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Three things about D.C. United’s hard-knock loss to the Philadelphia Union

There are some real lessons for the Black-and-Red in this one

MLS: D.C. United at Philadelphia Union Mitchell Leff-USA TODAY Sports

D.C. United did not beat the Philadelphia Union, which is not a thing we particularly enjoy around here. Once again, the Union held on through a tough stretch against United before taking the lead against the run of play. Once more, they managed the game effectively enough (or perhaps it’s brutally enough?) to see their way to three points.

After overcoming the 114-minute delay and letting this irritating game bounce around in our skulls, we’ve got a lot to say about this one. So, without further ado, here are some Thoughts from Adam, me (Surprise! It’s Jason!), and Ryan:

School of Hard Knocks

D.C. United got a taste of some bitter medicine recently against New York City FC, shipping two late goals to lose the lead and the game, the winner coming on a full-field counter after the Black-and-Red had committed too many men forward seeking a winner of their own (which, to be fair, very nearly came off).

On Saturday in Chester, they relearned a key part of that lesson. Both Union goals came on big counter attacks after United had pushed too many players too far upfield. On the opening goal, they committed to the press, but nevertheless allowed an outlet pass that cut them open. On Philadelphia’s winner, Tony Alfaro pushed himself into the attack and when Nigel Robertha was unable to retain possession, the hosts immediately attacked the space vacated by the Mexican center back and exploited the resulting 2v1.

Full commitment to the press and to getting numbers in the final third is a huge part of Hernán Losada’s system. But, especially against good teams—and the Supporters’ Shield-holding Philadelphia Union are certainly that— Los Capitalinos have to find the line to avoid over-committing and opening themselves up to exactly those counters that are costing them points in the standings.

The game against Philly was educational in another respect, though. United were head-and-shoulders better than their hosts for the first 10 minutes, carving out multiple chances, including one in the opening 30 seconds. The Union simply could not keep up with Losada’s team.

So they scratched, clawed, and kicked—literally—to slow United down. Russell Canouse and Adrien Perez left the game with injuries after being hacked down. Julian Gressel spent multiple spells on the ground following hard contact from Philadelphia players. It wasn’t accidental, and United weren’t able to reassert themselves until after halftime. Jim Curtin’s gambit worked, and his team only received a single yellow card—two fewer than United—in that first half.

In MLS, the referees are always going to be iffy. You can’t count on them to keep a knife fight from subsuming the soccer game. So you have to be able to either assert yourself and give as good as you get, or just make the other team play a soccer anyway, knives or no.

After halftime, and up until that second counterattack goal and the weather delay that followed, D.C. seemed to be up to the task. They got back into the game and were pushing (too hard; see previous point) for a winner.

In the coming days, United will watch the film and reflect on the lessons from tonight. In the end, it’s one more chapter in their quest to join the Eastern Conference’s elite. We’ll have to wait to see whether the lessons stick. — Adam M Taylor

What does depth really mean?

United came into this game on a 3W-1D-1L run, and if not for a wild and deeply unpleasant 20 seconds or so against NYCFC, could have even been 4W-1D-0L. After showing promise while being short of some of their best players, they got closer to full strength, and suddenly that promise started to become wins.

Saturday, though, they found themselves without Brendan Hines-Ike, Donovan Pines, Paul Arriola, and Kevin Paredes. In that previously mentioned five-game stretch, Hines-Ike, Pines, and Arriola started every game and played 80+ minutes. Paredes started four times, and subbed in for 32 minutes in the odd game in that set.

These are critical starters at this point, and being without them showed. It’s not that the players who replaced them (Steven Birnbaum, Tony Alfaro, Yamil Asad, and Joseph Mora) did poorly, or are limited players. Birnbaum, in particular, is an expected starter if that worrying-looking injury late in the game turns out to be no big deal. Asad has scored in two straight games, and has a 9 goal/8 assist season with United.

So on one hand, the Black-and-Red have depth. Plenty of teams missing the rough equivalent of this quartet would have put out a sub-MLS-caliber player or two, and I’d argue that United did not.

However, the details here are more than just simply replacing a starter with someone who is just a hair behind them and battling for playing time. It’s the specifics here, and when you look at who missed out compared to who played, Losada had to call on very different players to face the Union, and losing the player profiles — the qualities that differentiate a player from their peers — was as much a problem as it was just the broad quality difference.

