D.C. United looked like themselves against the Columbus Crew on Saturday...for about 15 minutes. Unfortunately what followed was not the fabled second wind, but rather a beat-up team simply not having the legs to hold off a somewhat less beat-up team in a game both sides badly needed. The 3-1 loss — the only time all season a team trailing United in the standings got anything at Audi Field — has left the Black-and-Red’s playoff hopes dangling by a thread.
It’s not great! This is not going to be a fun piece! But nevertheless, Adam, Ryan, and your humble intro writer Jason all have something to say, so here we go:
So you’re saying there’s a chance
If you’re wondering how dire things are after Saturday’s loss...well, they’re dire. It’s not over, but it’s very close. It’s been a promising season, but if it’s going to continue past Decision Day, United needs the kind of help a team might get once in a generation.
Let’s start with what’s 100% certain: There are five teams United can’t catch, leaving just two playoff spots available. Moreover, since the teams occupying those two spots play each other, it’s really just 7th place or bust. The only way for DCU to even have a shot at it starts with winning in Toronto on Sunday. They’re two points out, so that’s a non-negotiable.
Here’s what they need beyond a road win, something that has been no small struggle for United this year:
NYRB vs. Atlanta (Wednesday night): United can pass ATL, and they can pass the Red Bulls, but they cannot pass both because those two black and red kit ripoff artists play each other in Harrison in two days. Normally rooting for a draw is good in this scenario, because it’s just sheer math: the rest of the table getting 2 points out of a game rather than three is generally beneficial.
This time though, it’d be the worst outcome. A draw moves Atlanta out of United’s reach, and leaves the Red Bulls needing just one point on Decision Day to do the same. So we actually need someone to win this game, and it would be vastly preferable — we’ll get to one big reason why shortly — if Atlanta got that particular job done. Yes, that means no catching the Several Stripes, but it also means that a United win + NYRB draw next Sunday allows the Black-and-Red to nose ahead on the games-won tiebreaker.
Montréal vs. Houston (Wednesday night): The Foot Boys remain a worry because of their game in hand, which unfortunately is a home game against a really poor Houston team that has lost five of their last seven. United isn’t eliminated if the ex-Impact win and go up to 46 points, but a Montréal win here sets them up to finish ahead of DCU with a Decision Day win. So, you’re rooting for a draw or stunning Dynamo win here. Like I said, things are dire.
Cincinnati vs. Atlanta (Decision Day): This is that other reason to hope that Wednesday’s game keeps NYRB rather than Atlanta in range. Cincinnati may break an all-time record for consecutive losses in this game. They’re hapless, and cannot be expected to get even one point off of Atlanta. We’re still hoping for Cincy to win, but like, I also buy a lottery ticket once in a while.
Columbus vs. Chicago (Decision Day): The funny thing here is that Columbus is actually irrelevant to United. The Black-and-Red must win to have any chance, and if they win, the Crew (due to the games-won tiebreaker) are eliminated. So, this game doesn’t matter!
Montréal vs. Orlando (Decision Day): Orlando, outraged over a VAR call changed their result against Nashville, will be plenty motivated, and they’re also still a point away from the playoffs. That’s good news! I know it’s tough to stomach, but next weekend, the Lions are our...friends? A win or a draw in Quebec might not actually be necessary for United (there’s a way both DCU and Montréal both qualify), but we might as well throw it on the shopping list.
Nashville vs. NYRB (Decision Day): You were already rooting for Nashville in this one out of spite, but now you’re also all-in on one last Nashville home win. If Atlanta wins in New Jersey mid-week, a draw here is also completely fine.
