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Five things about D.C. United’s aggravating loss to the Philadelphia Union

We feel just about how Ola Kamara does in this photo

Caitlin Buckley / Black and Red United

D.C. United’s battle against the Philadelphia Union, and indeed the fates, did not turn out in a positive manner, with the Black-and-Red repeating the trick of outplaying their more widely respected opponent only to lose 1-0 at home. It’s the third time that United has faced a presumptive playoff team in the East and suffered the same cruel outcome. It’s not a lot of fun!

While it’s tempting to run last week’s piece and just crudely do a strikethrough on every Orlando player and insert someone from Philly, the gritty details were different, so we’re (I’m Jason, I do the rending of clothes, Ryan Keefer will cover the gnashing of teeth) going to sort through the rubble like we’ve been doing.

This week’s litmus test (and litmus tests kind of suck!)

Last week, Jason talked about how Orlando suffered through their Audi Field encounter with D.C. and this week? Well, Philly sort of did the same. Over on the right is a chart of all of their second half shot attempts:

That’s one single shot, and it came late in the game! Orlando had one more shot in that, and nothing after the 73rd minute for the record. D.C. had seven shots in the second half, and ten this week, but hardly anything this week that panicked Pedro Gallese or Andre Blake (perhaps as a testament to how Orlando and Philly manage games).

It’s nice to knock on the door, but as the more experienced pieces come back (and then probably depart for international competitions), the time to get up and running after an injury has to be short, quick, and effective because talking about moral victories is going to thin out soon. — Ryan Keefer

Players make plays

United is finishing an important three-game home stand with three points, and lost twice to teams that will probably occupy two of the East’s seven playoff spots. It’s tempting to say “well, it’s early,” and move on, but the season is over 20% over now. It’s not late, but it’s not really early either, and United has now lost half of their home games.

I’m not at all going full pessimist here, because United is doing some things really well. They just bossed the defending Shield champions, and forced an Orlando team that is on paper superior into the most pure bus-parking an MLS team has bothered with this year without a red card being involved. That’s serious progress, and part of what makes this particular period of time so frustrating is that we can all see the path to good times...we just aren’t walking through the door.

Which brings me to a commonality in most of of United’s losses:

  • At San Jose, Cade Cowell and Jackson Yueill produced two of the best individual goals of the season
  • Lucas Zelarayan’s free kick wizardry in Columbus
  • Mauricio Pereyra’s clinical 1-2 with Tesho Akindele gave Orlando their win last week
  • Jamiro Monteiro played the best pass anyone has delivered against United this year to set up the goal tonight

United is doing a lot right against their opponents. From a process perspective, they’ve been the better team more often than not, and if we ranked every performance in every game from 1 to 22-32, United would probably have 9-10 of the top 15 in each of these losses, save maybe that Quakes game.

The problem? United isn’t coming up with the big play or the top performance. Last week, it’s Pereyra with the play, and Antonio Carlos with the performance. This week, Monteiro had the play, and you could say either Andre Blake or Jakob Glesnes was the best player in the game.

As long as United isn’t getting a standout performance or one special moment out of anyone, they’re going to be vulnerable to precisely this kind of loss, especially against the good teams. Elite MLS players are bailing their teams out against United over and over again, and while I don’t think the Black-and-Red’s stars have been poor, or even below average, they aren’t providing much in terms of the match-winning moments either.

Winning games without star performers in MLS is always difficult, because teams aren’t constructed with a balanced salary structure. LAFC, Seattle, Philadelphia, Columbus, New England, Kansas City, the Galaxy...all the same. Carlos Vela or Carles Gil starts, but so do guys that played four years of college soccer. That’s the league.

Right now for United, everyone’s working their asses off, everyone’s bought in, everyone plays for the shirt, but it’s tough to win games when everyone is getting a 7 out of 10 on the night. If someone — a millionaire, a Re-Entry Draft pick, a homegrown player, anyone — adds that transcendent moment to these performances, United is really going to be onto something. Until then though, what happened in each of the last two games remains a distinct possibility to continue. — Jason Anderson

Can more than one person knock on the door?

