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Five things about D.C. United taking a positive step in last night’s 1-0 win over the Chicago Fire

Flores, Perez, Kempin, Skundrich, and the system itself are all on our minds

Caitlin Buckley / Black and Red United

In a sort of litmus test game, a new-look D.C. United was strong enough to send the Chicago Fire back to the Windy City with a loss, as Edison Flores struck early and the Black-and-Red made it stand up in a 1-0 win. It wasn’t perfect, but despite making three changes (including club debuts for Jon Kempin and Drew Skundrich) and some shuffled roles elsewhere, it was an indicator that United has the character to avoid gifting points at home to struggling teams.

As is often the case, we (Adam, Ryan, and Jason...hey, that’s me!) have some thoughts about this one:

Flores, finally

Last weekend, we were critical of Flores for, despite his assist, a performance that saw few noteworthy attacking plays from a player who is by a wide margin the most expensive transfer in club history. Flores lead both teams in combined expected goals and expected assists, but most of his contributions came in low-percentage plays that piled up, which is a classic way to mess with xG/xA models when we talk about a single game. Top attackers do that too, but they also bring the big moments to the table on a regular basis, and Flores went over 80 minutes before getting a key pass.

What a difference a few days makes, right? Flores lead this game in xG+xA too, but this time his total was based off of more formidable moments. He had the data-padding stuff that any effective attacker does, but this time he had the big moments: the goal, obviously, but also multiple clever passes that broke Chicago’s defensive lines, a game-leading 5 shots (four of which came within the Fire box, and the fifth was that free kick from 19 yards out). He nearly added an assist too, if not for the meddling AR denying Adrien Perez a richly deserved goal late in the game.

Flores, in other words, was the center of the attack on a night where Paul Arriola could only play 15 minutes, and Yamil Asad was either rested or dropped (we’ll find out on Sunday about that), and Ola Kamara was only used for a couple of minutes late. Orejas was the player Chicago couldn’t figure out, whether that was simply keeping play moving along (he only had four misplaced passes all night), ghosting into good spots between the lines, or his connection with Perez.

Despite last weekend’s struggle, Perez may be starting to figure MLS out to some degree. Dating back to last season, he now has 1g/4a in his last seven games. That’s not necessarily the split we’re going to see in the future — I’d expect the balance to be maybe 60% goals/40% assists — but it is the kind of frequency in terms of tangible stats that United paid for when they went to Morelia with a seven-figure check. — Jason Anderson

New faces getting the job done

D.C. United’s third goalkeepers in past years have been late-round draft picks, or someone who became a police officer shorly after leaving the Black-and-Red, or someone that got their offer in part due to a call from a player’s mother. Jon Kempin is a little different. He’s pushed three different MLS GKOTYs in training, and nearly made it four last season in Columbus. When not playing for the Crew, Kempin last year was edged out of the USL Championship Golden Glove award by .004 of a goal, posting five shutouts with San Diego.

Staying with players with recent USL Championship time on their CV, we wrote about United’s most recent signing, and Drew Skundrich got a spot start [that’s the B&RU Bump! -JA]. He’s played the last couple of years with the Sacramento Republic, serving as captain for most of last season, and his defensive actions made him an upper-level midfielder for a USL independent. His two-way play and soccer brain, combined with practicing and playing in game situations with D.C. for three months now, made him a solid fit last night. Playing an attacking midfield role that consisted of a lot of pressing, he filled his role nicely, with 11-for-18 passing, 5 recoveries, a blocked shot, and plenty of runs to support more polished attackers and/or step up to try and defend players like Alvaro Medrán.

It remains to be seen what kind of place he’ll have when Russell Canouse and Felipe Martins get healthy, but if the supposed low guy on the totem pole is pushing the ones above him, the team reaps those rewards. — Ryan Keefer

Another glimpse into how This Is All Supposed To Work

D.C. United gave us a small taste of how Losada’s high pressing, defense-to-attack system is supposed to look last weekend with Ola Kamara’s goal in Columbus. The Black-and-Red lost possession and immediately re-pressed, quickly winning the ball back in a dangerous spot and finding Edison Flores, who put Kamara in behind for the finish.

