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Four things about D.C. United somehow not beating Atlanta United

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If you take 27 shots, you should win, right?

SOCCER: AUG 21 MLS - Atlanta United FC at DC United Photo by Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A week we all knew was going to be really tough for D.C. United ended with a gut-punch of a loss to Atlanta United. Despite the Black-and-Red placing Brad Guzan under siege for long spells, a disputed early goal and a torturous late one gave the lesser United their fourth straight win, and gave the good United that we actually like their third straight loss.

We’re still in our feelings about it, but while working through it, we (Jason, Ben, and Ryan) processed the frustration by writing. Here are those words:

Half empty

United is on a three-game losing streak. Moreover, this brutal week schedule-wise was also really tough in terms of the caliber of opponent:

  • A road game against an underlying data darling that has not lost at home all year (Nashville)
  • A road game on two days rest against the current Supporters Shield favorites (New England)
  • A home game on two days rest against the most expensively-constructed roster in MLS, just as they’ve finally unlocked the potential to those players (Atlanta)

For United, this was a litmus test, and losing three straight feels like bumping into the ceiling of their capabilities three times. The Black-and-Red took the lead in Nashville, only to be overwhelmed (for the first time all season) for much of the next 50 or so minutes. They took the lead in New England, only to fall into the trap of a wide-open slugfest with a Revs team that had sent on most of their big guns and fall short. They created an abundance of chances against Atlanta, only for a player who cost more than any player DCU has ever signed to produce two big moments (one legit, one with some bumbling help from the refs) and hand them another L.

That’s a lot of almost there...but between some bad phases, bad single moments, bad luck, and bad finishing, it’s also a moment where it feels like United just got put in their place. Three wins could have taken the Black-and-Red to 2nd place in the East and 5th overall; instead, United’s hold on a playoff spot is down to a games-won tiebreaker.

No matter how much we want it to be otherwise, this might be where this team actually belongs. There’s only so much regularly outworking teams and regularly winning the tactical battle can do in a league where you can also make a serious run if you have three really effective DPs, a squad that broadly enjoys playing together, and shrug your way through the strategic side.

When facing the rest of the East’s current playoff teams, United has gone 2W-1D-7L. Most of these losses, as well as that draw with Montreal, have been aggravating. You could argue that United deserved more from somewhere between five and seven of those eight non-wins. But, as a friend of mine used to say when he wanted us to make sure we had a fun night out rather than getting bogged down by whatever hurdles were thrown our way, you have to “make deserving.”

If United wants to be better than battling their way to just barely in the playoffs, it’s going to take the work and the game planning that we’re seeing, but it’s also going to take everyone across the board bringing a B-plus and up every single game. The squad’s not good enough where one or two players can deliver an A-level performance and carry some C-minuses over the line.

United’s gonna have to make deserving, and against Atlanta, even taking 27 shots, they didn’t. — Jason Anderson

Half full

Let’s be real though, all of the above is about the incomplete version of United that we’ve seen all season long. Hernán Losada has barely gotten to deploy a team with even eight of the on-paper best 11, and has never for one second been able to call on both Designated Players and the club’s biggest non-DP difference maker (Bill Hamid). The pattern is cruel: Hamid returned one game after Edison Flores picked up his hamstring strain, and was then injured one game before Paul Arriola got back from the Gold Cup.

This problem doesn’t just apply to the top of the roster. It’s all over the squad, and that means we can only theorize about what the best lineup even looks like. There is no proof of concept, because there’s always somewhere between one-sixth and one-third of the squad unavailable.

That applies to this game, where United wasn’t just missing Arriola and Hamid. They were also without Brendan Hines-Ike and Donovan Pines (i.e. either one or two starting defenders, depending on your perspective), and without the closest thing they have to an Arriola clone (Adrien Perez), and without their biggest transfer acquisition of the year (Nigel Robertha).

It’s also not like United spent this week getting their asses kicked. They took the lead in Nashville, and again in New England. They dominated Atlanta. Losses aren’t all created equally, and in this case all three losses are acutely painful precisely because United had gotten at least part of the way down the path to wins in all of them.

