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Four things about D.C. United’s night to forget against Nashville SC

Turns out it’s not good to have some gaffes against Hany Mukhtar, Randall Leal, and Nashville SC

MLS: D.C. United at Nashville SC Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

D.C. United got off to a dream start last night against Nashville SC, only for it to all go wrong in what ended up being a 5-2 loss. We’ve talked plenty this season about United having some hard-luck nights at the office, but this one? Gary Smith’s side deserved their win in what was the most effective attacking performance against the Black-and-Red this year.

As a result of all that, we don’t have a lot of fun United items to talk about in this one, but we (Ryan and me, which is to say Jason) do have some thoughts on what went wrong in Music City.

Respect due

Normally United has thrived in transition play in both directions, but especially in defensive transition. United is among the best teams in the league on most defensive metrics, and a big factor has been their ability to disrupt teams before they can really get going. The Black-and-Red make it hard to break out, and then make it hard to keep the ball long enough to pick the lock.

Tonight...well, it was 5-2, with Nashville scoring twice and winning a penalty in transition, so obviously this normally reliable strength was turned into a weakness.

Post-game, Hernán Losada chalked this up to a lack of collective defending. “When you defend, you defend with eleven... That was one of our strongest points,” said Losada. “Today, many moments, we were defending individually. And when you start to step out and defend on your own, and you step out one by one and not as a team, against a strong opponent you pay the consequences.”

Specifically, the movements that took advantage of this (and may, in fact, have even caused some of the willingness to break ranks) came from Hany Mukhtar and Randall Leal. On paper, both were right of center, with Mukhtar nominally the right-center forward and Leal the right-center midfielder in Gary Smith’s 352. However, they didn’t threaten in the spaces you’d think they would, as Leal moved high and frequently wide right when Nashville broke forward, while Mukhtar seemed most at home moving across the front line and attacking from the left.

Here’s where they created their key passes (5), shots (6), and assists (2) on the night:

CJ Sapong — a good MLS forward who against United turns into a good Premier League forward — will probably get all the attention, but the architects of this win for Nashville were Mukhtar (one of the most underrated players in all of MLS this year) and Leal. Both were able to consistently make runs into the no man’s land between United’s wingbacks and the right/left-center backs at just the right time, luring defenders into isolation or just getting the ball in space with no one being sure whose job it was to confront them.

The result? 5-2, yes, but also a Nashville team that takes few tactical chances and is full of very solid, safe, traditional players (there’s no Andy Najar, center back here) ended up setting a season high for shots against this United team, with 18. The previous high was 15, and the season average coming in was 9.28.

In other words, Nashville was able to make United scramble in a way no one has this year. This isn’t DCU’s only big loss (that 4-1 in San Jose feels like ancient history, but it was this year), but it’s the first time where you can’t point to some bad bounces or fluky own goals. Nashville getting to five goals may be a bit much (we’ll get to that later on), but they’re the first team to figure out how to get their best attackers into these pockets, on the run, this often against the Black-and-Red.

United will need to make sure that’s a one-off and not a pattern, because if other teams can replicate this, they don’t even need a duo as talented as Mukhtar and Leal to wreak havoc. — Jason Anderson

Apparently, it’s No-Love Kamara!

You would think after last Sunday’s win, where he went into second place among MLS’s goal-scoring leaders, that Ola Kamara would get a little more adulation. Then I see takes where he selectively presses or that he’d have more goals than he already has which, again, he’s in the Golden Boot race! More than Chicharito, more than Nani, both of whom I’m told are pretty good soccer players. And if (in very Allen Iverson voice), we’re still talking about pressing, he does so quite actively, including a 35-yard trackback of Alistair Johnson deep into the D.C. end just before halftime.

