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Four things about D.C. United’s ‘beautiful’ win over the Philadelphia Union

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The Black-and-Red were at their best last night at Audi Field

MLS: Philadelphia Union at D.C. United Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

D.C. United took a noteworthy step forward in last night’s 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Union. That they snapped a three-game losing streak, and beat the Union in the league for the first time since 2017, was very good. But maybe even more importantly, United arguably hit a high water mark for the quality of their performance in the early going, and — in a season full of hard-luck defeats against teams ahead of them in the East — came back from a fluky own goal to win in style.

We couldn’t have asked for much more heading into this international break, but before we really settle into that two-week window between games, Jason (hey that’s me), Adam, and Ryan have a few thoughts on last night’s big W:

Opening act

If you’ve been to enough concerts, you’ve probably got a memory of a show where the opener ended up being better than the big name on the bill. Maybe this was some band you’d never heard of, or someone you knew was good only for them to take it to another level. Think about that band, whoever they are for you, for a second.

Last night, United’s second half got the star treatment: two goals, lots of cheers, little stress. But the best part of the show was the first half, and in particular the first 20 or so minutes, a spell where the Black-and-Red were in devastating form in all phases of the game. United created chance after chance, eventually forcing Jim Curtin to abandon the 4321 formation he was giving a shot for the more familiar diamond 442.

“I don’t think there’s any team in this league who play [at] the level we played in the first half, especially the first twenty minutes,” said a clearly proud Hernán Losada after the game. “We were a team from another league... Again, if you have time Sunday, try to watch again the first half, because it was beautiful.”

Ola Kamara compared the battling aspects of the game to what United might see in the playoffs before later adding that he felt “it’s maybe the best first half that we have played this year.”

I can only speak for myself, but I think they’re both right. United has made fast starts a recurring theme all season, carving out the first chance just about every game (and that first look is usually pretty decent, too). But last night, they just kept going on like that for so long. Here’s one metric that I’ve found handy over the years: Our recap, minus the box score, is around 700 or so words, which is a bit long. During moments of down time in the second half, though, I was having to trim and compress the first half, because there were just so many early chances of note. Normally there’s time to write down the opponent’s formation in my notebook, but I didn’t get that down until sometime after the Union had scored.

And about that Union goal: it’s a classic Union goal to get the way this season’s previous matches against Philly had played out. United were more dominant this time around, but they’d been able to control the early going in both previous matches only for Philadelphia to make a rare counter-attack count.

United were momentarily put off by that, and you could understand why. “Here we go again” is a powerful thing when it hits your morale, and it came while DCU were also trying to come to grips with the Union’s formation shift as well. But to their credit, United stabilized after about five minutes, and while they didn’t quite hit the heights of the first half, they did still have the mental strength to get back to 1-1, and then not lose their level during the halftime break.

So yes, celebrate the goals and the win that are the big draw, but do not sleep on that opening act. — Jason Anderson

Standing up to the bully

After that dominant opening spell — during which United could have been up inside of six minutes and up three inside of 15 — bad luck bit. Somehow, it had happened again; the Black-and-Red had failed to turn a strong display into a lead, and they’d fallen behind against the run of play.

It feels like that could apply to several games this season, but it specifically describes the three games against the Supporters’ Shield-holding Philadelphia Union, a team that bullied United in two meetings earlier this year. The difference was that this time, United stood up and came back.

In all three games, D.C. controlled affairs, especially early, and all but played the Doopers off the field. In the first two meetings, realizing they couldn’t run with United, Philadelphia resorted to the dark arts, kicking United players on and off the ball and daring the referee to pull out the cards (which, somehow, the refs never did—wild!). The tactic worked, as the D.C. players didn’t know how to respond to that level of physicality and, at least in the case of the second matchup that forced multiple United players out with multi-week injuries, violence.

On Saturday, United were ready. As in the first two Philly games, Losada’s players were faster of thought, but this time they gave themselves more space in the middle third, pushing play into the final third where “kick them till they fall” results in dangerous set piece opportunities. When the Union did make borderline tackles, the Black-and-Red shook them off and just kept dominating the game.

