D.C. United met a formidable foe on Wednesday in Minnesota United, but made sure it didn’t feel that way as they posted a 3-1 win that was not as close as the scoreline might indicate. Ola Kamara, Julian Gressel, and Junior Moreno all scored, Minnesota barely tested Bill Hamid at all, and United once again underlined how difficult it is for anyone to come to Audi Field and get a result.
The next game is looming — there is literally always another game a few hours after any given United game ends, the schedule is relentless — but before we move on, me (that is, Jason) and Ben have a few thoughts to offer:
The underlying metrics coming into this game put United and Minnesota up as two of MLS’s top five teams, and one of them played like it. 3.44 expected goals to 0.20? That’s just about as comprehensive a win as we’ve seen in MLS this season. Remember when United beat Toronto 7-1? MLS’s data (a different source, but the differences here are gonna be minor) credited TFC with 1.8 xG in that one.
The key note in this 11tegen11 tweet (linked for anyone viewing this on a platform that rips tweets out of our stories) is in the second graphic: Minnesota created 0.09 expected goals from open play. Zero point zero nine!
Now, of course, we have to underline here that this was not the full-strength version of Minnesota United. Emanuel Reynoso is a top-tier player in MLS, and he wasn’t available as Adrian Heath opted to preserve him for the weekend. That’s fine for them, and of course the weekend’s return to conference play matters more in the playoff chase. But that also ups the responsibility for the Black-and-Red: the other team is playing a different formation (again), they’ve rested their best player, they’re in your building...you’d better go beat them. Anything less and people will have some legit questions.
United did just that, and emphatically so. Even without Reynoso, Minnesota’s a good team, but on Wednesday they looked like a plucky USL side trying in vain for a cup upset rather than another MLS playoff side. That’s down to what United were able to do in every facet of the game. Whether it was their pressure throwing the Loons off, or the space United was able to find playing through midfield, or the attacking play that Hernán Losada says he envisions as “organized chaos,” it was all top-notch.
The tactical surprise of a 541 from MNUFC just never really mattered; United never let them settle into bus-parking mode, and made the game about execution more than tactics. Earlier this year, a team could have done a classic “no, you have the ball!” and United might have struggled with it. After all, it’s hard to be direct when there’s no space to run into.
Even holding over 60% possession for most of the game before settling in at 54.4% at full time, United looked completely at ease. The Loons planned all along to have little possession, and D.C. took all the responsibility of having the ball and promptly disorganized Heath’s bunker. They were patient when they needed to be, and urgent when it was required.
Rank this performance right up there with another 3-1 on Buzzard Point as one of the best all-around showings from DCU this year. — Jason Anderson
One Weird Trick that disrupts Loons
Even though, for large portions of the game, United’s offense was a half gear off, their pressing game was as on point as ever. Tonight, however, really highlighted a specific part of their pressing game that frustrated Minnesota, prevented them from getting into long stretches of rhythm, and led to D.C. United breaks and goals. What I’m talking about, of course, is D.C. United’s uncanny ability to body up their mark and poke the ball away.
All night, D.C. would disrupt Minnesota’s attack by getting to 50/50 balls and poking away entrance passes to Minnesota players. At their best, these disruptions would lead to United breaks up and down the field, including the turnover that led to Moreno’s goal. But even if it wasn’t leading to exciting breaks down the field, United’s ball pokes were tonight’s example of the pressing system not allowing the opposing team to get into the flow of things.
The more turnovers you create, the more opportunities you’re going to have. But the corollary is also true: the more times you disrupt your opponent, the fewer chances they will have to put together attacks on your goal. — Benjamin Bromley
Don’t get comfortable
Alright, so Wednesday was very fun and good and cool. United won, they played well, the weather was gorgeous, all was well. You know what also happened that night?
The Black-and-Red are in 3rd place in the East, that’s what. That’s a home playoff game, against the worst Eastern team to get into the playoffs. Even the wild, amazing end to the 2018 season saw United only get to 4th place, and that was with the assistance of 100 home games in two months and a world-famous superstar leading the attack.
Ah but wait, let’s enhance that image:
Well...that’s not a lot to get cozy about! United got help in four out of five other relevant games, with only red-hot Atlanta winning again. The East got somehow even tighter, with four teams just one point back, and Montreal just one win away from United as well.
Saturday’s trip to Orlando is, with just seven games left to play, an immense game. It always felt like it would be, but now a United win puts them four points clear of at least one team in this group. Even a draw — and this DCU side doesn’t settle for draws, but sometimes you end up with one anyway — denies Orlando a home win at a time of year where you really have to win in front of your own fans.
So yes, it is very good to be where we are right now, but come Sunday night, it could all be very different. There’s no room to slow down now. — JA
Folks, Junior Moreno scored a goal.
Now, in terms of a breakdown of a play, there’s more to Julian Gressel’s goal — and full marks to him for honoring the memory of his late friend Owen with his celebration — than Moreno’s, which consists of a great tackle from Andy Najar, a heads-up move upfield from Edison Flores, and Moreno getting a bit of help from a deflection.
But look, Gressel has scored goals, and will score one again, probably soon. Moreno? His United career, in MLS minutes, had gone 7,482 minutes before his shot flew past Tyler Miller. He’s played 222 playoff minutes, and didn’t score in those games. Open Cup play, friendlies, preseason...many more minutes, no goals.
Teams generally have one field player who is very much good enough to start, but for whatever reason, their game is built in a way that they never score. Moreno, on average, needs over 180 minutes per shot attempt, so he’s very much that guy. Be it the more conservative tactics under Ben Olsen, or the fact that his midfield partner has often been the more aggressive Russell Canouse, Moreno’s job has involved holding space and being in position in case the ball turns over. Between positional requirements and his stylistic approach to the holding midfield role, he’s had very few opportunities, almost all of which have been from longer range.
Moreno’s value to United is as a platform for attacks to begin, or as a shield for the back line, or someone who can simply occupy space and force opposing teams to slow down with a more conservative pass. It’s a super valuable skill set that few players have, and Moreno has quietly been in excellent form this year despite having major competition for his spot with Felipe (who started this game) and Moses Nyeman available.
We’re not going to see many more goals from him, and that’s fine. He’s not hear to score goals, but rather to help the team win. But since he got one — that’s one goal in 92 career MLS regular season or playoff appearances — let’s give a player who doesn’t often get recognition for what he does his proper respect. It’s a special thing when the “never scores a goal” kind of player gets to lead the celebrations. — JA