The excuses were there last night for D.C. United. The opponent, Atlanta United, was expected to rotate due to their Concacaf Champions League duties, but opted to field a virtually full-strength team. The game was played in absolutely miserable mid-Atlantic winter weather, with rain falling throughout the match and temperatures hovering just above freezing. A somewhat unconvincing preseason left the feeling that there was work to be done to get back to 2018’s heights.
Instead, the Black-and-Red posted a convincing performance, seeing off the MLS Cup champions 2-0 before 16,942 hearty souls at Audi Field. Paul Arriola’s goal just before the first half expired broke things open for United, and Luciano Acosta’s 58th minute goal rewarded United for a dominant second half. Bill Hamid didn’t register a save until the 69th minute, and D.C. held an attack featuring Golden Boot winner Josef Martinez to just two shots on goal (nine total attempts, nearly all of which came from over 20 yards out) over 90 minutes.
In other words, a good night at the office.
“I’m really pleased at the performance overall,” said head coach Ben Olsen after his team won their opening game for the first time since 2015. “There [weren’t] a lot of bad performances for us, and that’s what you need.”
United capped off a sterling second half with Acosta’s goal, a strike that knuckled wickedly in the downpour. It proved to be a critical goal, as Atlanta was preparing to bring in reigning CONMEBOL Player of the Year Gonzalo ‘Pity’ Martinez and starting wingback Julian Gressel. “The timing of the goals [was] big: one before the half, and then one before they made some big substitutions,” acknowledged Olsen.
Acosta, via a translator, said that part of his decision to shoot was down to the slick conditions. “I shot because I knew the difficulties the goalkeepers were facing. We tried it before and the ball rebounded, so I tried again and luckily I got the goal.” Wayne Rooney agreed, adding that “We knew it would be tough for the goalkeepers, and I think you see [Acosta’s] goal, it was tough for Guzan in goal.”
Olsen took time to cite his other goalscorer, Paul Arriola, who put in a typically energetic display. “He’s been fantastic throughout the preseason. When we first got Paul, it was ‘Paul’s selfless, and he works hard, and tactically he’s sound, technically he’s good, just lacking that final product,’ putting numbers up. And you saw last year, that kinda changed, and he’s off to a good start in that category so far.”
At the other end, a major key to the game was United’s overall defensive performance, as they kept their shape comfortably despite facing a talented team who piled up plenty of possession (56% per Opta). Olsen credited his back four as well as defensive midfield duo Russell Canouse and Junior Moreno for containing Josef Martinez and the rest of the Five Stripes’ attack.
“Steve [Birnbaum] and Fred [Brillant] did a very good job of defending the box, dealing with service. Fred, the back four, I think Junior Moreno and Russell Canouse did a good job dealing with [Martinez] and making sure he didn’t get a lot of looks. I don’t know how many first contacts [with the ball] he had in the box tonight, but I don’t think it was many. It was a pretty good performance from them,” said Olsen.
Nonetheless, United’s boss was not in a rush to let his side get ahead of themselves, pointing out more than once that he’d take this result with “a grain of salt,” adding “I think you saw two different teams today. You saw a fatigued group from Atlanta, although it was really good performance and a mature performance from us... With the schedule that they’ve had, maybe we didn’t get their best punch. But in this league, you have to take advantage of those days, and I think we did that for most of the night.”
Atlanta’s CCCL adventures appeared to be on Olsen’s mind, as he later added “I’ve been in Concacaf, I’ve mixed up lineups, been on planes going back and forth to Central America, and it’s a grind. I wish them all the best of luck Wednesday [against Monterrey].”
Still, United were quite pleased with the work they put in on the night.
“When the fixtures were out, we thought it was a great opportunity for us to not only try to start the season well, but to put a marker down to the other teams watching,” said Rooney. “I think we performed really well... Once you are back here at Audi Field with the crowd behind you, we had to perform.”