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Three Things We Learned from D.C. United’s rain-soaked 1-0 win over Sporting Kansas City

You’d have thought United would make one of those set pieces pay off. You’d have been wrong. And that’s okay.

MLS: Sporting Kansas City at D.C. United Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

D.C. United started off their late-spring gauntlet of games the right way Sunday night, seeing off Sporting Kansas City 1-0 off of a fantastic curler from Paul Arriola. It’s a game in which the Black-and-Red were somehow both unlucky not to win by more and lucky to claim all three points.

In the end, a decently satisfying Mother’s Day result for los Capitalinos. So, what did we learn?

There’s a reason the 4231 is back

When Joseph Mora went down with a broken jaw at the end of March, Ben Olsen got a bit trickier tactically than we’re used to seeing him. After trying out a couple different guys in that left fullback spot, and after watching his normally potent attack go dry, he switched from the 4231 that had seen United through the second half of 2018 and the first month of 2019 to a 343-ish formation.

In the process, he gave homegrown rookie Donovan Pines his first first-team minutes. Pines, we all know, has impressed, but with his own injury (a meniscus tear) and the trade for natural left back Marquinhos Pedroso, the 4231 made an expected return Sunday night.

And it was good! I haven’t seen the chalkboard yet, but from my recollection, United won the ball up the pitch a lot more often against the Sporks than they had in recent weeks. D.C. were able to transition much more effectively than they’ve been, and they worked overloads on the flanks to much better effect.

The corner kicks and other set pieces United had on Sunday — and, there were a lot of them — were the source of most of the danger on the night (but ultimately not the goal, which came from open play), but those opportunities were the product of United’s better attacking play.

Most everyone looked better individually on the night than they had recently. I’m willing to put some of the credit for that on the formation, which is both more familiar and a better fit to the players on this roster.

It’s good to have the 3-back to turn to situationally. It’s better to be able to play the bread-and-butter again.

This team remains good at set pieces

No matter what system or formation Ben Olsen puts out there, we know that if Wayne Rooney is on the field, United will be dangerous on free kicks and corners. That was certainly the case tonight, as the captain’s corner kicks always seemed to find Steven Birnbaum at one post or the other. The father-to-be made things dangerous, registering a couple shots and generally creating chaos with his headers on those plays.

Add to that Rooney’s ability to go direct to goal — he forced a great save from Tim Melia early in this game — and United are among the best teams in the league on dead-ball situations. They didn’t score a goal off a set piece on Sunday, but they easily could have had one or two if a bounce had gone slightly differently.

Luckily, thanks to Paul Arriola (more on him below), they didn’t need those bounces to get the W. But we know there are nights they will, and it’s good to see the Black-and-Red threatening consistently on set pieces.

Bill Hamid continues to freestyle when called upon

United’s defense was pretty good against SKC. They allowed 11 shots on the night, none from inside the six-yard box, and obviously kept the clean sheet. At least a couple of the visitor’s opportunities came as the result of slips on the wet surface by United defenders.

All in all, a pretty good night for centerbacks Steven Birnbaum and Frederic Brillant — and fullbacks Leonardo Jara and Marquinhos Pedroso and defensive midfielders Junior Moreno and Russell Canouse, too, while we’re at it. But Bill Hamid still had to step up for the big save to keep United in front.

And, of course, that’s exactly what he did, making the reaction save on a header from a corner kick. It wasn’t the flying, sprawling type of save that makes most highlight reels, but a lot of ‘keepers wouldn’t have come up with that stop on a downward header. Bill Hamid (Bill! Bill! Hamid!) did, and United won in part because of it.

That said, a few too many spaces opened up in the box during the late stages for my liking, and in those moments it was bad finishing from Sporting, rather than Bill Hamid, that let D.C. off the hook. Hamid may well have made those saves, but he didn’t have to, thankfully. With a one-goal lead (and an extra D-mid in there after Chris Durkin subbed in), I’d really prefer not to see those kinds of chances.

Bonus thing: You get a yellow for taking off your shirt, but not your shoe!

I was originally mulling an item saying something about several players, foremost Paul Arriola, having a solid game but being just *this* far off on his final ball. And then #7 went and scored what ought to be a Goal of the Week candidate to win the game.

So instead, I’ll say that Arriola celebrated his golazo by taking off one of his cleats and using Maxwell Smart-style it to dial up his late father, who some of you will remember passed away last year. A great tribute worthy of the goal.

(As an aside, it’s dumb that players get an automatic yellow for taking their shirt off. That rule was initially put in place because taking a shirt off delays the restart of the game. But so do most celebrations! Many of them take even longer than putting a shirt back on — just to pull an example out of thin air, taking off your shoe as part of a celebration. FIFA should relax and recognize that soccer is fun, and let the players take of their dumb shirts. End aside/rant.)

Anyway, Arriola covered more ground than any reasonable human being ought to, winning recoveries in United’s box on one end of the field and running at defenders to set up scoring chances at the other. Classic kind of night for the hardest working and handomest man in MLS.

That’s what I’m taking away in the immediate aftermath of the 1-0 win on Buzzard Point. We won’t have to wait long to learn some more about this team, with a Wednesday night trip to Toronto looming (and a game in Houston on Saturday).

Let us know in the comments what caught your eye.