They got the equalizer before halftime through a penalty forced by pinning the Union into their own box with extra numbers. They didn’t wait after break to claim the lead, going up in the 50th minute. In the end, they quadrupled their guests’ expected goals, and “Wanchope” Ábila’s stoppage time goal pushed the final score closer to being just than a bare one-goal win would have been.

This game wasn’t just a proof of concept for Losada’s tactical approach. Ending a three-game losing streak, this team showed themselves and the rest of the league that they can shake off the stink, stand up to butcher tactics, and knock down the bully. It’s one more necessary step this side has taken in what’s turning into a potentially very fun run-in. —Adam M Taylor

Gresselmania continues

Gressel’s surface-level stats (he’s up to six assists this year) are pretty good for an MLS wingback, and the underlying data has him in Best 11 territory. He’s been the player United thought they were getting when they sent all that GAM down south, in a system that seems tailor-made for what he wants to do in games. He’s on a pace to get double-digit assists, something that DCU players have achieved just three times in the last ten seasons (Lucho Acosta did it twice, and Dwayne De Rosario did it back in 2012).

We’ve talked about this a few times this year, but last night was taking it to another level. Gressel had four key passes in a game where no one else had even one, and all four were from open play. That doesn’t include the would-be assist for Tony Alfaro in the first half (a shame that United showed that ace of a set piece routine only for the flag to come up), or Andre Blake’s excellent save on him, or an assist on Reyna’s winner, despite the wishes of B&RU blogfather Martin Shatzer.

During that rampant first half especially, United were routinely able to use what Losada calls “organized chaos” (I’ll have to ask one of these days if he’s into Organized Konfusion) to carve up the normally resilient Union left side to give Gressel space to run onto the ball with options making runs. Whether the move involved Edison Flores, or Andy Najar coming up from right-center back, or central players like Kamara or Russell Canouse drifting over to add the extra man for quick one-touch passing play, the Union might as well have been chasing ghosts rather than Gressel.

It’s one thing to give the hapless Chris Armas version of TFC an atomic wedgie; it’s another to torment one of MLS’s best left backs, and one of its most stout defensive teams, like this. Everyone knows that United wants to get Gressel on the ball in what is roughly a 15x15 square on the right flank, but the Black-and-Red are pretty consistently able to do it anyway.

The result?

That, my fellow United fans, should have you excited. — JA

Expectations and contract talks to come

OK, so let’s watch D.C. United’s second goal:

There’s no getting around the fact that Yordy Reyna’s last 18 months have been interesting more for what he’s been filmed doing off the field than on it. But in watching him in D.C.’s last two home games, there’s a bit of a willingness to do the little things that a TAM attacker making more than $700,000 may not traditionally do in MLS. It took a while for him to break through, but in six August games Reyna scored four goals and ended the month as he started it: starting and scoring alongside United’s top goalscorer, Ola Kamara. That gives Losada a pleasant dilemma as the international break comes.

And since we’re here, let’s watch the third goal:

When he came to D.C., expectations for Ramón Ábila felt lower than Reyna’s. His play in Minnesota was called out by the media, with speculation that offseason groin surgery may have been one of the reasons for his poor Loons form. For a guy making more than $1,000,000, he had started once in ten games, scoring twice in 263 minutes. He’s matched that goal total in a fifth of the minutes since arriving in the District, with goals scored from both feet to boot.

There’s a scene in the movie adaptation of Moneyball where Brad Pitt is the General Manager and he confronts the big name on his roster, and the two have a discussion of expectations, without the bullshit:

So when it comes to Reyna and Ábila — both of whom have contracts that expire at the end of 2021 — their respective eyes are likely on their next contract. Reyna turns 28 next month, while Ábila is in MLS thanks to a loan from Boca Juniors, a side who don’t appear to have an interest in him (outside of possibly shuttling him to a lower-tier club in the Argentine Primera), so he’s got to look for something as he turns 32.

I don’t know if Losada has had discussions even flirting with what Moneyball covered, but he, Reyna, and Ábila presumably have some awareness of their current circumstances. If all parties approach those future talks with begrudging respect, it could benefit the players (for their respective futures) and the coach (adding two more successful reclamation projects to his MLS CV), while allowing the organization a chance to fine-tune their roster in the offseason to come. — Ryan Keefer