Wednesday saw D.C. United dig deep to hold off Orlando City. It certainly wasn’t a vintage performance once you take away Wayne Rooney’s wonder strike, but it was a much-needed positive result for a team that hadn’t won a 90-minute game since May 12. However, the news after the match wasn’t all good:
We’ve been saying on this site, whether in written or podcast form, that Mora is a key piece of the puzzle for United. It’s not just that left back is an important position for how United goes about their business, but rather that Mora is the kind of player who does a lot of under-appreciated “little things” that make the team better.
Turns out that our conclusion, from the eye test and what crude data is out there, is apparently borne out in further detail by United’s own internal data. After Wednesday’s game, Ben Olsen said that the team’s data analysis has backed up just how vital Mora is.
“This data...came across our desk about a month ago about how important he is to our attack. It’s not that he sets up the final play. He’s two or three passes away from really positive play going forward,” said Olsen about Mora’s importance in United’s attacking build-up. “He’s a huge part of us being a successful team in possession, attacking, [and] defensively.”
The injury is also terribly cruel timing to Mora, who missed all of April and May with a jaw injury that required surgery. Olsen said that he believed Mora was “a game away from being [fully] fit” after the win over Orlando, but now that timeline basically resets for what sounds like a three or four week recovery period, as is pretty normal for sprained ankles.
Joseph Mora was the victim of a pretty bad tackle from Orlando fullback Ruan, but we’re not here to work out just how mad this fanbase should be at the same guy costing Mora another month or so of a season where he’s already lost 10 weeks to a broken jaw. We’re hear to figure out what Ben Olsen’s reaction will be.
Let’s assume we’re talking about the full four weeks. That means finding an acceptable work-around for the following games:
- 6/29 vs. Toronto FC
- 7/4 at FC Dallas
- 7/12 vs. New England Revolution
- 7/18 at FC Cincinnati
- 7/21 at Atlanta United
- 7/24 vs. Olympique Marseille
- 7/27 at Chicago Fire
That’s five Eastern Conference games, which is to say that’s five games that are vital to United’s pursuit of a favorable spot in the playoffs. It also includes four games in nine days at the end of the month that will probably require rotation (it’s July, after all). Maybe, if things go pretty well, we could see Mora get some rehab minutes in that friendly against Marseille.
With Chris Odoi-Atsem out for some of this time with a hip flexor strain, Mora’s absence will be felt even more keenly. Here are Olsen’s options now that we’re back to seeing multiple fullbacks unavailable:
Ask Jalen Robinson to fill in
Robinson has been at his best playing centrally, and if he’s not in the middle, he’s far more of a right back than a left back. On the plus side, he can offer similar speed and lateral quickness, which has been a factor whenever Mora has been out. On the other hand, you know you’re not going to get much out of Robinson in the attacking phases, because he’s a center back playing out of position. And given that United’s attack has been crying out for a wider range of threats, that’s a big deal.
Plug in Marquinhos Pedroso, the only actual natural left back available
Pedroso made a pretty bad first impression, losing Tommy McNamara on what turned out to be Houston’s game-winner and then putting himself in a bad position in marking Juan Agudelo on a goal to a 10-man Revolution in a 1-1 draw a week later.
However, two games shortly after arriving on a trade are a pretty small sample size, and in 2018 Dallas fans and observers seemed pretty solidly united in referring to Pedroso as being very reliable defensively. I’m with them: the guy can play, and we shouldn’t necessarily let two mistakes outweigh half a season of evidence that points in the other direction.
That said, there are issues here. Between his errors, Odoi-Atsem’s surprising good form immediately after returning from Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and the Open Cup’s international restrictions, Pedroso has not played a game since getting the hook in that game against New England on May 25. United could have perhaps kept him fit with a one-game loan down to Loudoun a couple of weeks ago, but a) loaning an established veteran down like that is not something teams do lightly, and b) what’s done is done. They didn’t, so he’s probably not very sharp at the moment.
The other issue is similar to one we’ll be dealing with if it’s Robinson. Pedroso doesn’t contribute much going forward even at his best. He’s a lefty, at least, but United’s attack will be weaker even if this option ends up working out. I’ll go on record and say that I think this is the option that feels most likely to work out, though I’d hardly put money on it.
Give Chris McCann the gig
McCann was Mora’s immediate replacement the last time the Costa Rican was injured, but his lack of speed was immediately exposed by a very fast Orlando side. He was roasted by Carlos Vela a week later (though in his defense Vela is ripping every MLS defender to shreds), and then struggled to cope with Montreal’s pacey forwards. Olsen responded back then with a switch to a 3421, and then the Pedroso trade, so obviously it was more than just a couple of unfortunate match-ups.
Looking at the schedule, there are some games coming up where McCann isn’t necessarily going to be as vulnerable. TFC, for example, is probably going to put a team on the field that is less about speed and more about technique and soccer IQ. McCann’s experience could do well in those circumstances, but you probably wouldn’t want to call on him against a quick Dallas attack or the pure athleticism that the Revs bring to the table.
It feels likely that McCann won’t be the main option during this spell, but he probably will get a start or two at left back.
Free Akeem Ward
Ward played some left back at Creighton, but as a pro his only game at that spot is the friendly against Real Betis. He’s also just come back from injury, and seems far more likely to spend some time with Loudoun (perhaps even tonight?).
Even if the plan for most of this month or so without Mora is Ward, he probably needs a game or two to rebuild his fitness and to adapt to being on his less-preferred side.
Pick someone until the Gold Cup ends, then move Paul Arriola back there
Look, this might happen, but D.C. desperately needs Arriola as part of their attack. It’d be worth it to take a big risk at the back to get him out there on the wing.
Bring back the 3421
United has gone 3W-1D-1L in games where they’ve started in this formation, and with Donovan Pines back fit, it’s certainly got its appeal. However, the same problems that have been there all along remain. United doesn’t really have natural wingbacks, with Leonardo Jara too slow and guys like Arriola, Ulises Segura, and Lucas Rodriguez all better off in the 4231 rather than having to play deep.
It’s also worth noting that those results have largely involved doing a ton of defensive work and being very opportunistic going forward. United’s win in Colorado was mostly down to pouncing when the Rapids lost belief for a brief spell at the end of the first half. In Columbus, Rooney’s free kick goal was pretty much all the Black-and-Red offered going forward. Only the 3-1 home win over the Crew was at all convincing, and is beating a team that’s lost 9 of their last 11 games really that impressive?
Above all of that, though, is the simple fact that United wanted to use the Gold Cup break to get back to their foundations as a team. Playing out of a 4231 is very much a part of that, and abandoning it after one game because of one injury would undo a lot of the good that time at training may have done. There’s a philosophical investment to playing out of that formation. There’s also the issue of dealing with how Pedroso and McCann in particular might perceive a scenario where changing everything is preferable to putting them into a game.