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Five things about D.C. United starting 2021 with a win over NYCFC

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Hernán Losada’s team was as advertised, and Andy Najar is back in black (and red)

Caitlin Buckley / Black and Red United

After so many changes in direction this offseason, D.C. United fans could be excused for being excited, but also nervous, about what they were going to see last night against NYCFC. Was Hernán Losada going to implement the major tactical shift he’d promised? And if so, would it be successful?

We’re a long way from talking about the Black-and-Red as a contender, but a (dare we say it?) gritty 2-1 win established some important starting points, and it might mean quite a bit in terms of building confidence for a new group that went through a lot last year.

We’ve got more thoughts on this one, so Ryan Keefer and I (this is Jason, hello!) are going to hash them out starting now:

Possession is for nerds anyway

Growing up, I was always on possession teams. I’m slow, and at least when I was actually playing, I had decent technique, good vision, and a strong picture of how the team shape was supposed to work, so basically I was built for that approach.

So I looked over the various stats throughout the game with some trepidation, because United was not interested in hoarding possession. But there’s also no denying that United, at least for 50 minutes or so, did what Losada wants them to do. At halftime, despite dominating the first 15 minutes, NYCFC had (per Opta) completed just 67.6% of their passes. They were flummoxed by where and when the pressure would come from, and they were slow to react on the defensive side of the ball as United’s desire to get upfield started to bear fruit.

At home, United finished the match with 38.1% of the possession on the night, which is something we’ve seen before and lamented. It’s all about the context, though. The infamous NYCFC visit here in which United attempted no shots involved the Black-and-Red setting up in such a low block that they had no option but to avoid any sustained bouts of possession. This was different, because United were not drawing such a low block, and their attacking plans had so much more to them than hoping to get a jailbreak counter after endless time spent defending with most of the team within 20 yards of their own goal.

The sharp raids forward were the products of planning, of course, but they also come from the fitness demands Losada has placed on his players. If they’re fit enough, these sprints upfield will start to become more common and more dangerous, and they won’t have to rely on wonder goals from center backs or high degree of difficulty set piece goals.

But on the topic of possession, the classic retort is always that what matters is what you do with it. United would love to have done much more with theirs, but tonight they did enough. Without having very much of the ball, they still managed to dictate the terms of the game for the bulk of the 90 minutes. I might have to just learn to embrace having less of the ball. — Jason Anderson

Was that Russell Canouse or Roberto Carlos?

After Brendan Hines-Ike’s goal got a fidgety D.C. attack to loosen up, Russell Canouse did, well, this:

I’m a sucker for volleys from corner kicks: I loved Lucas Licht doing it for Gimnasia over Lanus a couple of weeks ago, and every so often I’ll watch Arjen Robben’s version for Bayern Munich against Manchester United in Champions League action. And sure, Julian Gressel and Russ were smart enough to talk about potentially doing it just before the corner, but there’s still the execution to be had, and he did it well for a guy with the initials R.C. and wearing the 6.

Russ may not begin to hit 40-yard curling bombs with his preferred foot or anything, but D.C. play the New England Revolution next week, who wear blue jerseys at home. As did France. When Roberto Carlos turned Fabien Barthez into a statue.

I’m not saying it, but I’m not NOT saying it. — Ryan Keefer

The other guy looking to bounce back in a wingback

For all the talk about getting Gressel back into rhythm and having him in a wingback position to utilize his talents, little attention was paid to how Joseph Mora would handle such a change. Granted, he probably wanted it that way, but here’s the passing network/average position for the starters:

Save for the first goal (which, well, everyone was a dumpster fire on), he was tied with Canouse in most duels (14), second to Canouse in tackles (3), and led the team in successful dribbles (4). We knew he had a decent engine when healthy, and if he can harken back to 2018 when he was written into the starting lineup in ink, his presence is going to be valuable and understated.

Just as he probably wants. — RK

Brendan Hines-Ike!

Look man, what do you say about this?

This is an absolute wondergoal, at a crucial moment in the game. United were in charge, but needed the breakthrough before halftime. Hines-Ike may or may not have had a lot to do with the NYCFC goal (looked to me like he was fouled, and the foul forced him into an own goal, though the press box debate with the Opta and league stat folks about whether it was an own goal or a Valentin Castellanos goal lasted well into the second half), but rather than getting down on himself, he did what he was supposed to do in Losada’s system. The “we’re going to push numbers forward” talk? It’s serious.

But as you can see in the screencap, it seemed like the pass to Gressel was what was coming. It would have been good and cool, and maybe in some other universe it becomes a goal too. We’re in this universe, though, and in this one, Hines-Ike struck a virtually perfect shot that served as, in a way, proof of concept for United. They were executing Losada’s system at a higher level, but it hadn’t gotten the reward of a tangible final product.

Also, it was just an incredible goal, so you know, that part’s also cool. — JA

Andy Najar is back, as is an old United vibe

I mean seriously, I saw it with my own eyes. Andy Najar is back, wearing #14 for D.C. United.

The feeling of everything being in its right place wasn’t entirely there: Najar was playing left-center back in a stadium with a socially-distanced 4,500 fans because we’re still in a pandemic. But damned if it wasn’t just such a good feeling to see Najar out there for the right team, rather than on some other side elsewhere, where we can’t see one of our own ply his trade up close.

United used to be so good at this kind of gesture that they were arguably too good at it, and went back to the well for players who, no matter their past here, were probably not up for the job any more. But even when those moves didn’t pan out, they did come with the benefit of emphasizing that this club, unlike most MLS clubs, had a true family feel. You may not always get to win as a United fan, but for so many years, you at least got to win or lose with your people, rather than the cast of interchangeable players and mercenaries at, I don’t know, New England or Colorado.

Losada has emphasized the collective, and he was quick to point out that the win came about because D.C. United, the club, got it done together. “When I’m talking about the group, it’s not only the eleven that came in and started the game,” said Losada. “It’s all the players, the [injured] players working hard to come back, it’s the medical staff, it’s the technical staff, media team, and so many faces behind the team that sometimes you guys don’t see. But they help us a lot to play these kinds of games. So I’m very proud and happy to give the win, also, to our fanbase, who came back after such a long period. It was beautiful to play with [fans] again.”

In 2019 and 2020, United probably wouldn’t have held on at the end of this game. Somewhere in there, the collective willpower to fight their way through the full 90 minutes became a more erratic quality; in 2019, the defense and Bill Hamid hauled the team to points, while last year there was a fragility to United.

It’s early days at least, but the esprit de corps was evident. United’s players covered one another’s mistakes, and worked together to create chances. Substitutes came in and made a difference through a willingness to run even harder, knowing they had fresh legs when their teammates were drained. This stuff is very basic, but it’s also indispensable in successful teams. It’s the kind of thing, as much as anything else, that allowed teams like Philadelphia to steamroll DCU last year.

This segment is kind of two thoughts in one, but look: Andy’s back, and this team feels like a team. I’m into it. — JA