D.C. United, even after heavily rotating, looked so promising for 45 minutes against the New England Revolution, but had to rue some forgettable finishing and some individual errors in what became a 3-2 loss. It was good, until it wasn’t. United showed the league leaders what they were made of, but unfortunately also got to see what the Revolution are made of these days, and it turns out Bruce Arena’s got some ballers.
It’s not a lot of fun to talk about a second straight loss, but there are some interesting aspects to this one. Jason (hello), Adam, and Ben all picked some points to focus on, so let’s get right to it:
Who counters the counter-ers?
We’re used to United bossing the transition play. That’s what pressing teams do, and what has made United formidable is that they can press you into transition play, but they can also set up in the mid-block (more on that below) and hit you on the counter, which is to say in transition.
In the first half, we saw that second aspect over and over again. United stayed poised and in their shape, waiting for the Revolution’s (it has to be said, pretty hapless on the night) central midfield duo of Wilfrid Kaptoum and Maciel to get the ball facing backward. That seemed to be the trigger over and over again, and United pounced repeatedly to take the ball off of them and immediately find Edison Flores. It’s how they scored, and it’s why most of their breaks forward felt roughly the same throughout the opening 45 minutes.
I can’t say it was a surprise to see Bruce Arena haul at least one central midfielder off after they were eaten for breakfast, especially with Matt Polster already out through injury, but the Revolution deserve credit for spotting the problem, and for using halftime to prepare their starting wide midfielders (Tommy McNamara and Arnór Traustason) to become the central midfield duo, even as they also changed the roles of the incoming wide players. In the first half, Kaptoum and Maciel had support from wide men who played narrow; in the second half, Tajon Buchanan and Ema Boateng were true wingers pushing high and wide.
The combination of the Revs no longer giving United the same path to win the ball at midfield while also having more real options to break out going forward certainly helped the Revs, but it has to be said that this is two games in a row where a team has seen United’s mid-block, adjusted during the game, and became the team creating the repetitive-looking attacks going the other way. Sunday, it was Hany Mukhtar and Randall Leal going to work in the no man’s land between the wingbacks and outside center backs. Last night, the early ball wide left to Boateng was on way too often. New England scored all three of their goals based off of attacks on the left, two of which included swinging the ball out to the touchline for Boateng.
As much as this mid-block has offered some promising sequences (particularly to start games), and as much as this result feels a bit generous to the Revolution, two games in a row where the other team has solved the look United is putting forward is a bit of a concern. Maybe it’s just a lack of time in training to modify things extensively, maybe it’s just tired legs, maybe it’s bad finishing, maybe it’s all of the above. But it does feel like United, even with allowances for the execution errors they had in this game, needs to sharpen up when they aren’t the high-pressing nightmare that is their Plan A. — Jason Anderson
United was better than New England for the entire first half. They scored the goal (although they lost Paul Arriola in the process), and Edison Flores was dangerous throughout the half.
But the problem was that, even given all their chances, they didn’t score another goal
The thing about Losada’s teams in Belgium was always that they scored goals and they gave up goals, but all across the world we know that scoring once isn’t enough. Flores and Yordy combined to make an almost great play, but Reyna didn’t put enough mambo sauce on the ball to get it past Matt Turner. Felipe had options to both his left and right, but instead chose to shoot it hard, but directly at Turner. They produced a bunch of corners and free kicks, but they were always a little too long and cleared or grabbed.
When you have that much of the game on your side, you need to score more than one goal, because one goal is never enough. And those missed chances paid in the second half, when the Revs scored twice in succession. Confidence is a big part of games, and can swing them from a moment the goal is scored, so its not just the numbers on the scoreboard: if United is up 2-0 or 3-0 going into the half, maybe they’ve wrecked the Revs’ confidence and everything goes differently. But they didn’t. — Ben Bromley
Ovation for Orejas
Edison Flores started for the first time in nearly three months, which was in and of itself something of a surprise. United didn’t do any pre-game media, and the indications from Sunday were that it was going to be a slow build for Flores. 17 minutes in Nashville pointed to maybe 30-35 here (and maybe not even anything more than a repeat, given the short rest and the turf).
Instead, Flores ran the show, repeatedly benefitting from all those first half turnovers we talked about to pick up the ball in space, facing goal as the New England defense scrambled backward. He got the assist on Arriola’s goal by running a textbook break forward, and had multiple other balls in behind to runners. The balls weren’t all perfect — I think the Reyna chance Ben mentioned was an audacious pass to complete on turf, but it also left Reyna with a shot that didn’t need to be that difficult — but the confidence and assertiveness were the key here. Flores looked like a DP no. 10.
