It felt like D.C. United was on their way to a fairly frustrating loss to the Chicago Fire last night, with an attempted cross skipping off of Andy Najar’s foot and into the bottom corner of Bill Hamid’s goal. United had their chances, didn’t put them away, and were now down 2-0 away. Instead, they pushed for a way back into the match, and in the end three different substitutes contributed on plays that became goals as the Black-and-Red broke Fire hearts in a 2-2 draw.
It was...good? Bad? Let’s go with hard to get a read on, as United wouldn’t have had anyone to blame but themselves for losing, but also showed real character in fighting their way to a road draw (and then securing that draw, as opposed to letting it slip away as we saw in recent road games against New York City and Philadelphia).
We (Adam, Ben, Ryan, and me, Jason) all want to sort this one out, so here we go:
A frustrating night... until it wasn’t!
This wasn’t exactly the most fun game to watch, up to the last few minutes, at any rate, and it’s the second consecutive game that that’s been true.
Of course, the reasons behind the two games being slogs are very different. While the Union last weekend had no interest in letting soccer be played, the Fire on Wednesday put together flowing spells of possession that the Black-and-Red seemed powerless to stop.
Back in the Ben Olsen days, that wouldn’t necessarily be worrying, since letting the other team move the ball around even at the edge of the final third was a thing that happened and we were okay with. In Hernán Losada’s system, though, it’s not something we’re used to experiencing. During the Olsen era, United was content to let the other team move the ball side-to-side and send in crosses. But Losada’s players chased the ball all night, but up until the late stages didn’t muster the energy to catch it.
Especially after their first goal, when Chicago got their possession structure set up, United wouldn’t touch the ball again until a high-leverage moment in their own box. The press wasn’t on all night, and until the last 10 minutes, United chased shadows for long stretches and came out behind on individual duels and, especially, on second balls.
The result was a 2-0 deficit that felt like United didn’t have the energy to surmount, especially after seeing Nigel Robertha and Yamil Asad spurn chances earlier in the night.
Luckily, they found what they needed. United won a second ball in the attacking half, Drew Skundrich pushed play quickly ahead to Yordy Reyna to find Kevin Paredes , and it was game on.
Los Capitalinos have been the more energetic team in basically every game this season, so it was very strange and not fun to see what felt like lower levels for so long in this game. It’s likely that missing Russell Canouse (who leads MLS in ground covered) and sparkplugs Paul Arriola and Adrien Perez contributed to that dynamic on Wednesday. But if United don’t bring a better energy level on Sunday—forcing 50/50s, winning second balls, disrupting the other side’s build-up—the Red Bulls will run them off the field. —Adam M. Taylor
A different kind of frustration
I don’t necessarily agree with Adam’s read here, though everything I say from here on out comes with the caveat that I slept two hours, woke up for the USWNT’s Olympic game, then slept three more hours sometime later, and now it’s around midnight and I haven’t been back to sleep. In other words, I’m a little squirrely, and in fact wouldn’t be able to write this if not for pounding a bunch of Thai chili lime almonds during the second half.
With that said, I thought the energy level was...fine. Adequate. 7/10. Chicago was a bit harder to press for United, for sure, but I also felt like they were holding off on pressing to some degree. Whether it was because of the knocks (a lot of players played though their questionable status), or the midweek, or some unknown travel difficulty, it seemed like the choice this time was to keep a high-ish line, but not seriously high press every time. I’d also chalk some of it up to the 352 formation instead of the 343.
But really, the thing I’m frustrated with is pretty simple: United should have scored some dang goals at 0-0 and made this easy on themselves, or been able to level at 1-1. Bobby Shuttleworth made some good stops, but United’s shots were largely right at him: Robertha and Reyna were both guilty of that from great spots. Julian Gressel delivered three very different, excellent services into the box, and only Frédéric Brillant could say he at least did well with his effort on goal.
(I feel for Gressel, by the way, who American Soccer Analysis listed as 2nd in all of MLS with 4.20 expected assists on the year before all this setting guys up on a platter last night, yet has just 2 official assists)
Ryan’s right about Kamara, who I feel like fans have largely underrated this year, but in this game he wasn’t getting a lot of the looks. I’ve written about that before, so I’ll just add that this team can’t just say “OK let’s figure out how to create these chances for Kamara” as its lone scoring cure.
The players who missed or shot right at Shuttleworth are better than that, or at least need to be better than that if they’re going to continue getting opportunities. I think it’s good that United has 11 different goalscorers this year (ten humans, plus the homie Own Goal), but I’m frankly a little worried about this team when the chances aren’t falling to Kamara.
“Once again, if we start to put all of those situations in the back of the net, this team needs to have six, seven more points,” said Losada after the game. “That’s the difference between [making the] playoff, or no playoff.”
Maybe I’m in an unstable emotional place due to this lack of sleep, but that way of looking at it hit hard for me. I think this team did enough tonight to win, and they’ve done enough to be top five in the East for sure, but they don’t currently have that second scoring option that I feel like any top team has. I think it could be Robertha, and I think Asad and Paredes will chip in as well, and of course Paul Arriola and Edison Flores are still out. But it’s all still “could be,” or “he’ll chip in a few,” rather than a second player that can deliver when it’s not Kamara.
That in turn is how a winnable game against Chicago becomes a draw I have mixed feelings about, and if you have too many games like that...maybe you’re talking about 8th instead of 7th come November. — Jason Anderson
More like GOL-a Kamara, amirite?
I was skeptical of putting Ola Kamara on the right side of that forward pairing as it started to shake out. Once Kevin Paredes could move forward, Kamara could get into the middle a little more and well, it worked, since the kid was the first goalscorer, and all. Ola’s goals per 90 minutes is 1.22 which is above everyone is MLS, including Chicharito. About the only thing to be concerned about is his minutes total. Ola needs to show his durability with Hernan Losada, as his existing value as a goalscorer only serves to keep this team dangerous.
Kamara sounds upbeat about his partnership with Nigel Robertha, and neither is going anywhere through at least 2022, based on contract status. But now that Kamara has played a full season’s worth of games with United (34 games, 24 starts) and has shown he can score goals with his third MLS club, showing Robertha what he can do with his first would prove to benefit the team in a way they haven’t seen in more than a decade. — Ryan Keefer
Trust in Najar
I was going to write about how I thought that Andy Najar and Joseph Mora should switch positions, with Najar taking the wingback spot and Mora taking the center back spot. Najar is, even from the center back position, a key attacking cog in Losada’s system, and getting him forward seems to be a good thing. And I do think that, if United has its full complement of center backs available, then maybe Najar should be a wingback or an attacker or deployed further up the field. But with Steven Birnbaum, Brendan Hines-Ike, and Donovan Pines all unavailable for this game, Losada made the right call. Even with the own goal, which Najar could have done better on, there was a play in stoppage time that summed it all up: A ball was free in United’s box, having just tied the game, but Najar raced in at warp speed and was able to clean it up, no problem.
I don’t know if I trust Joseph Mora to do that, but I do trust Andy Najar. — Ben Bromley