The word “frustrating” is coming up too often with D.C. United, but it applies to last night’s loss to the Columbus Crew. Once again, an absurdly undermanned Black-and-Red went on the road and restricted a more vaunted opponent to little, and once again they lost by multiple goals. It’s...well, it’s frustrating.
With that in mind, Jason (that’s me) and Adam are going to speak to some specific frustrations!
This glass is half-full
Let’s start with the thing you probably sensed without needing data: United, missing what I’d say was eight starters and with no depth available, went on the road and gave the defending champs almost nothing:
There are aspects that aren’t great here (when faced with an opponent who seemed pretty tepid on the night overall, 1.13 xG isn’t going to translate into a contender), but United won’t concede three goals in the large majority of games where they collectively defend and press at the level they did last night.
Pair that with an attack that was keenly frustrating precisely because they got into good positions to create a bunch of times, but actually created something on precious few occasions. This team is doing well at creating chances to create, but when it comes time to turn those moments into good looks at goal, there’s simple lack of execution to blame. It’s tough to take at the moment, but it’s also a sign that the path to being a threatening team isn’t long. This isn’t 2020, where opposing defenders weren’t even having to sweat.
“It’s coming. For sure it’s coming. We got to get the reward, because we work very hard, very, very hard, and it can’t be like (this) all the time. No, it’s not possible,” exclaimed Frederic Brillant after the game. “The things will change for sure. I’m very positive about the future.”
Brillant’s been around the game for a long time, and he knows what a good team or a bad team looks like. He also knows when a team is close to being effective, and I don’t think this is just captain-speak trying to convince himself as much as the media post-game. There’s good reason for him to believe: United’s three losses have come in games that were quite even, despite being on the road and against playoff teams. The issues are easier to correct than some kind of structural problem. It’s not that far away...and that’s why it’s so aggravating.
United’s also getting this close with lineups that, in terms of the depth chart, look more like the kind of lineups that feel more mid-June Open Cup lineup against a USL League One opponent than they do MLS regular season.
“How can I complain about guys who came during preseason actually to help us as an extra wheel, not as...starters?,” said Hernán Losada after the game. “They are doing this from game one, and they are doing it, in between the possibilities, better than what we expected.”
Losada added that there were things to be happy about that didn’t require as much of a qualifier. “Moses Nyeman is our best player, incredibly happy with his performance. To see Kimarni (Smith) make his first MLS game as a starter, as someone who come from the SuperDraft and never play in MLS before,” said Losada. “Ola Kamara scored his first goal of the season, coming as a substitution. (Edison) Flores, more in a free role, gives his first assist and start to feel better and better, so I still see positive things in the after a bad result.”
It sucks to lose, but this is not a team that screams “broken beyond repair” to me. — Jason Anderson
No, you fool! The glass is clearly half-empty
OK, fine, United isn’t hopeless, but the relative distance from being good is still the toughest part of that journey to traverse. And what’s more, United’s shortages in terms of players are mostly at the back. The attacking troubles are coming despite getting the ball to Edison Flores and Yamil Asad, and despite earning plenty of set piece looks for Julian Gressel and others to serve in. The execution has been poor to say the least, and last night was the clearest example of that in 2021 so far.
Losada said as much after the game. “From the offensive players, I expect a lot more. A lot more. So, there are no excuses about danger or scoring chances... once again today you score a goal. In my eyes you had a lot more moments to at least finish up with a shot on goal or with a lot more (danger) than [is] actually happening.”
United may have worried the Crew defense quite a bit, but as long as the team’s top attacking players are unable to turn moments in space within 30 yards of goal into more danger, the relentless pressure and disruption they’ve been able to bring to bear on opposing teams is only going to result in more games like this, where a Lucas Zelarayan or a Cade Cowell will conjure up a winner from a situation that isn’t, by the numbers, very dangerous.
This issue is also one that Losada acknowledged might take some time to get sorted. The injury crisis has really hampered the development of timing and chemistry in training, and that’s precisely what United needs to get better at. “It’s almost impossible to create coordination or automatics (planned movements) or step forward in our way of play if you are missing so many guys,” said Losada.
That leaves United, at least for a little while, needing to defend and press without big mistakes for 90 minutes, and then getting a big play from a big player. That sounds familiar, if we’re being completely honest. If you remove the mention of pressing, this was the broad recipe during the Wayne Rooney/Luciano Acosta era.
