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Five things about D.C. United’s late-night loss to the San Jose Earthquakes

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We’re starting to sense some patterns that need to be sorted ASAP

MLS: D.C. United at San Jose Earthquakes Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

If you stayed up late last night and found this article, you probably watched D.C. United fall 4-1 to the San Jose Earthquakes. Or maybe you had the good sense to go to bed and watch the game in the morning, I don’t know. Either way, the scoreline may not have indicated exactly how the game played out, but the game does leave one wondering just how rough the next month or so could get while United works on Hernán Losada’s style of play.

We stayed up past full time thinking about the game, because this is a nerd site prone to do this kind of thing. Me (Jason, good morning, this is being published while I am asleep) and Ryan Keefer have a few things we’d like to hash out about the game before we move past it.

Bad starts are a bad habit

Three is a pattern, or so we’re told, and we’re now looking at three straight games for United where the group didn’t start very well. NYCFC was all over D.C. in the opener until they got their goal, the Revolution pinned United in for a long spell to start last week’s game, and yesterday we’re talking about conceding a goal 54 seconds into the game. This is not ideal!

The funny thing is, after United’s kickoff routine ended with Julian Gressel unable to keep possession, the Black-and-Red disrupted San Jose’s attempt to build, and quickly got the ball back to start an attacking move of their own. It didn’t quite come off, but they took play back and tried to build out from the defense. That’s fine, right?

Well, then this happened:

In real time I thought this was maybe not the best pass from Frederic Brillant, but on replays it looks like it’s a pretty reasonable (if maybe a tiny bit overcooked) ball for Junior Moreno, who showed for this kind of pass. It’s also the kind of pass you should play against San Jose, where Moreno is going into space and also will have options to turn upfield and connect.

It’s just...you cannot try a dummy here. It’s the first minute of United’s first road game to the west coast since September 2019, there are 13 guys out injured. This is not the time or place for a dummy that comes without any shoulder-check, or anything else.

The moment the turnover happens, San Jose pushes the ball to Cade Cowell, who sprints into the zone United had left vacant because they were in possession trying to attack. From there, the Quakes get two runners forward before United gets anyone back to slow the attack, and with everyone scrambling, Chofis Lopez had about a full minute to pick out the bottom corner.

It’s not just this goal, either. United really didn’t get going, even after they scored; remember, Chris Seitz made a strong save in the 34th minute after DCU were sloppy in stepping out following a busted short corner routine from the Quakes.

This is a pattern that can’t repeat. You’re not gonna do a lot of damage in MLS if you’re giving away 15-30 minutes in the first half. United had this problem last year, too, and we all know how that went.

“To be fair, it was a great week, we prepared so good for this game, we felt very good. But again, the first 15 minutes, we get punched, and that throws away all the preparation,” said Felipe Martins after the game. And that’s true, United did lose their heads a bit thanks to the goal. However, not getting into the groove in that first minute, so you take that “punch” instead of starting on level footing? This team, with this list of injured players, cannot afford to do it again. — Jason Anderson

Get well, get well soon we hope that you get well

Much has been made about D.C. United’s injuries, and it will continue to be a thing until it’s not a thing. But Fredric Brillant looked less than ideal on the first goal, was left in the dust on the second, and appeared to be flailing a little on the last. Only one of his three tackles was successful and he made several recoveries over a bit of ground. Tony Alfaro was a little better, had less of the ball, and wasn’t as strong in the air as Fred, but had a goal to his credit. All of whatever this is said, D.C.’s injury issues push at least one and possibly both of these guys to the bench for improved athleticism.

This statement may be rendered moot by how Steve Birnbaum is progressing and whether he experiences any setbacks, but here’s hoping he doesn’t, nor Donovan Pines, nor Michael DeShields. — Ryan Keefer

This is Jason, and I just wanted to make sure this Losada quote was in this section of the piece:

I told you before the first game that this group was not fit enough. They came back from four months offseason totally unfit, many over-weight. Nobody had control over what the players were doing during those four months, and some of them are paying the price. But 60-70% of the injuries are injuries from the past, injuries that you could avoid with individual programs... But to be honest with you, I’m not planning to change the way we are training or the way we are working. All the departments need to change, need to adapt to our way of work, not the other way around. I guess D.C. United hired me to to make a change, not to keep on doing the things we have been doing for the last ten years.

Let’s talk about Moses Nyeman

If you’ve been listening to Filibuster, you know my benchmark for what United should do with Nyeman has a simple, clear statement: he needs to play 1,000 minutes in MLS this year, even if it means sometimes putting him into games where he’s a little over his head (still don’t think we’ve seen one of those, by the way).