Kamara’s the guy who’s now scored double-digit goals in a season for three different teams in four of his six seasons in MLS and did something last night for United that hasn’t been done in 13 years. He’s the guy scoring at a better rate than anyone, and is better than most anyone when given the chance to! If you want to tune this next part out go right ahead, but here’s the shot, regarding Kamara’s xG and goals per 90 this year (which I’d encourage you to click through to see):

The chaser is the same thing, but now we’re including data from every year since 2016 (Kamara’s first in MLS):

We’ve talked a little before about his 2021 season, and I think all of us here will probably extoll his virtues at some point. Having said that, whatever notion there is that Kamara is underachieving, or not doing what’s being asked of him when he is being active near both nets (just as he was last night) and doing things this club hasn’t seen at a pure goalscoring level since Luciano Emilio is either a case of willful dishonestly or flat-out obtuseness. — Ryan Keefer

An open question

If you concede five goals, you’ve gotta wonder about some players that started. United had some iffy nights performance-wise all over the field, but the player who took the most heat from fans was goalkeeper Jon Kempin. It’s not too complicated to figure out why: he should have saved Sapong’s first goal, really should have saved Alex Muyl’s game-ending 80th minute strike, and I’d argue looked out of sorts on both of Frédéric Brillant’s early goal-saving blocks.

Let’s start with this: Kempin is a better goalkeeper than we saw last night. He’s looked assured and capable in his prior appearances, which came after Chris Seitz had a couple of early soft goals get past him while we were waiting for Bill Hamid’s return from offseason surgery. That said, we’ve got to acknowledge that United might have stabilized from Nashville’s first period of pressure if they don’t concede that first one, and with so many attackers on in the late periods, they always had a puncher’s chance down 3-2. Letting up that Muyl goal, after Kempin got possibly both hands on it, made me say “oof.” aloud in my living room.

But the reason this segment is called An Open Question is that we don’t really have a feel for what Losada will do about it. Seitz didn’t get the hook after one bad game (that aforementioned San Jose loss), but rather after not really bouncing back a week later in that 3-1 loss to Columbus that included two own goals and some Lucas Zelarayán wizardry.

I feel like we’re about to learn something about how Losada looks at goalkeepers. Does he bank on being able to tell Kempin to shake this one off and hope that this show of belief in him sparks a return to the play we saw in his three earlier starts? Or does he lean more towards the old Piotr Nowak route of “you did bad, you’re out” that is understandable on some level, but may come with long-term costs at a position where self-belief means so much?

I don’t know about you, but the first place I’m going to train my eyes on Wednesday evening’s lineup drop is the top of the lineup graphic. — JA

Welcome Ramón, and welcome back Eddie

Let’s try to go out on a positive note. United gave a debut to Ramón Ábila, and got Edison Flores back on the field for the first time in 11 games (nearly three months on the calendar). They didn’t have much time to do much, as United’s kitchen sink 424 didn’t really make a dent, but it’s a positive that they were able to play as long as they did.

As Kamara played the full 90 last night, Ábila may have to stretch to 30 or even 45 minutes in New England on Wednesday. The options available for Losada are not extensive: it’s that, or play without a true forward for a chunk of the game, or bring Jovanny Bolívar in for his MLS debut. Bolívar made the trip, but I’m also not entirely sure Losada sees him as a true no. 9, based on him playing underneath at times for Loudoun and during the Capital Cup.

We didn’t see Ábila get heavily involved, but I think it’s very fair to give the guy a mulligan after he got to town, trained once, and then was on a plane to Nashville. It’s also the first 424 we’ve seen this year, so it’s not entirely shocking that NSC were able to just manage the game for a few minutes before sticking the dagger in. That’s not going to help a striker make a huge first impression, and so it went for “Wanchope.”

The bigger news right now is probably Flores. I would guess that it’s not a mistake that they wanted to be sure he played some in this game, on grass, rather than needing to make sure he got minutes on Gillette Stadium’s turf. United needs to get him going quickly, because as much as Yordy Reyna had started to play up to his talent level in the last month, he can also go missing like he did yesterday.

Without that level of clever creator on the front three, we know what this team becomes reliant on: pressing teams into turnovers near goal, Julian Gressel’s range of passing, Kevin Paredes beating people off the dribble, and set pieces. It’s not a bad tool kit, but it’s incomplete without someone that can pick the lock.

That’s what Flores is here for, and with a potentially hectic offseason — a handful of contracts are up, and it’ll be the first offseason for Losada and Lucy Rushton to actually know what they’re working with — it’s also critical for his future with the club. United will ultimately struggle to compete with the absolute best in MLS if their highest-paid player is just a “yeah he’s not bad” type of guy. The Black-and-Red need Orejas to be a star, and the clock is ticking. — JA