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Four things about D.C. United winning a slugfest with the New York Red Bulls

Julian Gressel’s a giver, and we wonder how just often United can dig this deep

Caitlin Buckley / Black and Red United

Last night, D.C. United scratched, clawed, battled, fought, and scrapped their way past the New York Red Bulls in a 1-0 win. We all knew these two teams, with styles of play based around high pressing, solid team shape, and endless effort would probably play this kind of game, and they sure did deliver.

But here’s the thing: United was the better pressing team. Their shape was more solid, and they gave more effort. They won this game 1-0, and probably should have made it 2-0 somewhere in there. The Red Bulls, trailing for over an hour, forced Bill Hamid to make one save. It wasn’t pretty, sure, but it’s also not fortunate or controversial. The Black-and-Red got the win their play deserved.

With that in mind, Jason (hello!) and Ryan have a few thoughts on a night that feels like it might be an important milestone:

A new era in the Atlantic Cup

Last night was the first time United has beaten their oldest rivals at Audi Field. That, by itself, feels significant. Even the 2018 team, in the kind of form this club has only very rarely experienced in this century, couldn’t get the job done against the Red Bulls. Trips to the District became, for the first time in the history of this rivalry, easy pickings for the Jersey boys.

You have to go back to May 13, 2016 to find a United win in D.C. in this series. Since then, the Black-and-Red have gone 0W-2D-4L at home, giving up over two goals per game in the process. Not great! Here’s the lineup United put out that day, just to really give you the context of how long it’s been:

Worra; Franklin, Birnbaum, Boswell, Kemp; Neagle (Jeffrey 63), Sarvas, DeLeon, Nyarko; Acosta (Buescher 74); Saborio (Espindola 89)

I’m bringing this up because, first of all, that’s too damn long of a time. But more importantly, United might just be pushing their way back into position as the team that runs this rivalry. Look at the nature of this game: the Red Bulls were at nearly full strength, while United was missing a bunch of starters to injury or the Gold Cup. Despite that, and despite the newness of Hernán Losada’s pressing system as compared to the Red Bulls going more Red Bull GmbH than ever before, United was the better pressing team. United’s shape was the one that held up. United’s goal was the one facing virtually no danger.

Even more important: United, for so long the team that got pushed around and bullied in these games, still took the endless kicks, shoves, and flailing limbs the Red Bulls always produce in these games...but they weren’t cowed. For years, United seemed at least somewhat unprepared for the mosh pit they were getting into against the Red Bulls, and tonight they seemed right at home.

This wasn’t hanging on for dear life, hoping for a sucker punch; this was United wading into the slugfest because they wanted the slugfest. After so many years of struggling with the fight, United proved to the Red Bulls — and more importantly, to themselves — that times have changed. — Jason Anderson

Julian Gressel: Giving until it hurts.

I laughed when I saw this Saturday in the midst of Atlanta’s continued malaise:

And not to turn Atlanta fans into victims of Dominique Wilkins too much, but the fact is that Gressel now has more assists than Brooks Lennon in 2021 (and has out-produced Lennon since both joined their current clubs in 2020). It’s just that Gressel remains a solid second in expected assists behind MVP candidate Carles Gil, and even decided he wanted to get a little chippy and almost had a Goal of the Year contender late in the game.

Gressel’s also the last player left to appear in all of United’s games this season, which is good...but we’ll get into that topic next. — Ryan Keefer

By the way, do this if you can:

D.C. United’s schedule and roster: a (probable) all-hands effort.

The Red Bulls out fouled D.C. United 14-11. But for the second time in three games, we saw a D.C. player (in this case, Nigel Robertha) get helped off the field due to injury, ironically enough after the guy he replaced (Ola Kamara) got his bell rung by a clearance. It didn’t help that word came Sunday night that Donovan Pines was injured while with the United States during the Gold Cup competition (the broadcast said it was “precautionary,” but still). Paul Arriola played in that game, wearing the armband before coming off in the 63rd minute and appearing healthy, so...yay? But Arriola will probably be still playing with the USMNT at least until Thursday and possibly longer, so he’ll be unavailable for D.C.’s next game against FC Cincinnati. D.C. gets a week break between games at least, neat!

