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Four things about D.C. United’s gut punch of a loss at NYCFC

Some context, some Moses Nyeman, some rotation, and the risks that come with going all in

MLS: D.C. United at New York City FC Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

D.C. United scored a great early goal at NYCFC, lead most of the way, and then came so gut-wrenchingly close to a 94th minute winner after conceding an equalizer. Instead, though, the Pigeons had the last laugh, countering after a United corner to steal all three points at the death.

This is Jason, and I have some help from Adam and Ryan on going over a loss that we’re probably going to be stewing about for a while.

Something On NYC

It’s got to be said that New York City FC are a very strong team. Like, potentially the best team in the league—or at least the East—by the advanced metrics. And United went on the road and punched them in the mouth playing Hernán Losada’s preferred pressing style.

It lasted up until the last 10 minutes of the game, at which point it all fell apart. The Pigeons’ quality, fatigue from the third game in eight days, and some knocks that forced substitutions conspired, and we saw the Black-and-Red concede on a corner and on a full-field one-man counter from the very legit-seeming 20-year-old Brazilian Thiago Andrade.

It might be the first time this year that a United game actually lined up fairly well with the expected goals for the game. In United’s last two games, they created around 5 expected goals, but only had one to show for it. On Sunday, they created just over 1, and made it stand up. But their hosts created almost 2 xG, and they hit their mark, deep into stoppage time.

Losing like this stings like hell, but falling away from home in this fashion to a team that will end up an MLS Cup contender is no black mark. Especially for a team that’s still building and growing into its new identity.

Like the draw against Montreal, it’s a frustrating result, and with the late goals against it’s certainly points left on the table. But this isn’t 2020, when even a scoreless draw against this same NYC team felt like the team’s ceiling. The 2021 version of D.C. United is a work in progress, and they’re tantalizingly ahead of schedule.

That said, this was the first game in a little while where United didn’t thoroughly outplay their opponent. Losada’s system relies on disrupting the other guys’ buildup and then punishing mistakes. With the fatigue and NYC’s quality, that was an uphill climb. When this team can press longer against better teams, that’s when United will really be a threat.

Losada said when he first arrived in the District that “Pressure is a privilege.” He and his team are starting to earn that privilege, even against the league’s best. They aren’t there yet, but they’re clearly on the path. And I’m confident we’ll be expecting more from the next time United face NYC. — Adam Taylor

Rotation review

Losada, faced with three games in eight days, opted for fairly serious rotation yesterday, with five changes from Wednesday. We’ll talk about Moses Nyeman in the next section, and I think a review of Frédéric Brillant’s performance would be that he did exactly what you’d expect, and that United was defending reasonably comfortably before he left with a knock.

That leaves us with goalscorer Nigel Robertha, left wingback Joseph Mora, and (at least in this game) central midfielder Yamil Asad.

Robertha showed some direct running and speed to turn Nyeman’s wonderful pass into an emphatic goal in the 9th minute, which was a perfect start. Robertha set Maxime Chanot up before Nyeman had even struck his pass, then offered an efficient stutter-step before absolutely clobbering this finish:

So that’s the good news. We also can start to put together some possible habits: a tendency to get the ball in the half-spaces, and some serious conviction when he’s on the move as an attack breaks forward.

However, it has to be said that after that impressive start, Robertha wasn’t a particularly big factor in the rest of the game. He had one blocked shot, one key pass for a shot outside the box, no successful dribbles or crosses, and was dispossessed five times. That’s not all his fault, since NYCFC had so much of the ball as the game went on, but he’s not blameless either. Overall, there’s a lot to build on here, but consistency is definitely needed.

Mora quietly had a pretty good game, at least at the task he was given. Losada acknowledged after the game that Anton Tinnerholm and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi were a danger he had his eye on. Overall, those two combined for one key pass (by Tinnerholm, and well after Mora was subbed off), one (long range, blocked) shot attempt, and while Tajouri-Shradi had four successful dribbles, Opta says three came in a three-second span in the center circle (i.e. not where Mora was). He didn’t really impact the game going forward, but it’s a potentially big positive for United to have a change-up on the left side, and that looks like what Mora’s role is going to become.

