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Win over Philadelphia Union gives D.C. United glimpse of strengths and weaknesses

The Black-and-Red have two weeks before the Orlando City opener to work on several areas

With more than a week in between preseason friendlies, D.C. United had a chance to get healthier, and work together as a team after a 2-1 loss to Malmö FF. Against the Philadelphia Union in the Suncoast Invitational Saturday evening, there evident pluses and minuses for the team as they continued their preseason prep with a 2-1 win over the Union. Darren Mattocks scored once again, while Yamil Asad and David Ousted made their debuts for the club, each playing 45 minutes.

And while the late winner from Luciano Acosta gave United their first win of the preseason, Head Coach Ben Olsen still had a couple of issues to focus on after the game.

“There are a lot of things to work on, which is normal at this point of the preseason,” Olsen said to media after the game. “Ball retention is still kind of an issue. And we saw today, giving the ball away cheaply, and not securing possession when we win it, was one of the areas that we needed to be better.”

The ball retention issue was clearly evident in the first half, after Mattocks had given United the lead in the 14th minute. For most of the rest of the half, United struggled to get through the Union in their own half, struggling to even get the ball forward to create chances. That led to giving up a fair amount of scoring chances, including a penalty kick that Steve Clark saved.

That said, there were several bright spots for United, two of whom combined for United’s first goal. Zoltan Stieber’s deflected delivery was the catalyst for Mattocks’ goal against Malmö last week. Against Philadelphia, Stieber’s perfectly placed left-footed cross found Mattocks at the far post, who bounced a header home for his second goal of the preseason.

“I saw Zoltan, and he’s got a sweet left foot,” Mattocks said of his new teammate after the game. “We’ve been working in practice all week, whipping it in to the far post. I saw him lift up his head, I knew he was going to the back post, so I just nodded in.”

Stieber started the game out centrally, as United trotted out in a 4-1-4-1 formation. He was partnered in the midfield by Ulises Segura, though he had the freedom to drift out wide, as he did in delivering the assist for Mattocks. In the second half, when Acosta came on for Asad, Stieber moved back to the left hand flank, a spot he told B&RU he is more comfortable in.

“These games are for trying something new out. We have a lot of guys in the midfield, so everybody has to be open for every spot,” the Hungarian international told B&RU in a post game interview. “Obviously it is good for me that I can play on both sides, and in the middle as well. I’m feeling calm on the wing the most, but if I have to play in the middle, that’s okay.”

But for a player who has plenty of competition for playing time, Stieber certainly put in the kind of performance that will make it hard for Olsen to put him one the bench, even when the full compliment of attacking midfielders are available for the second week of the season against Atlanta United (Acosta is suspended for the opener against Orlando City).

And in doing so, Stieber earned the praise of Mattocks, who had several more chances in the second half to capitalize on service from Stieber.

“He’s a good player. And when you play with good players, it’s easy to play,” Mattocks said after the game of Stieber. “We have a good combination. He knows my style of play, he knows I love to get in behind. So hopefully that goes true throughout the season.”

Stieber’s main competition for playing time, the newly arrived Asad, had himself a quiet 45 minutes in his team debut. But among the new arrivals, he was the last to join up with the club, and has to get his fitness on a similar level to the rest of the team before he can get into a groove, according to Olsen.

“We have to get Yamil up to speed, because he has not been with the team as long as some of the other [new players],” said Olsen after the game. “Right now we are pushing him, giving him extra fitness to get him to where some of the other guys are. It’s tough to play while you’re working on your fitness. When he rounds the corner, he’s going to be a great piece for us.”

Saturday night marked United’s only test this preseason against MLS competition. Their final two games are against the Jacksonville Armada, who will play this year in the fourth level of American soccer (NPSL) after the NASL went on hiatus, and against USL newcomers Las Vegas Lights FC, who have had two memorable friendlies already this year, their first as a club (Seriously, check out this quick Twitter recap of Saturday’s friendly against the Vancouver Whitecaps).

The next time United will face off against a MLS foe, it will be the opening week of the 2018 season. So Saturday night’s tilt against the Union gave Olsen a chance to size up his squad against the kind of competition his team is preparing for, as well as giving him a marker on what needs to be worked on in the next two weeks.

“It was nice to play a MLS team, and size ourselves up against the caliber of team that we’ll be looking at shortly,” said Olsen. “[We need to work on] continuing to secure possession when we win it. Understanding how we press, when we press, and being more cohesive on the defensive side.”