A dreary drizzle met D.C. United at their last open-to-media training session of the 2020 preseason, but the Black-and-Red had a positively sunny attitude heading into their 25th season opener tomorrow against the Colorado Rapids. As with just about every team in MLS, there is genuine optimism, but for United — after adding players like Edison Flores and Julian Gressel — there’s hope that the team can be both more effective, and more fun to watch.
United has focused on being able to press opposing teams higher up the field, and on being better at playing out of the back. Those are marked changes from how the team finished 2019, and at least in the one preseason game that fans could watch, there are signs that they can make the switch.
Speaking with Black and Red United, Steven Birnbaum reiterated a point that has come up throughout the preseason. “We always have the box defending in our locker. It’s one of those things where we don’t want to be [that deep]. Obviously that’s a better chance for them to score the closer they get to goal, so we feel if we can turn the ball over more in their half, we’re gonna be more effective.”
Head coach Ben Olsen emphasized that it requires a certain kind of courage from individual players to play this way. “We are asking them to be a bit more brave in how we build, a bit more brave in how we re-press, and press a little bit higher up the field,” though he did also note that if a team wants to over-commit to a high press, United is still willing to go direct if need be.
Addressing some of the changes to his own role, Birnbaum noted that the job of defending doesn’t end when United pushes up on the attack. “It’s really about defensive midfielders, the center backs, and the outside backs being really tuned into active marking while we have the ball, and reading the game while it’s going on, and just being in tune the whole time, because once the ball turns over, we have to be able to react quicker.”
Olsen, for his part, doesn’t expect United to use their new style flawlessly right away. “It’s never perfect the first month. Everybody’s scratching for points with an imperfect team. Still trying to figure out who they are. But you know, it’s important to do a lot of the little things so you can try to amass as many points as early as possible.”
It can be tough for teams to put in a ton of time scouting their first opponents of the season, particularly when the two sides held their training camps in different locations. While United toiled in Florida, the Rapids spent time in California, leaving both sides without much to go on heading into the opener.
“The way that they ended the season last year was very impressive...I think they got better in the back line, Lalas [Abubakar] was there last year, now he’s there permanently. I think they’re very dangerous going forward,” said Julian Gressel of a Colorado side that, despite missing the playoffs last year, finished tied for third in MLS with 58 goals scored on the year. “[It] definitely won’t be easy.”
“I expect them to be very organized, and playing in a little bit of a different way than they have over the last couple years. I think they’ll be, with the ball in possession and out of possession, in sync and very clear on their objectives and how they wanna go about the game,” said Olsen.
Gressel’s new home, and new position
Gressel’s whirlwind of a preseason off the field has continued, with the newcomer using the couple days off after the club returned from Florida to get the ball rolling on moving into his new apartment. Between time spent in Atlanta, brief trips to the D.C. region for training here, and two stints in Florida, Gressel hasn’t even had much of a chance to look around his new city. He said he plans on taking his first real look around the city after the game, and will have some family members over from Germany to see his United debut.
That debut looks like it will come in a somewhat unfamiliar position, as Olsen played Gressel as part of a central midfield trio in a 433 in the preseason finale. While Gressel had some central experience with Atlanta United and in college with Providence, there’s still an adjustment for a player mostly known for his ability out on the right touchline.
“It’s gotten better over the last couple weeks. I’ve trained quite a [bit] in there. It’s just a process. I knew that it wasn’t going to be perfect right away,” explained Gressel. However, that’s not to say he lacks in confidence that he can adapt to the new responsibilities. “I think that I have a lot of qualities that can come out in that position. If that’s popping out to the right, if that’s being a little more advanced as more of a 10 at times, or if it’s just a fight and a scrap, I don’t shy away from that either.”
Olsen, who added that Gressel is already showing some leadership within the squad, agreed with both points. “Each week, he looks more comfortable...It’s a little bit of a different role than he’s used to, but one that he’s embracing. Again, I think he’s figuring it out as each week goes by. He’s a smart player, another guy with a high IQ that understands the concepts that we wanna see out of him in that spot. His playmaking ability doesn’t have to be always out wide. He’s a guy that can probe with balls on the ground to Ola, our wide guys, and in that spot he’ll still get into spots to have service out wide.”
Perhaps most importantly, Olsen believed that the new role can take Gressel to a level beyond what has already been a successful MLS career. “I think in the role we have him right now, he can do more for us than he did with Atlanta.”
Flores and Asad “good to go”
United’s injury list is relatively short, with only Paul Arriola and Donovan Pines ruled out at this point. The main concerns center around Edison Flores and Yamil Asad, who were both only deployed for only part of United’s preseason finale against Philadelphia. Flores played the first 45 minutes on the right wing, while Asad replaced him (moving to the left) for half an hour. With the club not wanting to push Asad too hard and risk a setback, Emmanuel Boateng finished the final 15 minutes.
“He’s good to go,” said Olsen when asked whether Asad would be available. “Yamil is extremely motivated to get back into the squad... We’ll evaluate it this week.”
Flores, meanwhile, is in line to start, though he may not quite go the full 90. “We played him 45, he got through that the other day. A full week of training, he’s gonna [play for] more than that. We’re always evaluating, whether it’s the data or just eyes on him and experience of knowing when a player is fading physically. So we’ll use those to monitor him this weekend,” said Olsen.
Defensive additions incoming?
United still has former Chicago and Seattle center back Jonathan Campbell on trial, while Kevin Garcia (formerly with the Houston Dynamo) also participated in training. Olsen admitted that it’s “no secret” that United wants solid reinforcements, and with the club usually opting to let trialists depart before the season begins, the odds seem to be in favor of at least one (and possibly both) being offered a deal.
That said, Olsen did make sure to add that the projected starters had all done well during the preseason, and added that Chris Odoi-Atsem and Oniel Fisher both avoided any setbacks as they look to compete for time in the near future. With Loudoun United kicking off their season in eight days, it wouldn’t be a shock to see that duo make some appearances for Ryan Martin to take the next step fitness-wise.
Paul Arriola was not present for training, just days after starting his rehabilitation process after successful surgery to repair his ACL. However, Olsen said that the USMNT winger is still very much involved.
“Off the field, it’s not gonna change too much, as far as in the locker room, in the group, because Paul’s gonna be around. Paul’s said to me that he wants to be around and still help this team,” explained Olsen. “[Arriola is a] bilingual guy who’s so selfless, high IQ, understands the game. He’s already, even the week after he was injured, he was speaking up in meetings. He’s super engaged in the group and how we do.”
Still, there’s no getting around the fact that United has lost one of their best players for months, and Olsen didn’t pull any punches about the job in front of his group without Arriola. “[He’s] not a guy you can just say ‘we’ll replace Paul,’ because he does so much for you. The way he presses, all the little plays, and then the quality he brings in front of goal, with goals and providing for others.”
Olsen did note that he has plenty of confidence in the players that might step in for Arriola, going through the long list of potential wide players available to him. In particular, Olsen pointed to Flores — who unexpectedly popped up on the right wing in the preseason finale — and Ulises Segura, who was involved in all three of the Black-and-Red’s goals in that game.