The underlying data listed Flores as having the highest xG chain (essentially a summation of how dangerous every possession in which he did something was). He finished 2nd of all players in the game in shot attempts (five), and was high on United’s list in terms of expected assists (1st with 0.37) and expected goals (3rd with 0.27), a total that gave him the highest combined xG+xA of anyone that appeared in the game.
I’m not going to tell you it was an MVP-caliber performance, but I will underline the fact that all of this data points to Flores being willing and able to be the guy for United. We didn’t see it more than in rare moments last year, and we were maybe seeing it off in the distance before he got hurt this year.
As much as the Black-and-Red have made progress, they’re not going to go any further unless Flores sets this as a baseline performance that the team can count on. We might have to wait a while to see him with Arriola again, but he also did all of this without Kamara out there with him.
Sometimes soccer isn’t rocket science. Pairing a hot finisher with a creator playing like Flores played last night seems like a way to score many goals. Hopefully Orejas can keep this up, because the salary cap hit he comes with pretty much requires it. — JA
The Real Villains Here
United are in the midst of an injury crisis. Russell Canouse, Donovan Pines, Bill Hamid, Brendan Hines-Ike — add in the maybe-injury-maybe-precautionary absences of Andy Najar and Kevin Paredes, and that’s more than half of the Black-and-Red’s arguably first XI, all on the shelf, on the road, against the runaway best team in the league.
Some, especially in the national media, have leaned on the fitness demands of Hernán Losada’s system and his training regimen, but (1) tonight was United’s fifth game in 19 days and eighth since returning from the Gold Cup “break” one month and one day before. In any league, but especially a salary-capped league with 30-man rosters, that is not a reasonable pace of games! And (2) injuries are striking everyone around the league, because of this grind-the-players-to-dust approach to scheduling. The Sounders recently started a pack of academy players they’d been forced to sign to short-term contracts, for instance.
Losada has spoken about limiting Ola Kamara’s workload in practice to keep him on the field, and it stands to reason that it’s not an approach that’s specific to United’s leading scorer. He’s even dialed back the press in recent games, opting for a less physically demanding mid-block defensive setup, which I wish I was writing about because it looks like the viable Plan B that most pressing teams in MLS history haven’t had. But I can’t write more about that because this schedule is hurting our players!
And it’s not done! Los Capitalinos host Atlanta on Buzzard Point Saturday, 71 hours after the final whistle in New England. After a seemingly rare single-game week and an international week off, the rest of the season can be broken down into three-game/one-week blocks — well, except for the single-game week of Decision Day, oh, and the five-game/15-day stretch immediately preceding it.
Installing a new system amid the cascade of injuries, United has performed better than anyone could have reasonably expected. They’re above the playoff line after 20 games, and they could be even higher in the standings with luck anywhere this side of rotten. But with MLS’s decision to cram 34 games into the Covid- and labor talks-shortened season — and as predictable as this situation was from that call — relief will have to wait.
—Adam M. Taylor
Quick addendum: United has lost 138 man-games to injury this year. — JA
Look, it’s not fun to lose twice in three days, especially after taking an early lead both times. It’s also not fun to feel like maybe United has hit their ceiling to some extent, and that doesn’t include away wins against two of the best home teams in MLS. But we still want to go out with something positive, so here’s Ramón Ábila trying to murder a soccer ball and scoring a goal in the process:
Something that kind of went under the radar with Ábila was that despite Minnesota giving up on him as a starter virtually the moment he arrived, he quietly piled up shots and key passes in his short Loons cameos. Minnesota said he wasn’t fit enough to play their style, which is a big concern coming to a substantially more demanding approach, but if you’re new to a team and want to assuage concerns, this “I was the top scorer in Copa Sudamericana and started for Boca Juniors” level goal is how you do it. — JA
One more thing
It’s 12:58am, and I just realized something while double-checking my own record keeping: United has now played 12 road games out of 20, which means they have nine at Audi Field and only five away from home from here on out. It’s not a 2018 back half of the schedule, but given what United has been able to do at home thus far this year, it seems promising for a team that ended the night in 6th place. Last night was not a ton of fun, but the schedule ahead is favorable (if also just horribly overstuffed with games). — JA