After spending the last five months enduring weeks of isolated training before trying to get it together for the odd spectacle that was the MLS is Back Tournament, D.C. United can be forgiven for their relief at simply having something resembling a MLS regular season game. A road trip to face FC Cincinnati was what awaited them before the coronavirus pandemic became national news, and 161 days later, that’s what they face tonight.
“First off, it’s nice to have a match, right?,” said head coach Ben Olsen, whose team sits in 10th place in the Eastern Conference. “When we come back out of MLS is Back, you’re essentially looking at your third preseason of the year, and that’s not an easy thing for the staff or the players to get back to work and essentially prepare for a big question mark... It’s nice to start to prepare for an opponent.”
That said, the differences between what this game was going to look like back in March and what it will look like today are stark. There will be no fans present at Nippert Stadium, while players will be undergoing protocols they started to get used to during MLS is Back: masks, socially distanced substitutes benches, and the like.
The differences extend to travel as well, as midfielder Russell Canouse explained during another Covid-19 era oddity: the pre-game press conference, done remotely via Zoom rather than in person after training. “Sounds like we’re getting there, morning time-ish timeframe. So, we’ll be able to eat a meal, recover a little bit,” said Canouse of United’s plans to arrive in Cincinnati, play their game, and then fly home all in one day.
“It’s not not ideal traveling the same day obviously, preparation you’d like to get there the day before, have the recovery [from the flight],” explained Canouse. However, for Canouse, the situation can’t be used as an excuse. “I think during these times it’s just gonna come down to adapting and which teams can do it. And I think that’s something [that] everyone just has to mentally be prepared for,” said the 25 year old, who added that the situation is probably better than being surprised by a weather delay, as United knows going in exactly how the trip will play out.
Other than a brief break after leaving the grind of MLS is Back, United has been training throughout the weeks between games. However, Olsen cautioned that due to a lack of actual games to fine-tune their approach, the Black-and-Red are still figuring some things out. “I said this before: we’re a work in progress, and we’ll continue to be a work in progress, in particular over this next six games or this next phase.
“That’s what we’re looking forward to mostly, is growing by playing these games and continuing to see who we are, and continuing to see what the best lineup is, what the best formation is with this group,” said Olsen, whose side has played just ten total games (five MLS matches, and five in preseason) in 2020. “A lot of this stuff is is still up in the air, and these next six games, we hope to pick up points while we’re still figuring out exactly who we are.”
“The players’ mentality has been fantastic,” added Olsen, but the news from training is not all good. United has picked up a couple of injuries, with Olsen declining to say who would be missing as a result. On the plus side, striker Ola Kamara — who suffered thigh injuries during both United’s early pair of games and at MLS is Back — is apparently not on that list, with Olsen saying his number 9 “looks good, he’s ready to go.”
For his part, Canouse thinks the time on the training ground has done United some good. “I feel like we’re at a better spot now than we were previously, before the MLS is Back Tournament,” said Canouse. “We’ve had time now where we went straight back into team training and have been able to stay focused, stay fit,” which is a big difference from the long spell of individual training at home the Black-and-Red faced before a short ramp-up for last month’s bubble tournament.
“We’ve obviously gone a few weeks without playing 90 minutes intensity, intense game against a different opponent,” said Canouse before adding that on an individual level he feels better prepared for tonight’s game. “I’m definitely in a better spot now than I was before the MLS is Back Tournament in terms of fitness level.”
Between the injured players, a suspension for Felipe Martins, and a schedule that requires playing six games in 22 days, United expects to see plenty of players getting their shot. Olsen said that it relates both to avoiding overuse injuries, and because certain games will require different tactical approaches. “There’s a lot of moving parts to this, and with the games coming fast and furious you’re going to see different tactical lineups.”
Still, the changes bring with them a positive, as players are generally happier when they’re getting into games. “When you have to play game after game, and you have to utilize your quote unquote ‘bench,’ reserve players, it makes everybody feel a part of this,” stated Olsen. “You also find out a little bit more about guys that might not be getting a lot of time, and maybe they’re the answer at a certain spot because they take take their turn and run with it.”
Canouse added that the condensed schedule comes with an additional positive: the potential to build some good form up quickly, as opposed to the rhythms of a normal one-game-per-week schedule. “I personally like times like this, where we have a couple of games back-to-back, because you get into that [good] form a lot faster than you would if it was spread out.”
As an opponent, Cincinnati pose a bit of a quandary for United, as there is simply not much of a track record to gauge. Jaap Stam has only been in charge for four games, and in that time he started off with an open, possession-based strategy that ended in a bruising 4-0 loss to the Columbus Crew to open MLS is Back. From there, the former Dutch international shifted to a far more conservative approach, and ground out two wins before eventually being eliminated by the Portland Timbers on penalties.
Olsen cautioned against reading too much into a specific gameplan at MLS is Back, noting that the conditions were unique in a lot of ways. “you get home, and you get a couple weeks of training to get further along [with] who you want to be, or what the coach wants to see. And, you know, they could come out in a five-back again and sit low like they did in the tournament. They could play more expansive and play a little bit higher up the field with different personnel,” explained Olsen, who will also have to factor the presence of fit-again striker Jurgen Locadia into his gameplan after the Dutch Designated Player played just 18 minutes at MLS is Back.
“We think we have a fairly good idea of most of the starters and what their profiles are, and how they’re going to go about the game, but you never know,” said Olsen. “We prepare with our best guess, and then be ready to adapt if they come with something else.”
Canouse offered the best summary of United’s mindset at the moment. “We want to be patient...but also have that urgency that we need to get results, and we need to figure out how to grind these games out. Maybe the game itself isn’t perfect, but can we figure out how to get the result we need?” The answer to that question will likely indicate how United does both tonight and throughout this run of upcoming games.