The defensive issues are the less severe ones, at least from this specific game. Hines-Ike and Birnbaum actually seem to have some similarities as players, but Hines-Ike is in form and has been playing every week. Birnbaum will get there, but there is very understandably some rust. Alfaro, meanwhile, has certainly exceeded expectations, and his being left-footed is an underrated trait in this set-up, but Pines has pretty clearly outplayed him. It seems doubtful that he gets caught driving upfield on what became the Union goal, as was the case with Alfaro.

The real differences come with the missing attackers. Arriola’s role as a pressing forward and as a force multiplier for the rest of his attack is tough to replace. He brings such urgency, and his off-the-ball movement opens things up for everyone else in a way that no one on the team can really match. Asad did well in this game, and in fact this might have been a more balanced starting front three than playing Arriola and Adrien Perez (who is a bit too similar to Arriola), but not to an extent that would offset Arriola’s absence. United were a bit predictable off the ball in the final third, and that’s been the case every time Arriola has missed out this season.

Finally, the difference between Paredes and Mora is pretty clear. Mora is solid, sturdy, and makes smart plays, but he’s not a threat on the dribble, and he’s not going to create many chances. He’s a left back who can play as a wingback, rather than a winger who can play wingback.

Paredes, meanwhile, is a thrilling livewire who changes the dynamic of every game he plays in. His dribbling ability is something United genuinely does not have right now without him, unless they move Andy Najar up into a wingback role (which, because of the defensive shortage, they can’t right now). What he may give up in terms of defensive decisions is far more than made up for in attacking threat, especially on the dribble. Without the option to move Najar forward, United’s attack was left with a harder job of passing their way through the Union’s low block rather than getting on the run.

The point here is that United was missing some critical elements of the stuff that made them a team clearly climbing in the East, and they were missing it against a team that is clearly showing a knack for being deeply unpleasant to play against. That’s a recipe for a 2-1 road loss in MLS.

That problem was compounded by further injuries: Russell Canouse is a completely unique player for United, and he played only about 22 minutes of this one at full strength, and only 30 in total. Losing Perez did bring a trickier player into the game in Yordy Reyna, who manufactured the penalty kick, but it also took some teeth out of United’s press. United got little out of Nigel Robertha — though he did lead the team with successful dribbles, so it wasn’t for lack of effort — and couldn’t turn to Ola Kamara or any other true striker. They finished the game with Frédéric Brillant as a target man due to lack of other options.

While it’s safe to say United has a deep team, it’s also fair to say that the limits of what that depth can do has less to do with the actual caliber of the players, and more to do with an inability to replace certain qualities. Paredes on the dribble, Canouse’s ball-winning, Arriola’s runs on the break? Right now, those are things that limit this team’s ceiling, and on Saturday, United was pretty much bumping up against that. — Jason Anderson

On grown vs. growing

From time to time when I see United games like that, I’m reminded of a thing I saw in 2015. United was fielding a U-23 team at the time (really! I saw it, it was real!), coached by current Washington Spirit gaffer Richie Burke. The squad included Jeremy Ebobisse and Chase Gasper, who have senior USMNT caps, Jacori Hayes(a regular MLS starter), and other MLS-experienced pros like Taylor Washington, Carter Manley, and Colin Bonner. They faced a New York Red Bulls U-23 side that seemed a step ahead most of the game, but eventually rallied for a 3-3 tie.

More than that, the Red Bulls had been fielding a U-23 side for a few years at that point, going on to finish first in the conference (their fourth time in six seasons) and was a runner-up for the PDL title that year. They still field that U-23 team in the USL League Two! But I watched that team exhibit the same sort of press and attack that the first team had been displaying for a couple of years at that point, facing a D.C. side that had good pieces, but a disjointed organizational message if there ever was one at that point.

So I kind of saw that when viewing the Union’s first goal, where Olivier Mbaizo, who had been bouncing between Philly and the team formerly known as Bethlehem Steel for two years, started the counter. I see that on the times I’ve seen Union 2 play Loudoun United so far; for all the justifiable talk about D.C.’s talented trio of teen homegrowns Moses Nyeman, Kevin Paredes, and Griffin Yow seeing game-day rosters, Philly had five homegrowns on the bench last night, all 20 or younger, and if you include the older players raised through the pipeline (Mbaizo and Jack Elliott), that number increases to seven.

This is less about playing your kids, and more about the organization’s strategy being tangible at every level. Philly has it; D.C. is working on it. Losada has the formidable task of restoring the confidence of the first team (which he appears to be doing successfully, thank goodness!) along with getting accustomed to his new country. So now he, Lucy Rushton, Sean Howe, David Sanford, et al have to put together something which will give them the benefits that Philly’s technical staff is currently enjoying on and off the field. — Ryan Keefer