Here’s the tl;dr version you can screencap and tweet (link to us, give us the clicks we subsist on in lieu of food) on Decision Day so people aren’t asking me to explain this while I’m doing social media and writing a recap and watching a game all at once:
Atlanta beats NYRB - DCU win + NYRB loss/draw at Nashville + Montréal not winning twice
NYRB beats Atlanta - DCU win + Atlanta loss at Cincy + Montréal not winning twice
Atlanta-NYRB draw - DCU win + NYRB loss at Nashville + Montréal not winning twice
So yeah, it’s looking pretty tough, but it’s not completely over. I don’t like United’s chances, but I bet they at least go out on their shield. — Jason Anderson
One team can overcome only so much
When Hernán Losada was hired and we learned about his #MaximumOverdrive proclivities, the most common descriptor was some variant of “high risk, high reward.” The notion was that the tactical choice to sell out on the high press would leave gaps in behind, especially during this first season under the system, and if even one player is a little bit off, you can end up getting countered to death.
And that did happen some this year. And in this game.
But the implementation itself was also high-risk, high-reward. Losada stuck with it early in the year, refusing to allow United to sit back in a more Olsenian low block to see out results. His thinking was that the team needed to develop this identity so that they could excel as the season went on. It cost some points early, but during the short spells when he had something close to a full complement of players, the fluency of the press and the verticality did shine through. Risk, reward.
In the context of MLS schedule-makers’ decision to cram a full 34-game season into less than seven months — more like six months after accounting for international breaks — the risks unfortunately came into clearer focus. Even if Losada gets dinged more than he should for the team’s interminable rash of injuries* his system is more physically demanding than other styles, and that level of exertion is always going to open the door to soft-tissue injuries. Combined with the almost criminally compressed schedule — every game since the summer has been part of a multigame week, and the Columbus game was the fifth game in 14 days, which should be a CBA violation — keeping his charges fit and healthy was always going to be an uphill climb.
* Footnote here to show my work: This team had a similar spate of injuries last season, too. Bill Hamid and Paul Arriola’s injuries in the spring predate their time with Losada. Edison Flores has never had a long run in D.C. without injury. He and Arriola were hurt for this stretch during time with their national teams. It’s inaccurate to put those injuries on Losada. You can make a case for Paredes’ knocks being on the manager, but he actually did get rotated with some frequency, and got zero protection from referees and was the subject of increasingly ridiculous tackles as the season wore on.
Whether United can eke out a playoff berth on Decision Day remains to be seen — the teams around them are certainly capable of dropping points, so there’s still a chance! — but the tactical calculus will be different when there’s a more normal-looking schedule. Let’s hope we see more of the rewards after becoming so familiar with the risks this fall. — Adam M Taylor
Columbus earned it
Saturday night was a minor revelation in retrospection, starting with the lineups and continuing through the xG totals:
g+ GameFlow: MLS Regular Season @dcunited v @ColumbusCrew on October 30, 2021. #DCU #VamosUnited #Crew96 #PorColumbus #DCUvCLB pic.twitter.com/jAv1CCoYPh— GameFlow (@GameFlowxPG) October 31, 2021
Passmaps & xGplot for D.C. United against Columbus Crew. #passmap #xGplot #autotweet pic.twitter.com/JgOhxI8BuL— 11tegen11_plots (@11tegen11_plots) October 31, 2021
Basically, this was a carbon copy of sorts of Wednesday’s win over the New York Red Bulls: score an early goal and try to keep the wall up again to hang on for a result and put all hands on deck for next week’s game against Toronto FC.
The problem with that is that the Crew does have familiarity with one another, and even without Gyasi Zardes they were able to keep consistent pressure against a D.C. side held together by duct tape and bubble gum. The third picture in the second tweet how much D.C. did (or didn’t in this case) do on the night, while the Crew were able to bring numbers forward, give Darlington Nagbe and Lucas Zelarayán the platform to do the things they’re heralded for, and that made the result a formality.
There is going to be plenty of time for post-mortems and who should stay and go (Yamil Asad seems to have answered that question for a lot of people just before the game), but United was about as threadbare as you could get, heading into a game that they needed. The Crew needed it more than that, had the rounds in the chamber, and it showed on Saturday. — Ryan Keefer