Tonight we got what I hope will be just another preview of what’s to come. Flores’ goal was a similar affair. Andy Najar was on the ball in the final third from his wingback position. His pass didn’t come off, but Moses Nyeman instantly won the ball back and just as quickly put Adrien Perez behind the defense. One Perez cutback and one Orejas header later, D.C. United were up a goal in the first 10 minutes.

There were a few more chances created under similar circumstances — Julian Gressel’s crossbar-rattler that nearly gave United a two-goal first-half lead among them — and that’s how it’s supposed to be. Chicago had trouble dealing with the press and really wasn’t in the game until los Capitalinos had to pull back a little bit later in the first half to keep some fuel in the tank (artificial gas shortage or no). And every time the Fire turned the ball over in their own half, the hosts were pushing it down their throats before they could even breathe. You love to see it.

Progress won’t be linear through the season, and there will be steps back from time to time. But if Hernán Losada & Co. can keep building this foundation, brick by brick, we could have ourselves the start of something good before too much longer. — Adam Taylor

Perez? Pretty good

Losada called Perez his man of the match last night, and it’s not hard to see why. The chemistry with Flores was obvious, he had an assist on the game’s only goal, pressed really effectively, and was constantly providing threatening runs for his teammates. You saw this from the stands or on TV, but the data backs it up: 3 key passes (tied for the game lead), 5 successful dribbles (lead all players), and near-constant involvement on the ball (60 touches, a total that only Andy Najar beat for United).

Caitlin Buckley / Black and Red United

What I’m saying is that he was good, and it’s just when United needed someone to step up. Kamara is probably going to be built up slowly minutes-wise, and we saw last week that Kimarni Smith can be very dangerous, but also can fade out (pretty understandable for a rookie in his first 100 minutes of MLS play). Erik Sorga and Nigel Robertha are both out for who knows how long. Without dangerous play up front, this game might have gone all wrong, and while you can let road losses to Columbus slide to some extent, home against Chicago? That’s one you’ve gotta have.

And the thing here is that Perez has mostly played as a wide forward in MLS, and with United he’s been either a wide forward/attacking midfielder as part of Losada’s system or a wingback. Losada explained that his thought process was based on something he figured out at his previous gig. “I did something similar that I did with my ex-team, Beerschot, where I played a player who used to play on the wing, who never played another position before, and I made (Perez) a kind of a second forward because he has quite similar characteristics to that player. I knew it would work.”

Losada said he wanted to play with a true number 9, but the injury and fitness situation prevented that. As he put it, Perez was “a rabbit out of a hat.” But that’s not to say it was a lucky accident or some kind of hopeful flailing that happened to work. Losada said that he felt from training that this was going to be a fruitful pairing, and sure enough it was.

Building off of what Ryan said about Kempin and Skundrich, this kind of performance adds something United has sorely lacked in 2019 and 2020: serious competition for time. Kamara and Robertha are the presumptive options as true strikers up front, and Sorga got the first crack at their minutes when they weren’t available. With Perez now showing that he can combine Sorga’s defensive work rate with what looked from this small sample size like excellent compatibility with Flores, Kamara and Robertha aren’t just competing with one another when they are both fully fit. — JA

On the Tao of Winston Wolf

Look, I’m happy that D.C. won at home and goes into Sunday night with Orlando City on an up note. But look, Chicago is and has been, well, Chicago: they’re one of two teams that have yet to win this season, and have the second fewest goals scored in the league. And guess what? In the xG battle, Chicago and United were neck and neck in a couple of different models, which to me says that past Flores’ high quality, early first-half chance, the Fire got better chances than the Black-and-Red. Rotation played a part in tonight’s game to be sure, but D.C. hosts a fully rested Orlando team Sunday, followed by last year’s Supporters’ Shield winning Philadelphia Union a week from Saturday.

There are two ways of saying the same thing here. One is the NSFW way Harvey Keitel’s character in Pulp Fiction says it, but the cleaner, quicker way is that things don’t get easier from here. — RK