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Four things on D.C. United taking care of business against CF Montreal

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United overcame some early bad luck to get themselves on a winning streak

Caitlin Buckley / Black and Red United

We’re used to seeing D.C. United being involved in a game where one team is short-handed, but ends up posing a more difficult problem than expected for their opponent. Last night was another one of those, but United wasn’t the overachiever on the field. That was CF Montreal, who despite missing over half of their starters forced United to dig deep to get a 2-1 win on goals from Andy Najar and Ola Kamara.

That said, while United did have to work pretty hard to get these three points, they also dominated Montreal. The former Impact took just two shots of any kind after halftime, despite falling behind in the 53rd minute. They made it tough on United, but the Black-and-Red these days can handle the challenge.

Jason, Ryan, and Ben (this is Jason, as usual) have some takes on this one, so let’s get into it!

Tactical talk

After the game, and before a nightmarish drive out of the District that took nine times as long as it normally would late on a Sunday night (side note to Weezer and Green Day, I will never forgive you for this traffic jam), I asked Hernán Losada about a seemingly modest but effective adjustment United had attempted in the first half, and then used during much of the second: Kevin Paredes switched to the right side of the front three, with Paul Arriola (and later Drew Skundrich) on the left.

My thought was that there was something in Montreal’s approach that let Paredes become a bigger threat on that side, but Losada said that there was much more to it than that. “We tried to do that (earlier), after 30-35 minutes in the first half. We needed an extra man in the midfield, because they started the game in a 433,” said Losada. “They had an overload and an extra player in the midfield, so that’s why we dropped Paul on the left side, to press on (Samuel) Piette...so we could press high and have one-v-one in the midfield with Junior, Moses, and Paul. That was the adjustment, to have more freedom up front with Kevin and Ola, and have more opportunities in transition.”

Montreal has been playing out of a 3412 for most of the year, but their various absences last night forced a move to that aforementioned 433 formation. Montreal is a well-coached team, so this wasn’t some slapdash change; it required some adjustment for United to solve it. Credit to the coaching staff for coming up with a switch that managed to free Paredes up, open things up for those transition chances Losada mentioned, and also disrupt Montreal’s midfield. — Jason Anderson

On comebacks, big and small

I’ve seen friends take pictures of themselves at a game at Audi and elsewhere in this (gestures in air) new environment, so I understood the need to return to a place you go to and see a team that gives you joy, anxiety, heartburn, whatever. And so Sunday night, I became one of those people:

I looked, and I think the time since I’ve been to a D.C. game is almost two years to the day when Zlatan Ibrahimovic came to town with the LA Galaxy and went home to a 2-1 loss. Granted, some of the stuff hasn’t been weird; I have a soccer team down the road that I write about, and my life has changed to the point where coming to D.C. every weekend isn’t feasible anymore. Since that 2019 game, my kid has turned from a toddler to a young boy; I lost one parent before the pandemic and another during it, and now that we’re sort of coming out of this, I’m going to be a father to another baby soon. So coming back to this Sunday night was weird in a couple of different ways.

Before getting into Andy Najar for a second, much was said about this being his first goal in MLS since September 29, 2011, which if you haven’t seen it or don’t remember it, go check it out. But 2011 was also the year that Charlie Davies was with United, and in his first game got a brace to beat the Columbus Crew. He applauded the supporters, tears welling in his face, and talked to Russ Thaler about his thoughts afterward. It was a great moment.

It was a nice comeback for Davies, but it just wasn’t OUR comeback. It took a LOT for Andy to get to America in the first place, much less to play soccer. It took a lot to let him go to Anderlecht and eventually return to play for D.C. after exactly 1 start and 180 total minutes with LAFC. At a point where Najar was questioning whether to continue playing, anything remotely productive out of him based on what Losada and Nico Frutos saw in Belgium had to be considered playing with house money (I sure thought so!). So imagine how nice it is to see him not falter so far — Najar is second on the team in games minutes played behind Julian Gressel — but play beyond most anyone’s expectations (go look at his numbers compared to MLS center backs; that’s a whole lot of green!) of him.