But it’s August’s grueling slate of games that folks should be concerned about, for a bunch of reasons. United plays six games over 24 days, split evenly home and road. That’s tough, but then you look at who they’re playing:

  • at Columbus (defending MLS Cup Champions, 5th in East)
  • vs. Montreal (7th in the East)
  • at Nashville (2nd in the East)
  • at New England (1st in the East)
  • vs. Atlanta (10th in the East)
  • vs. Philadelphia (defending Shield winners, 4th in East, and whom United hasn’t beaten in their last ten regular season meetings)

It’s gets better! We know the secondary transfer window in MLS is open (and if you don’t, you do now!), but I wrote last November that barring some sort of garage sale, the team that was there in November was essentially going to be the team we saw for 2021. That’s proven true, with the only thing being that they’ve added more bodies, in part because they’ve had to accommodate for the bodies that have been dropping. If we see Edison Flores return to action next weekend (no guarantee there), it will have been more than two months since his last game. I’d be surprised if he can play a full game, especially with that August schedule looming.

At this point, I had initially wrote out the number of players that had or have had some injury that had kept them out for at least six weeks, but then I deleted it for two reasons: one, I wasn’t sure if I’d get this done by Jason’s deadline, and two, if I wanted to see something depressing, I’d go watch Requiem for a Dream again.

But the point I’m trying to get at here is that a team that’s battled a ton of injuries to get to where they are, is now staring at perhaps their most brutal stretch of their season, knowing that the people they’re training with now are in all likelihood going to be the ones they’ll be getting through this coming month with. A new Designated Player probably isn’t coming through that door.

The question then becomes how much of this team will be left standing come September. — RK

Miracles are a finite resource

Post-game, Losada said he was proud of the team’s defensive effort, but “I’m even more proud about the chances we keep on creating. On halftime it has to be 2-0 for us, at least. Julian Gressel gives three assists, and only one goes in.”

The point here is that United, even with the constant changes to the attack due to injuries, is managing to manufacture chances even during the 0-0 game state that can dictate so much. This isn’t a team falling behind before creating, but rather a team that creates good looks early on a weekly basis.

What they don’t do every time is make those chances count, and that brings us to the rest of that quote: “Due to the circumstances and the availability of players we have right now, this is quite a miracle. But, we can’t keep on producing miracles every single weekend,” said Losada before saying he hopes United ownership will prove Ryan wrong and add to the squad.

There are two angles here: we’ve already talked about the absentees and the schedule, and that’s point one. The Black-and-Red are missing some important players, and they don’t have much time to build players up in training, or work on tactical improvements. It’s going to become a slog of game -> recover -> one session -> game, and that’s going to be extremely difficult to get through.

Point two is this: United’s inability to make games easy on themselves on a regular basis means they’re pouring a lot into every single match at the start...and then they have to keep going after it in just as draining a fashion for so much of the game. It’s no coincidence that the two games United has turned early dominance into a multi-goal lead are games where they effectively got to save their legs after halftime, and eventually padded their lead (the wins over Miami and Toronto).

It’s good that United can empty the tank and get this kind of hard-fought win, but if you’re doing it every single game, eventually the tank is just going to be empty. The schedule, as Ryan laid out, is unreasonable. Losada has said over and over again that “we’ll need everyone,” and the schedule guarantees that this will be true. The way United leaves themselves with so much work to put in every single game is not sustainable when the schedule includes a game seemingly once per day during the least hospitable part of the year. They need to bury these early chances not just to make it easier to win, but to make it easier, period.

“When you see all the players we are missing, and still being the winner — and deserving to win — well, I can only say congrats to the players,” said Losada. “It’s gonna be not possible to bring this effort to win every single weekend, like tonight.”

It’s not that United will suddenly fall off a cliff or anything. It’s just that if they keep having to extend themselves like this, maybe that next short-rest game is like United’s 0-0 draw with Montreal, where the effort was there but the quality to find a win wasn’t. And then it’s suddenly the next weekend, and maybe the legs aren’t there in the final ten minutes, and we’re talking about that 2-1 loss “at” NYCFC, where the Pigeons struck twice late.

When you’re just below the playoff places, that’s not a sequence you can really afford. With how difficult things are about to get, United’s early-game chances are only going to become more important. — JA