It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t easy, but D.C. United broke a four-game winless streak by beating MLS’s hottest team, the New York Red Bulls, last night. Kevin Paredes scored early as United had about 15-20 minutes of being in control before the field shifted pretty comprehensively. Despite that, Bill Hamid and the defense stood tall, and a very short-handed Black-and-Red side — whose hand is even shorter now! — picked up an absolutely vital win.
That means it’s time for me (good afternoon, it’s Jason) and Ryan to talk about the things that are bouncing around in our brains:
What’s the scenario?
United climbed back above the red line by winning a game that they effectively had to win. If they had lost this game, we’d be looking at a situation where the Black-and-Red were two points out of a playoff spot and in 9th place — which is where they were before kickoff — but with almost no path to catch anyone ahead of them. Montréal would have been closest, but the former Impact have a game in hand.
But that didn’t happen, so the paths to a playoff spot are more plentiful and less reliant on a sequence playing out that’s as likely as buying the winning Powerball ticket. We’re not in a great place yet, though, as United is still almost certainly going to have to pick up four or six points.
One big plus is that the Red Bulls and Montréal play each other Saturday, which means either a) one of them loses, capping their maximum points at 49, or b) they draw, meaning that both of them can only get to 50 points at the max...which is exactly what United’s highest possible total is. With United’s advantage over the whole pack on the games-win tiebreaker, all three teams getting to 50 would mean the Black-and-Red are in.
Things get muddier from there: the Red Bulls also play Atlanta next Wednesday, while Montréal hosts Orlando (who, should they lose to Nashville on Halloween, would very much be a team United can hurdle) on Decision Day. If we get the comical gift of a Miami win over NYCFC, the Pigeons host Philly in their finale, opening up the prospect of United getting ahead of them as well.
This isn’t a complete breakdown of every scenario by any means, because I don’t have three days and a supercomputer to work it out. It’s just important to note how diverse the paths to the playoffs are today, after a win, as compared to the nearly impossible situation a draw or loss would have left us looking at. — Jason Anderson
Looking back at the last month and thinking about...the winter?
Holy hell, it’s been a minute since I’ve done one of these, due to life twists and turns. And before all of that, I’d been leery about things just after the October international break. And guess what? D.C. came away with one point out of nine from New England, Nashville, and NYCFC. That’s bad!
However, along with that, I noted that a D.C. side that was pretty good at home would also have a host of easy, have-to-win games which after Wednesday night, they’re 3-for-3 in, with the fourth (Columbus) coming to town Saturday to close out the home slate. Columbus has won two on the road all year and is without Gyasi Zardes, though they did hang three on Orlando Wednesday night. Getting Kevin Paredes back in decent shape and maybe another body off the injured list would seem to hint at three more points. That’s good!
Jesus, go buy my frogurt already, OK?
During the course of the nailbiting, you do start to sort of see what next year’s group looks like without some of the people in it. Along with Ramón Ábila (who dogged two plays to help kill the game off that I saw), I wonder about the continued disappearance of Yamil Asad, who as far as anyone knows is not injured. Ábila is likely back to Argentina (reportedly to his beloved Huracan) after his loan to MLS from Boca Juniors ends this year.
Asad’s situation is cloudier: he’s started twice in three months, yet has a year remaining on a guaranteed TAM deal. With Edison Flores and Yordy Reyna apparently out until the last game of the season, the team could have used some of his work rate to keep the Red Bulls honest on a counter or two, but he wasn’t even in uniform. That said, after signing a pre-contract with D.C. in the summer of 2019, Asad has played 2,228 minutes since returning to MLS at the beginning of 2020, less than the 2,365 he played in just 2018.
With the front office beefing up — Lucy Rushton is looking for a Data Scientist, Loudoun United is planning for dedicated staff as opposed to personnel who split time between the two pro teams in the org — it should be interesting to see what moves the organization is willing to make this winter to match Hernán Losada’s post-game comments. — Ryan Keefer
Welcome back, and a throwback
United lost Paredes for possibly the rest of the regular season last night, which is pretty rough news given how many other difference-makers in the attack are out. But we saw Paul Arriola give 45 minutes in a crunch situation, which is hopefully a step towards being 90-minutes fit for the season finale. Andy Najar played well into the second half, further boosting the split in results between games where he started at right-center back (mostly wins) and games where he did not start at right-center back (mostly not wins).
But we also saw a return for Brendan Hines-Ike, who after 18 games out spanning nearly four months came into last night’s game for the final 13 minutes plus stoppage time. Hines-Ike played well early in the year before picking up a very unusual hip socket injury that, while not requiring surgery, did sideline him for over half a season, robbing DCU of some experienced defensive depth just as the schedule became a non-stop barrage.
Bill Hamid, for one, recognized just how important the gutsy side of things is right now for United, noting “the mental fortitude and the bravery, not only of (Hines-Ike and Chris Odoi-Atsem), but the guys who had little knocks here and there but decided you know, ‘I’m gonna put it all on the line,’ guys like Paul, Andy” as crucial for what is United’s biggest win since 2019. “We’ve just got a brave team, a very brave team, and hopefully we can continue even through the knocks.”
Given that several players are available but have less than 90 minutes in the tank, and we’re now talking about United facing the Crew without Paredes, that bravery may be the thing that carries the Black-and-Red through. As Ryan cited above, Losada has made no bones about his read on the team’s overall talent level on the ball, and that’s at full strength. Once you take Paredes, Edison Flores, and Yordy Reyna out of the equation, you’re working with a team lacking in the cleverness that makes attacking play easy. United is, once again, going to have to do things the hard way this weekend.
Does that feel familiar to you? It really should! One interesting dynamic this year is that as much as Losada’s tactical changes have boosted United’s ceiling and made them more interesting to watch, we’re still looking a roster that was almost entirely assembled for the Ben Olsen era. Last night’s win was certainly not “Bennyball” (sorry fam, this is still an utterly useless term), but it was an extremely severe test of resolve. The Red Bulls had more gas in the tank, and in a game between two pressing teams that means they won a higher share of challenges, tilting the field over the game’s final 65 minutes or so.
What do you do in those circumstances, where you can’t do Plan A well enough to play the game on your preferred terms? The answer, no matter your tactical approach, is the same: you fight like hell, you block shots, and you cover for the player next to you. United did that all night, with Hamid, Donovan Pines, and Steven Birnbaum in particular coming up big. D.C. wasn’t that good on the night, but they were just barely good enough to prevent the Red Bulls from getting anywhere.
United fans may not relish a thought about the recent past, given how much we’re all enjoying the new way of doing things, but some elements of it are essential even in our brand new tactical world. — JA