Asad, after a very good cameo midweek, added some value. Of United’s starters, he was the most secure passer (80% accurate), and had three successful tackles, the most on the team. Given a role as a third central midfielder rather than as part of the front line, it was a solid performance...but not necessarily more than that.

Losada said that formation tweak was intended to bring “maybe a little bit more stability (in) the midfield, knowing that the two (defensive midfielders) of New York City are two key players for the build-up, and all the circulation goes through those two players.” I’d argue this worked, and that Asad did his job within that framework. NYCFC had a lot of the ball, but long phases of the game went by with them unable to actually do much with it.

That said, I’m hoping we see Asad get another opportunity higher up the field, especially with no attacker right now putting in undeniably dominant performances. — Jason Anderson

On THAT pass and central midfield in general

OK, let’s all watch that Nyeman pass again:

That was fun, and the great part about watching Nyeman for me has been that you can find something new about his play almost every game. I’d imagined he had the long ball club in his bag, but hadn’t gotten a chance to use it like that before. And it was great that he did!

He also left the game after just 35 minutes, with Losada saying he may have gotten gassed a little early, which forced an early sub for Felipe. So let’s first look at the actions of both guys, and you’ll see how much more Nyeman did before leaving:

I don’t begrudge the urge to bring back Felipe for his presence on and off the field, and the second half kind of amplified this a little, but D.C. became a little more stagnant once Nyeman left.

So, if the news about Loudoun midfielder Jeremy Garay targeted for a homegrown deal does come to fruition (especially since Felipe is on a one-year deal with an option for 2022), know that D.C. would be getting a guy who is good on the ball, can (re)claim possession well, can find teammates at both short and long distances, and is a comfortable two-way midfielder.

United missed Junior Moreno today, but they’re going to get younger, faster and after a game like this, smarter as a result. — Ryan Keefer

We bought the ticket, we took the ride

Losada’s United is, we can say with confidence, bold. He wants them to push for goals, and he wants the team to pursue wins. As he said about Orlando’s bus-parking while 1-0 up a while back, “I don’t want to win that way.”

It’s been fun, and I think as a fanbase we should embrace that mentality. However, as with literally all approaches to this game, there are risks, and United got caught out at the end of this game. The end didn’t come in typical MLS fashion, though. United slowly but surely found themselves under more pressure in the 15-20 minutes before Keaton Parks glanced the equalizer just barely inside the far post. We know how that story goes in this league: the team that was out of gas and barely hanging on crumbles, and concedes.

Instead, United launched multiple attacking moves even as NYCFC remained dangerous. Paul Arriola had the game’s next two shot attempts, and the Black-and-Red came so, so close to winning this one on the second. In a 1-1 game in the 94th minute, they had six players in the box for a corner, and a seventh lurking just outside. There are teams in MLS that don’t send these numbers forward trailing 1-0 at home against a team down a man.

But we know what happened: Arriola had a chance that MLS’s expected goal counter lists as the highest xG opportunity either team had in the entire game (it represents about half of United’s total xG in the entire game), but stabbed the ball right into Sean Johnson. Exactly 20 seconds later, Thiago’s shot nestled into the bottom corner of United’s goal.

Losada himself summed up how the willingness to risk it all came with a price. “When you have a corner kick in the very last second of the game, I don’t understand why we still are going with so many numbers in the box, instead of realizing today, the point is enough,” said Losada. “On the contrary, we go up front with so many people...and no one realize what [we’re] doing. Even Donovan (Pines), with cramps, is willing to go forward to score the second goal. But I have to say that that might be my fault, because I am the one trying to set the tone and create that winning mentality in my team, to win at all cost. To always play for the victory, at home or away.”

This was a brutal result that only happened because a wild push for a late winner that really should have panned out went awry, and because of one defensive error (Donovan Pines obviously has to just shove Thiago down and take whatever card is coming on that break). We might catch a couple more of these, even as Losada tries to instill a little more street smarts into his team, but here’s the thing: we’re also going to see this team go all out for the dramatic win, and get it.

After years of playing it safe so often, I can stomach this one because I know what we’re getting in the exchange. To quote from the movie Heat, the reward is worth the stretch. — JA