“Every team has key players, game changers. At this moment, those players are making the difference for the opponents, and not for us,” said Losada. Until United gets more time with most of the squad available to train and take on the attacking ideas Losada wants to implement, there will be a heavy burden on United’s top attackers to deliver something special at least once per game, and so far that isn’t happening. — JA
D.C. United just Cannot. Catch. A. Break.
O, how is this team snakebit? Let me count the ways.
First, the injuries. No matter how hard the training regimen is, and no matter how many preexisting injuries there have been, this team is as beaten up as any in MLS history. Despite a full roster of 30 players, United dressed 16 for this game. And one of those, Joseph Mora, was scratched in Columbus after an injury during warmups.
Next, the own goals. Brendan Hines-Ike had one for the game’s only goal against New England, and he was one-upped by Frederic Brillant’s two on Saturday. Take those out, and the Black-and-Red may get points in both of those road games.
My guy @ricklawes confirmed that the single-season record for own goals conceded is 4, held jointly by four teams -- D.C. in 2000 & 2013, New England in 2009 & Vancouver in 2013.— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) May 9, 2021
D.C. United have three in four games so far this year. https://t.co/PIgg1pavCn
And speaking of results, despite winning the expected goals battle for the third time in four games, los Capitalinos have one win to show for it — ironically, from the one game in which they gave up more xG than they created. In Columbus, they held the defending MLS Cup champions to less than half an expected goal, but thanks to the brilliance of Zelarayan and the two own goals, walked away with no points for their troubles.
I won’t even go into the influence of Saturday’s referee Silviu Petrescu here, other than to say that his big decisions were the defining feature of the game’s first hour, and nearly every one of those moments seemed to go against D.C., from penalty shouts to promising free kicks to advantage calls.
There are times when you make your own luck — and until the final 15 minutes, D.C. United did themselves few favors with slow decision-making and bad passing in the attacking third — but Losada may want to perform a Ted Lasso-style exorcism of the team’s locker room to put this team’s bad luck behind them. — Adam Taylor
Let’s talk about Orejas
Flores got his first assist of the year last night, and to be fair, it was exactly the kind of thing United brought him in for:
It’s just that until this moment, United wasn’t getting anything out of Flores. It’s an interesting case, because the data says Flores was the leader from both teams on the day in terms of combined expected goals and expected assists; his 0.49 total is nearly that of the entire Crew team (0.61).
But those numbers are both low, and therein lies the point. This was the only key pass Flores managed in the game. He succeeded in every attempted dribble he had...but that means going 1 for 1. He had three shots, but two were from long range, and only one was on frame.
United had more of the ball than Columbus, they created more of the circumstances that lead to actual danger, but collectively and individually they weren’t able to take that next step often enough. Either the pass was off, or someone received the ball incorrectly and lost their window trying to shuffle their feet into a spot to play forward, or openings simply weren’t seen.
Losada detailed a “freer role” for Flores, and in possession his job was to push up as a forward in what looked like a 3412 rather than 3421. Defensively, the job was still to check back and help form a 4v2 overload against the Crew’s holding midfielders. That last part largely worked, but adjusting an attacking player’s role can only do so much. At some point, the player just has to deliver, and that’s where we are with Flores.
And of course, it’s not just Flores; Yamil Asad is also not making much of an impact on games right now, and with inexperienced players up front and (at least last night) at left wingback, United’s not getting enough out of any of the players they flood the attacking third with.
It’s just that Flores is the player with the $5 million price tag, and as long as this team is in need of a moment of inspiration to carry them through this tough patch with injuries, it’s hard to look anywhere else when that inspiration doesn’t come, or comes too late.
“You play against the champions, and still a very pragmatic Columbus Crew who really knows what to do, who has key players, game changers, that needs only one free kick to open (the scoring). And that’s probably the biggest difference between us and the rest of the teams right now,” said Losada, and he’s dead on. The first 20 minutes of this game were uneventful because of United’s ability to disrupt the Crew, but their game changer manufactured a free kick with a flop — don’t get mad Crew fans, I’m actually advocating for our #10 to do what your #10 did — and then buried it because he’s an excellent player.
I am steadfast in thinking that Flores is an excellent player, too. I saw it when he was with Morelia, and I’ve seen it when he’s played for Peru. It’s just that outside of some flashes where things almost worked, and that one flash from yesterday’s game, there is reason to wonder whether it’s going to pan out here or not. United needs the answer to that to be “yes,” and they need it ASAP. — JA