I like Adrien Perez. I like Roberto Firmino. And I can understand why Bob Bradley sort of made that comparison last year. BUT, for almost a big portion of the game last night, Perez was the sole source of offense, even after Ola Kamara came on at halftime. It wasn’t until Kevin Paredes came in and fired off three shots in eight minutes almost immediately after subbing on in the 60th minute that this broke up, and those represent the second-highest shot total for United. Perez took eight, with four on goal; the other 14 players that played last night produced nine and three respectively.

Granted, Edison Flores had to leave because of injury, but as I said earlier, we’ve got to start finding out what these guys can do in this system, and not shooting the ball doesn’t help. — RK

I’m Jason, and I want Ola Kamara to start next week in Fort Lauderdale. United has to take the risk of playing an out-and-out striker at the expense of a central midfielder. That’s it, that’s all I’ve got to add here. — RK

OK, what went right?

Let’s focus on a thing United did well, rather than continuing to holler about the stupid ball not crossing a specific line on a specific plot of grass. José Martinez has been one of the best defensive midfielders in MLS since his arrival, suiting the Union’s approach with his physical play, passing range, consistency, and speed. It’s a situation where talent and system are a perfect fit, and that usually means big-time performances.

In Philadelphia’s diamond midfield, Martinez is the first option for playing out of the back. Moving the ball from the defense or Blake to Martinez is where the Union try to bypass a high press, and his vision is relied on for opening games up, a crucial aspect for teams playing a compact system like Jim Curtin’s side does.

Here’s the Union passing network from last night’s game. Wider lines mean more passes completed between two players. The more wide lines connecting with one player, the more involved that player is on the ball. If you’re a deep-lying orchestrator your team relies on like the Union do with Martinez, you want lots of wide lines.

Those lines are looking pretty thin! What we see here is that United forced the Union to turn away from Martinez (#8) and towards passes out to left back Kai Wagner (#27). Building out through a fullback is less desirable, because when said fullback looks one way, instead of more passing options, they just have the touchline. So, the Union chose an unpalatable option over finding their talented deep midfielder, and it’s because United made it difficult to get Martinez involved.

The numbers back this up. Martinez had 40 touches and 33 passes attempted in his 67 minutes. In 90 minutes, that would have put him on track for 54 touches and 44 passes, which are both around 13% lower than his normal totals. That’s not a huge difference, but it is enough of a factor that it likely influenced Curtin in removing the Venezuelan the moment Martinez picked up his first yellow card.

United used its pressure and its structure — a 352 in the first half, and a mix of 343 or 3412 after halftime — to reduce one of MLS’s best deep midfielders to the kind of performance you’d expect out of just some random replacement-level player. The result? The Union couldn’t really get much going, taking just six shots all night. Putting aside a four-shot outing against NYCFC that was very much informed by Martinez being sent off just 16 minutes in, Philadelphia hasn’t been held to fewer than 13 shots in any other game this year.

Once again, Hernán Losada’s tactical approach and the application of those ideas by the players made life really difficult for their opponent. I told you, these won’t all be about not scoring goals and being frustrated. — JA

Ball’s gonna go in the goal

As a middle-aged so-and-so who used to play about 3-4 hours every day and has not really thought about much of anything in my life other than this weird game where you can be very good and still lose frequently, I’ve learned something: if you create shots, the ball will eventually go in. Soccer is full of dumb deflections and moments where the ball checks up off the grass in a way that completely betrays the defense. It’s a sport designed to be extraordinarily difficult to ever score a goal...but sometimes you score some slapstick nonsense goal that you didn’t earn in the least.

I think the ball is going to go into the goal. Maybe it’ll be a world-class goal of the year contender. Maybe it’ll be some unremarkable normal goal, or a header on a corner, or a goalkeeper fumble, or a cutback for a tap-in, or a butt goal. This isn’t even analysis right now so much as self-assurance: if you play enough soccer without playing badly, the ball goes in the goal. It always does.

United isn’t playing badly. Therefore, the ball’s gonna go in the goal. It’s that or the entire concept of soccer is beginning to collapse, starting with our local MLS team. Either/or! — JA