D.C. United’s unbeaten preseason continued tonight, with the Black-and-Red emerging 1-0 victors over the Tampa Bay Rowdies in a game with few genuine chances. Paul Arriola nabbed the game’s only goal in the 34th minute, while Wayne Rooney’s 40th minute diving header goal was waved off by VAR.
Ben Olsen sent out what may well be his first-choice eleven, with the only change from a 1-1 draw with FC Cincinnati 9 days ago being Rooney’s return up top as the lone striker.
The Rowdies were not intimidated by that strong lineup, though, and nearly scored in the game’s first 25 seconds. United turned the ball over straight from their kickoff, and the throw-in caught Leonardo Jara pushed up the field. Antoine Hoppenot and Sebastian Guenzatti combined before the latter picked out the late run of Andrew Tinari, whose near-post header went mercifully wide.
United began growing into the match after those first ten minutes, though they still found Tampa Bay’s sturdy back three tough to pry apart. Rooney’s 21st minute free kick glanced off the wall and out for a corner, which saw a Rowdies defender nearly slice the ball in for an own goal after Acosta’s service from the left caught him off guard.
United’s attempts to play out of the back against pressure went awry in the 25th minute, with the Rowdies forcing a turnover on the right flank. Tampa worked the ball to the other side, where David Najem teed Dominic Oduro up for a shot that Bill Hamid saved easily. A 33rd minute break forward by Leo Fernandes saw the former Philadelphia Union man get past multiple United defenders before picking out Guenzatti, who perhaps rushed his shot before blazing just inches over the bar.
United replied in the best way possible, taking the lead just a minute later. Mora came up to take a throw deep in Tampa’s end along the left side, finding Acosta. United’s #10 played a quick one-two with Zoltan Stieber that completely cut three Rowdies defenders out of the play, and from the endline Acosta rolled the ball into the goalmouth for Arriola, who got across his marker to prod the ball past McCarthy from three yards out.
Guenzatti was livid with Franz in the 36th minute, after the referee opted not to call a penalty. Poku’s ball over the top picked out Guenzatti, who went down along the endline after contact from Jara. Franz got a call from VAR, but ultimately opted not to review the call.
The game’s tempo was picking up, and a sublime pass from Acosta in the 38th minute picked out Jara on the overlap, and the new signing from Boca Juniors saw his first-time shot denied by McCarthy at the near post.
Stieber and Arriola switched flanks after Arriola made a slashing run in the 39th minute, and it appeared to pay off in the 40th. Again from a throw-in, Jara tossed the ball to Russell Canouse, who touched the ball to Stieber. With the Rowdies standing off of the Hungarian, Stieber curled a lovely left-footed cross into the box, where a wide-open Rooney produced a diving header to put the ball past McCarthy. Tampa asserted that Rooney (or Acosta) was offside, and Franz consulted VAR before opting to chalk the goal off.
During the VAR break, Jara — who had picked up a knock in the first 15 minutes of the match — was subbed off, with Arriola moving to right back and Ulises Segura coming in on the right wing.
Acosta made way for Akeem Ward at halftime, with Arriola up into Acosta’s spot while the rookie took over at right back. Ward got involved early, springing Arriola behind the defense with a 54th minute pass that the Rowdies were forced to knock behind for a corner kick that didn’t pan out.
United were on the front foot, controlling possession for long stretches to start the half, but genuine chances were few and far between. Arriola tracked back to strip Oduro of the ball near the midfield stripe before leading a charge into the box, but ultimately Segura was cleanly defended after Rooney’s backheel, allowing Tampa to escape.
Chris Durkin replaced Canouse on the hour mark before the Rowdies swapped out no fewer than seven players. Rooney nearly caught up to a sloppy back pass from Tampa in the 64th minute only for McCarthy to swoop in first, while Oduro’s 30 yarder about two minutes later didn’t make Hamid work.
Some fine work from Arriola saw him slip Stieber into a gap in the defense in the 68th minute, but the latter just hesitated for a moment, letting Tampa get back into shape. He dished the ball left to Rooney, whose low cross very nearly picked out Arriola for a second goal, but McCarthy got down just in time to palm the ball out of danger.
The Black-and-Red seemed to be finding major gaps after the wave of substitutions, which caused some opportunities. Stieber’s free kick service was inches away from being turned in, while Stieber’s lovely service over the top in the 70th minute picked Rooney out in the box. Rooney improvised, shooting early despite the ball being in an awkward spot, but McCarthy did just enough to tip the ball wide. United’s one corner became another, but Durkin’s header on the second service went wide, leaving the score 1-0.
United remained dedicated to playing out of the back against Tampa’s high press, and finally got some better results in the 74th minute. However, a promising build-up ended as Durkin collided with a Rowdies player, getting a talking-to from Franz after the foul was called.
Olsen made a line change of his own, replacing 8 players in the 77th minute. United carried on in the 4231, with Earl Edwards Jr. taking over in goal. The back four consisted of Ward, Donovan Pines, Jalen Robinson, and academy player Allexon Saravia. Durkin was paired with DCU academy player Bryang Kayo at defensive midfield, while further forward the attacking midfield spots went to Shinya Kadono (recently handed a deal to play for Loudoun United), Segura, and academy attacker Griffin Yow. Trialist Kyle Murphy was the final sub, replacing Rooney up top.
The Black-and-Red were hoarding possession, but a quick Rowdies attack nearly leveled the score. Wingback Yann Ekra fired in a cross from the right wing that picked out a Tampa trialist, who escaped his marker only to see his header bounce less than a foot wide of the back post.
Though the Rowdies did make a stoppage-time push to level the scores, that miss proved to be the final genuine chance for either side as United managed to successfully defend several crosses from the right flank. The Black-and-Red will be back in action Wednesday afternoon, as they’ll face the Philadelphia Union in Clearwater, FL at 4:00pm on February 20.