When Najar was subbed off in the 77th minute, he walked off on the far end and around the Chico Stand (where fans chanted his name), and fans periodically stood and applauded as he passed the sections, as he returned to the bench to Losada and Frutos’ admiration, the latter of whom was the recipient of a leaping embrace to celebrate the best part of the ongoing return of Andy Najar. As someone who remembers the quiet, shy 17-year-old at Meet the Team events, having him back doing this thing he loves, and does really damn well again, it’s just the best, because he’s back here to do it.

His comeback was something we all needed. — Ryan Keefer

Ola Kamara: Still scoring

Here’s Kamara on how his goal came to pass:

I like that it was a quick assessment. I saw the goalkeeper in the first half kind of moving a little bit further to the post, because he wanted to play in possession, so I was thinking if I get one chance and we break somehow, in some moment, I have to turn quick and do it. I’m very happy that I followed my instinct... When I saw that that side of goal was kind of open, I just, it was instinct.

We’ve talked a lot about Kamara in these reaction pieces, but one thing we haven’t talked about is the granular specifics of how goals are scored. Kamara being able to pick up on goalkeeper habits and filing that away for future shots is nothing new for him or any other striker worth their salt. What’s been going well for him this year is that instinctual part. Kamara’s confidence — in his finishing, but also in his fitness levels — are in a place where he doesn’t have to think things through for what in soccer passes for a long time. He turned, the situation he had scouted out presented itself, and he went to goal.

Sounds simple, but things are falling into place for Kamara in the way that gives him that split-second advantage that successful goalscorers always give themselves. If Kamara releases his shot a small fraction of a second later, Sebastian Breza tips it wide, and maybe we’re talking about another frustrating draw against Montreal.

Late last night, I wanted to get into how many goals Kamara is on course to score. We’re now over halfway into the season, so while his current pace (one goal per 62.4 minutes played) seems unsustainable, he’s also, you know, sustaining it by scoring goals.

It’d be tempting to just look at his pace if he played all 90 minutes in all of the remaining 16 games, but that’s clearly not going to happen. United has three games in seven days next week, and after that they’ll have three separate three-in-eight spells before the end of the season. There will be rotation, and for good reason.

So I did some quick, gut-level estimations of how many minutes he’ll play in each of United’s remaining games, and got to around 1,030 minutes in these final 16 games (out of a possible 1,440, or about 71.5% of the possible minutes). If he keeps up his scoring rate and plays that many minutes, we’d be talking about 17 more goals, or a total of 27 on the season.

Do I expect Kamara to finish the season with 27 goals? No, though I think things are going well enough that you can’t say it’s out of the realm of possibility. But I am now starting to expect him to get to 20, a total that no one from United has managed since Luciano Emilio did it in 2007, and he has a real shot at breaking United’s single-season record for goals in the league, which is Raul Diaz Arce’s 23 all the way back in 1996. — JA

Is Mora the right fit?

I was debating talking about Junior Moreno or Joseph Mora in this section, but the full context of the game made me decide on Mora. In Losada’s system, wing backs need to be dynamic. In the large stretches of the first half, the play was built out of the back through Najar, Moses Nyeman, and Gressel. When Montreal started to press all three of their forwards against United’s center backs, for awhile they took out Najar’s ability to play out of the back. Neither Moreno nor Mora could alleviate the pressure, and United was stagnant for awhile.

But the defensive midfield doesn’t need to be as dynamic in this system. Moreno was perfectly effective against the Columbus Crew and he was good in this game too. His job is to run interference in the midfield, chop up play, intercept balls, and keep passes moving. He did it both times and is a good piece in the midfield, just as long as he’s not needed to be the more dynamic player.

Joseph Mora, on the other hand, is a good fullback in a four-back system. But I haven’t seen yet if he’s able to be the dynamic presence necessary for a wingback in Losada’s United. There is a reason that we had projected him as a potential center back in the preseason, and why we’ve had our eye on him for most of this season. It’s not that he’s not a good player, but he may just not fit in Losada’s system. — Ben Bromley