D.C. United may have taken some time to really start to pick FC Cincinnati apart last night, but eventually they ended up romping to a 4-1 win against the expansion side. Cincy were stubborn opponents until the wheels fell off for them (they really crumbled when their good fortune of a laughable penalty kick call was followed up with the bad luck of a deflection helping United re-take the lead), but that’s one of the major differences between good and bad teams in MLS. United took their misfortune on the chin and rallied right back; Cincinnati were, in one moment, undone.
Looking back, let’s talk about three points from a game where United finally got three points:
United’s left side was dominant. Thanks Joseph Mora!
Right back Alvas Powell has had some good games against United over the years, and Yoann Damet dropped Allan Cruz back into his more natural defensive midfield role as the right-center midfielder in Cincinnati’s 4231. Emmanuel Ledesma stayed cognizant of his defensive duties, not straying too far forward. Cincinnati seemed to be thinking specifically about staying safe on their right side.
Two assists (those are in blue), plus Joseph Mora and Paul Arriola leading all players on the night in key passes (yellow) from open play, plus three of United’s four goals coming from that general region of the field. No matter whether it was Rodriguez or Arriola playing the left forward role in the 343, United tore FCC to shreds once they started to get their movement off the ball up to speed. Even Wayne Rooney’s goal came on a run that went across right-center back Justin Hoyte.
Throw-ins, solo runs, attacking possession, and runs off the ball for cross-field passes...it didn’t matter. Just about every time United put together a solid attack for the players on Cincinnati’s right side to figure out, they created danger.
That’s no accident, and the key is Mora. It’s not too complicated: Mora doesn’t just provide the extra runner by overlapping so regularly. It’s the speed with which he does it, and how well he picks his moments to do so. Sometimes Mora knows he has to put his head down and speed towards the endline; other times, he uses space early to play a ball in for Rooney, as he did on what became the game-winner.
We spent a lot of time lamenting his absence, and this stuff is what really sets him apart from the rest of United’s potential left backs.
Patience pays off in central midfield
Last week, Ben Olsen said part of the problem with this lineup in the first half was that the central midfield duo didn’t have a good showing, and that getting more out of them was the platform for everything else. “All [United] needed was our central midfielders to show a little bit better, and not go so direct, and we would be out the other side,” said United’s head coach.
Canouse and Junior Moreno did just that, completing 78 of their combined 84 pass attempts, and completing the patient, side-to-side passes that Olsen was talking about. In particular, they found the left side open time and again:
Canouse missed on one pass all night, and look where it is: inside Cincinnati’s box. Two of Moreno’s misplaced passes are those direct balls Olsen mentioned, but two in 90 minutes isn’t too bad at all. Mostly, they kept the ball moving, changing the angles and waiting for the openings to show themselves rather than forcing the ball. Don’t underrate that choice: in a game that saw few chances in the first half, dealing with a spell where D.C. had won once in eight games, it can be very difficult to maintain that patience.
It wasn’t perfect from United’s central midfield duo, but in possession it was pretty close, and that’s a big part of how United managed to turn their share of possession (they had 42.5% on the night thanks to Cincinnati’s attempt to slow the game down by knocking the ball around the back) into danger on a consistent basis in the game’s final 50 minutes. Sometimes, you just need to be able to wait.
Are we burying the lede here? Lucas Rodriguez, in the absence of Luciano Acosta, scored twice (doubling his season total) and added an assist, and we haven’t even talked about it. It would be incorrect to say he was a non-stop force, but when Cincy gave him some room, he made it count. His first goal was a very difficult shot to get right, his second involved two good decisions (the choice to stop suddenly, losing his marker, and then the decisiveness to immediately go for goal once Arriola passed to him), and his assist required a great read of Hoyte’s position as well as the right weight on his pass on an unfamiliar surface.
In other words, it’s the kind of performance we’ve been hoping for from Rodriguez. Games aren’t always going to be wide open for a player like him, and capitalizing on opposing mistakes is a major step towards becoming a factor every week.
But...after a big win featuring further progress in this formation and Rodriguez having plenty to build on in terms of confidence and form, what does United do now that Luciano Acosta is available? Based on form over the entire season, you’d have to lean towards dropping Rodriguez anyway, but that’s awfully harsh. Olsen could also move Arriola into a wingback role, but we’ve been over that before: United just isn’t as good without his movement in an attacking position.
Most likely, despite the win in the 343, Acosta’s return probably also comes with a switch back to 4231. But even that, assuming there’s no other major rotation, comes with a potentially big question: does Olsen choose Donovan Pines or Frederic Brillant at center back? Brillant is the cooler head thanks to his experience, but with Josef Martinez on a roll for Atlanta, the speed Pines brings to the table may well be of more immediate use.
In any case, United is going to have to move someone to the bench not because they’ve been playing badly, but rather because they have too many players with a viable argument to be a starter. Instead of the issue we had up until very recently, where the competition for starting roles was fairly low due to injuries and international call-ups, Olsen has the classic good problem for a coach to have.