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Four thoughts from D.C. United’s weird, wild comeback win over Inter Miami CF

Los Capitalinos got their first win of the year in exhilarating fashion, but they have plenty of work left to do.

MLS: Inter Miami CF at D.C. United Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

D.C. United completed a rare (but not unprecedented) feat Saturday afternoon on Buzzard Point, coming from 2-0 down to win 2-1 against Inter Miami CF. United scored two goals in three minutes, taking advantage of the visitor’s discombobulation following a second-half video review that disallowed the Herons’ second goal and sent off center back Roman Torres for a denial of a goal-scoring opportunity earlier in the sequence.

(We won’t get into the mechanics of those calls, but suffice it to say that referee Rubiel Vazquez and video assistant referee Geoff Gamble got the final decision completely and objectively correct.)

Ben Olsen and his players will be the first to say that the Black-and-Red need to improve from here, but three points are always welcome. Here’s what I’m thinking about after the W.

Alonso’s Tactical Ambush

Inter Miami played their debut last week against LAFC in a 4231, and given how little time manager Diego Alonso has had with the expansion side, there wasn’t much reason to think they’d go away from that. So United prepared as if they were going to be facing a 4231.

Of course, that’s not what happened. Instead of the deep-lying 4231 everyone expected, Miami ran out a 343 that pressed high and then got very compact in the middle third. Defenders were pressing from angles United hadn’t trained for, and with vertical space seemingly compressed to the center circle, they weren’t ready for the lack of space available once they got through the first line of pressure.

Miami played super-direct at the outset, countering with speed on every turnover they forced. The result was two big scoring opportunities in the first three minutes. And a one-goal lead for the guests.

United adjusted after just a few minutes, recognizing where pressure would be coming from and working out different ideas to build through midfield, but it wasn’t fast enough. Ben Olsen had nothing but praise for his counterpart after the game. “You know, we prep for for four-back, they came in with a three, and caused us trouble in that area,” Olsen told reporters. “[Diego Alonso] knows what he’s doing. He’s been around the block. He’s a good coach, he’s a successful coach, and I think they have a nice, balanced team.”

One of the pitfalls of going against a team in just their second ever competitive match is a lack of tape. Los Capitalinos hit that one but hard at the start of the game.

Capitalizing on the Moment

United had already started to assert themselves when they got hit on another counterattack, this time Lewis Morgan finding the back of the net off a wicked deflection that left Bill Hamid with no chance. But very quickly, in the course of a video review, the Black-and-Red found that they weren’t in fact down two goals, but rather just the one, and they were up a man to boot. To say they took immediate advantage would be understatement.

Five minutes after Roman Torres was sent off, Yamil Asad had converted a penalty to level the score. Two minutes after that, the hosts had a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. At which point the players were fired up, celebrating in front of the Chico Stand.

(I’d like to add as an aside that United attacking the north end in the second half is righteous and correct, and wild ish happens — like the Buzzard Beater — when the visitors have to defend in front of the supporters groups after halftime. More of this, please.)

I don’t know if the jubilation of that second goal led to United relaxing a bit or if Miami just snapped out of their VAR-induced stupor, but the spell of dominance would be short-lived. While the team responded in the best possible way to good fortune from the officials, they didn’t put the game away, which leads to my next thought.

How to See Out A Game

For the majority of this game, Ben Olsen and his players remained devoted to the style they worked on through preseason, pressing more than in years past and trying most of the time to build out of the back. They dominated the ball through the first half (even if they had trouble turning that possession into chances) — per, the first five-minute spell during which Miami had more of the ball didn’t come till after halftime, and United ended the day with a 55%-45% possession advantage.

Unfortunately, for my stress level anyway, that level of ball retention was nowhere to be seen in the final stages. Even up a man, D.C. United yielded much of the ball to Miami late on as the guests pressured for a goal. It was a bit too reminiscent of last week’s stoppage-time game-winner for Colorado.

Unlike last week, though, there was some method at work (and, also, D.C. didn’t concede). United had a few breakaways on the counterattack, mostly through debutant Erik Sorga (who to my eye should have been awarded a penalty for the tackle that stopped one of his breakouts). If any of those pans out, we’re talking about United shielding a two-goal lead, rather than hanging on against a potential equalizer, and my antacid intake would have been lower Saturday night.

Still, from his postgame quotes, it sounds like Olsen would have liked to see a bit more composure and possession during the endgame: “We weren’t dictating much. It was them that was dictating the game. and we needed to be a little braver on the ball, a little bit braver in how we got pressure to them.”

He also recognized that if the team is going to let the game get open and end-to-end, they’ve got to come away with an insurance goal: “You have to finish it. Take advantage of the space in transition, that we could have three or four times. So you got to see those plays out and make it 3-1 and 4-1, and punish them for the aggression that they showed. But credit them, they made it very difficult. But again, I think we just needed to see out one or two plays and transition and punish them for their aggression.”

On the Need for Warm Bodies

This is not about the weather, which was chilly and breezy, but altogether much nicer than the season opener. This item is about depth.

Ben Olsen was forced to make two injury substitutions before halftime on Saturday with forward Ola Kamara and fullback Joseph Mora both suffering apparent hamstring injuries. Luckily new addition Erik Sorga and the returning Oniel Fisher were ready to play more than 45 minutes.

(Another aside here: If you weren’t out of your seat applauding Fisher’s return to the field after his injury ordeal, then I just don’t know what to tell you.)

Behind those guys on the depth chart, however, is a void. Kamara and Sorga are the only true forwards on the roster. Should Sorga have to miss time for any reason, the choice up top would be... the also-injured Ulises Segura? Edison Flores as a false 9? Yamil Asad? I honestly don’t know.

Fisher is naturally a right-sided player but has played on Mora’s left side and looks likely to take the role for the time being. On the other side of the field, Russell Canouse now looks even more likely to spend an extended run starting at right back instead of his natural central midfield, with only Chris Odoi-Atsem backing him up. Until Donovan Pines is healthy — and reports are that he’ll return to training soon — there’s nobody behind Frederic Brillant and Steven Birnbaum in central defense.

Basically, D.C. United need to sign more players. I don’t know who those players might be at this point or where they might come from. But the need is undeniable, just two games into the season. The team can still compete for the moment, but they’re now a couple injuries closer to the kind of crisis that cost them the middle part of last year.

I have some other thoughts — especially about the roles of Julian Gressel and Edison Flores — but they’re still inchoate, so I’ll save them for another time. Hit the comments to let us know how you’re thinking about Saturday’s win.