargantuan task, Moreno was mostly (there’s that word again) up to it.

However, hamstring trouble reared its head for pretty much the only time all season for United (kudos to Jonny Northeast and the periodisation program United uses to avoid fatigue and muscular injuries). Moreno had to be substituted against Houston at “home,” sat out for 2 games, then came back for another “home” game only to be replaced at halftime with a relapse. Moreno missed the next three games, but remember, this was back when United just didn’t have many games. Those three games represented about six weeks on the calendar.

With Chris Durkin handling the job pretty well, Moreno had a fight on his hands to get time, and despite being available he was not used in July until the final game of the month, a 2-1 win over Colorado. At the time, it didn’t feel like a big turning point; after all, this was a game that required a 90th minute own goal by a forward to hand United a win over one of the worst teams in MLS.

But that night saw Moreno get his first start since early June, and it also saw Canouse make his first start of the season. We didn’t see the 4231 straight away (United had Canouse playing the #8 role in the 4141 at first, only to pull him back after taking the lead), but it was from this game onward that United got on the wonderful roll that pushed them above the red line and into the playoffs. It was the start of a five-game unbeaten run, and opened a long sprint to the end of the season that saw D.C. post an 11W-4D-2L record over just barely more than three months.

Moreno was mostly first-choice from then on, only missing games due to international call-ups or, in the case of the preposterous 3-2 win over Orlando, to rest him the two other games United faced that week. It was easy to see why: the move to 4231 changed United’s fortunes, and Moreno was a good partner for Canouse. Their playing styles mesh perfectly: Canouse is the ball-winner covering tons of ground, while Moreno stays home and makes sure that there’s nowhere to go in the spaces that leaves. There was no confusion about who stays and who goes, and Moreno crucially eliminated those once-a-game errors as the season wore on.

The data bears out a player whose job is mostly about taking options off the table for the opponent, rather than winning the ball over and over again. Only Canouse was more reliably able to connect his passes at a higher rate than Moreno’s 87%, and while he might not be able to play the incisive, game-changing passes that Durkin can, his rate of success with longer passes was comparable.

Defensive metrics also reflect favorably. Per WhoScored, Moreno was beaten on the dribble about 0.3 times per game, or a grand total of 5 times all season. That’s a sneaky-good indicator of whether a defensive midfielder is making it hard to get at the back four, particularly in zone 14. Looking through WhoScored’s data (which, I must note, changes from 0.3 on Moreno’s personal page to 0.4 on the league-wide table), this looks like the lowest per-game total of any starting defensive midfielder in MLS.

Here’s an illustrative contrast: in 2017, Marcelo Sarvas had the second-highest rate in MLS, being beaten on the dribble roughly 2.2 times per game. Remember how 2017 went? Remember how often the defense looked totally exposed? 0.3, or 0.4, is a whole lot better. This is certainly a rough indicator influenced by factors like Canouse being such a bulldog alongside him, but it’s a big plus that might otherwise go unnoticed.

All in all, Moreno’s adaptation to MLS was right on schedule for most signings from abroad that turn out well: half a season of showing promise but needing to adjust followed by being a solid starter in a tough position. Moreno managed it all while barely having to foul (1.23 per game, and only one yellow card all year) and without any other problems. That sounds like a good signing to me, and at a price point ($139,500 guaranteed this year) that most teams would kill for at this position.

Personally, I think this one’s easy, but we’re gonna ask nonetheless:


Do you want Junior Moreno back for the 2019 season?

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