So emotionally these are tough results, but from a bit of a remove, they’re also games that weren’t destined to be losses. There is — as there has been in so many games against the East’s stronger teams — reason to believe that United can compete with, and actually beat, anyone in the conference. It’s not going to be easy, but it is doable, especially when you consider that we haven’t ever gotten a look at what this squad can do when they’re at (or even close to) full strength. — JA

Domino effect

When United lets attackers down the flank, they’ve usually been fine. But when United lets attackers to run straight at Jon Kempin (or Bill Hamid), that is when problems happen, like the first goal for Atlanta United.

Losada’s attacking style encourages center midfielders to get forward, but if they get caught out in transition, sometimes there aren’t enough people there to shield the back line. When they’re not available to shield the backline, it forces the center backs into one-on-one situations, and as of right now they aren’t able to make those defensive stops. Whenever these current center backs have to go one-on-one, they’re at risk of something bad happening.

It is finding the balance of defensive structure and attacking ability, and it may improve as players get healthy, but it won’t go to the next level until the offseason when Losada gets to start to restructure this team. — Benjamin Bromley

A tough time for goalkeeping slumps

So about four weeks ago, I talked about what things were going to look like for United in August and noted that those in the locker room were likely going to be the ones in the locker room at the end of all of these games, and that August was going to be tough. Past those first two wins of the month, D.C.’s looked poor at some points, okay-ish in others, but there have been a couple of other factors not baked into that earlier forecast. For our purposes, one of those is that Atlanta decided to fire Gabriel Heinze and bring in one-time DCU candidate Gonzalo Pineda, helping them get hot and log their fourth win in a row in the process Saturday night.

The other being Bill Hamid going down to injury at the start of August. I’m not one to participate in chanting other players’ names while the replacement player is in their space, largely because scientific research shows that doing that doesn’t make someone heal any faster (particularly if that person has appeared in more than 25 MLS games in a season once in the last six years). To reiterate, the players in United’s locker room at the beginning of August were going to be there at the end of August, like it or not. So, in borrowing from Analysis Evolved’s Expected Goals charts for goalkeepers for a minute, I wanted to write down some numbers over their last four pro seasons (in this case, negative numbers are good):

Goalkeeper A has had actual versus expected goals differences of 0.54, 2.56, 0.94, and 2.72.

Goalkeeper B: -1.39, -2.44, 1.37, and 0.16

Goalkeeper C: 1.07, -0.61, 1.90, 3.58

If you guessed that Goalkeeper B is Hamid, you’d be right.

When it comes to figure out who the other two are (C is Kempin, A is Seitz), what’s apparent is that it’s even more apparent the dropoff from Hamid to, well, anyone else at this point is probably going to be dramatic. According to the stat above, Kempin and Seitz are the third- and eighth-worst keepers with at least 360 minutes in MLS in 2021. And before you ask, Loudoun United has has the fourth highest goals conceded total in the USL Championship, so I wouldn’t go shaking that tree looking for another option.

Don’t get me wrong, if there was a way to both clone a starting goalkeeper’s talent while tamping down his ambitions to play more elsewhere, I feel like one of the big oil-funded teams would have figured that out by now, but if we had two Bill Hamids, one would have surely wanted to be traded or transferred by this point for the sake of a new challenge. That’s just natural ambition. And I don’t think that Seitz and Kempin are quote-unquote bad goalkeepers. It’s just that having to deal with someone who isn’t as good as the first choice guy, from a fan’s point of view, will make you anxious, but it’s also futile. When you’re in a packed August schedule playing three of the top four teams in the East within two weeks’ time, and your fourth game is facing a talented team playing confidently after their tyrannical head coach was sacked, backups make the proposition all the nervier.

If it wasn’t before, it’s clear now that Jon Kempin and Chris Seitz aren’t Bill Hamid, but not many people are going to be. However, if Kempin and Seitz can’t be Hamid, being the dependable goalkeepers they’ve been in this league before would go a long way towards easing some of that anxiety. — Ryan Keefer

Before we go

Just kidding, we have five things.

This is a work of art from Yordy Reyna, and as much as it sucks to lose, we have to talk about it. Is it the quick-thinking, catching everyone from Atlanta asleep after neither Reyna nor Julian Gressel asked for the ten yards? Yes. Is it Gressel was urgently trying to dissuade Reyna from doing this, then reacted with laughter? Yes. Is it the sheer audacity to turn a low-odds free kick from the touchline into a shot on goal? Also yes.

We’ve seen some great DCU goals this year, but right now at least, I feel like this was the best of them. — JA