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“We need to be better”: D.C. United looking at themselves after disappointing NYCFC defeat

United conceded a need to improve on various fronts after a third straight home game without a win

After two straight disappointing home results, D.C. United had two objectives against NYCFC yesterday: to win, obviously, but also to put in the kind of performance the Black-and-Red are demanding of themselves this year. Instead, United were on the end of a disheartening 2-0 loss in which they offered very little in the way of an attacking threat.

In a quiet locker room after the match, defender Steve Birnbaum was concise in summing up the team’s thoughts on the game: “It wasn’t good enough.”

“I think we tried to go too fast today... We were a little antsy in that way,” said Birnbaum on a day where Sean Johnson wasn’t forced to make a noteworthy save. But in Birnbaum’s eyes, it wasn’t just about the attack. “In moments defensively today, we need to be better. They could have had a couple more on us.”

Wayne Rooney had a similar take, pointing to a collective letdown. “We weren’t good enough on second balls and we didn’t create enough chances. So yeah, it is very disappointing.”

Dropping points in three straight home games is one thing, but United has now been shut out in three straight games on Buzzard Point.

While they did show some more familiar attacking punch in last week’s 3-2 win in Colorado — “We’ve gotta keep in mind that we did win a game last week,” noted head coach Ben Olsen during his post-game press conference — teams have managed to use a variety of tactical approaches to stifle the Black-and-Red at Audi Field. New York City FC resorted to a back five, relying on the technical qualities and soccer IQ of Maxi Moralez to spark their attack in transition.

“I just didn’t think it was a great nice from us, and on the other side, it was a great night for them,” said Olsen, acknowledging a strong showing from the previously winless visitors. “It wasn’t a terrible night from us soccer-wise, energy-wise, but they were just sharper in all of the facets of the game: in possession, out of possession, transition. The pulse, the bite, the desperation, the urgency, [NYCFC] were just better tonight.”

During this stretch of home games, United has run up against three very different foes. LAFC’s high pressure gave the league leaders openings in transition, while the Montreal Impact relied on pure defensive organization and risk avoidance in securing a 0-0 draw. This time around, NYCFC sat deep, but were always looking for opportunities to spring a counter-attack,

Asked about whether he was concerned about the team’s recent home showings, Olsen said “Yeah, I’m concerned that we haven’t been able to, over the last couple games, get a home win. But each game is a different dynamic. We’re dealing with some pieces out, and you miss one or two, and sometimes you’re just a little bit disjointed out there. It’s not clicking as well as you’d like it to be. That’s part of a season, and we’re going through that right now. You know, the way to fix that, or to get away with some of that being disjointed, is work, or fight, or set pieces. Figuring out ways to win, and that was a little lacking today. That concerns me.”

Still, there was an effort from United to not grow despondent. Aside from pointing out the recent road win, Olsen added that his team can’t “be too dramatic about the moment. We’ve got some injuries, and we’ve got to get through this period.”

Lucas Rodriguez offered a similar sentiment. “We’re not happy at all about the results. It was a game that we wanted to win, but they played well and they took our points... I think we need to keep improving, and we can’t dramatize the situation.”

Amid United’s current struggles, a frequent focus for fans has been Luciano Acosta’s muted start to the season. While Acosta hasn’t been outright poor, various indicators underline the general impression that he hasn’t been as sharp as his brilliant 2018 campaign. His 2 goals and 2 assists thus far are off last season’s pace, and he’s posted fewer key passes and completed fewer dribbles while being fouled more regularly (2.5 fouls suffered per 90 thus far, up from 2 per 90 last year).

Olsen summed up Acosta’s performance on the night as simply “Okay” before adding “He’s not at his best right now. Teams are doing a very good job on him as well, you see how many times he’s on the floor [due to opposing fouls]... Everybody circles him, everybody knows that he and Wayne are such a huge part of our attack. So, they obviously have to push and get better.”

Elaborating on the idea that Acosta has to respond to the tougher tactics, Olsen said “It’s about making the right decision, finding the next pocket, and working that extra bit to find the game.” United’s boss also pointed out that his side has to find a way to provide threats from players other than Acosta and Rooney, concluding that “We also have to support them [elsewhere] on the field, and have better performances so we don’t rely too heavily on them.”

It won’t get easier for D.C., who head to Columbus — where they haven’t won in nearly 12 years — mid-week before a trip to Minnesota next Sunday. On the topic of how his side could turn those games into better results, Rooney got right to the point: “I think we need to get back to being hard to beat, and resilient.”