With Russell Canouse pulling up during the morning training session on Thursday, just hours before the team headed to the airport, Losada’s choice was made for him, but Nyeman also gave the team reason to think about keeping him on the field. Facing a unique tactical challenge, the eye test showed Nyeman to be as composed as ever, and even handed a difficult role in the second half — United played a 343 with a diamond midfield in the second half in an attempt to save their bacon — it was hard to find too much to get particularly upset with him about.

The data backs this up. Nyeman was more secure as a passer than Moreno (81.8% passing accuracy to 79.2%), and despite having to fly out to the flanks on a regular basis when San Jose looked to break out along the wings, he mostly held up defensively, winning four of six attempted tackles while adding in two interceptions and six recoveries.

(quick aside, MLS has brought its chalkboards back, and I couldn’t be more relieved)

He also produced a tremendous, goal-saving recovery that required making some difficult reads on the fly:

Nyeman reads the danger here nearly two full seconds before the ball is actually struck towards Espinoza, which is the only reason he was in any kind of position to do anything here. And then, admittedly after taking his eyes off Espinoza and losing him for a moment, he helped Chris Seitz delay a shot by getting tight again, and then figured out that he had to make a full sprint to the goal as it became clear that Espinoza was going to escape Seitz to shoot at an empty net.

It wasn’t a perfect performance (there was a little too much sideways and backwards for Losada’s system, and he did commit six fouls), but if you’re asking me to pick next week’s lineup, I’m really thinking about keeping him in the eleven even if Canouse returns. — JA

An offensive offense

As we start to get a sample size together, on the macro the attacking numbers aren’t great: three goals, two scored by defenders, and the third on a set piece that your central midfielder/body smasher volleyed through a crowd of people.

On the micro, there need to be some epiphanies amongst the attacking players. Let’s take a look at xG for a second:

See that flat line of blue. right after halftime? That’s the Quakes, sitting around doing nothing for 35 minutes. And for 35 minutes, the two chances D.C. had that could be considered remotely dangerous were Felipe’s free kick in the 53rd minute, followed by Brendan Hines-Ike’s blocked left-foot shot in the box three minutes later. So in essence, the Quakes, for more than a half-hour, were content to let D.C. try stuff in the knowledge that little would come from it.

With games at Columbus (zero goals allowed in two league games) and Orlando (one goal allowed in three) over the next two weeks, some synergy needs to happen soon. — RK

The downside of risking it all

United throws numbers forward on set pieces and while pressing. Readers of this site know this already, but I say it again because this kind of game is the kind of thing that style risks. Think about the goals that separated these two teams:

  • United presses aggressively on a San Jose throw-in, intercepts an outlet pass, and after a bit of pinball Cristian Espinoza has a window to cut out eight DCU players with one pass up the right touchline, giving Cade Cowell a 1v1 with Frederic Brillant out of nowhere
  • Yueill’s goal comes after a corner that only existed after Nyeman saved a goal that came on another jailbreak counter, this time after Moreno’s badly mis-hit shot on a United corner that caught the Quakes unprepared
  • A counter down the right after United threw the kitchen sink forward trying to pull a goal back

These goals fit in with some other goals we’ve seen this team cough up. Remember the preseason game against NYCFC, where a United corner was cleared and the Pigeons had a breakaway instantly? Or NYCFC’s goal in the season opener, when United’s attempt to press a throw-in on one side of the field was flicked through their crowd out to a wide-open Anton Tinnerholm on the opposite flank?

Right now, with United trying to execute this style at a high level, there’s going to be inconsistency from play to play, and that appears to be where the Black-and-Red are going to have trouble. They mostly avoided those lulls against New England, and they handled NYCFC over the final hour without giving these huge breaks away. Last night? Not so much.

“When you lose the way you lose today, with so many scoring chances, with so many attempts to goal, with more possession than the opponent, playing here at San Jose, I think there’s still many, many positive things to keep on building up,” said Losada post-game. “Knowing that we have limitations, and hopefully in the future when we recover some guys, some soldiers, everything will be better.”

He’s not wrong; this was not some abject humiliation. However, United fans might need to steel themselves for a couple more nights like this in the coming weeks, as the team tries to figure out how to take these risks in the correct way. There aren’t unlimited mulligans, of course, but for now — with the injury list including nearly half the team and the new system still taking root — hoping for growth seems to be the right angle to take. — JA

One last thing

Felipe made his return to the field after just over eight months of rehab, and he proceeded to complete 95% of his passes (that’s 38 out of 40) playing at the bottom of a midfield diamond after halftime. He also quietly won three fouls, and though United’s attack was often bogged down, one frustrating aspect was that the Black-and-Red were progressing play from their half fluently, in part because of what Felipe brought to the game.

I don’t have a lot to say here beyond it being an impressive return to action, especially in a difficult situation for the team. At the very least, we have serious competition in central midfield. — JA