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Four things about D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls cancelling each other out

It wasn’t spectacular, but like a fast-casual chain restaurant, it wasn’t terrible either

DC United v New York Red Bulls Photo by Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images

D.C. United didn’t put on a show last night in a 1-1 draw with the New York Red Bulls. They fought, they showed the commitment and thought we’ve come to associate with how they make life hell for their opponents, and they had the better chances, but in truth the game was a bit of a grind. It’s about that time when it comes to the MLS schedule, and these teams are custom-made to serve up this kind of game that boils down to a mistake here or a VAR check there.

With that in mind, me (it’s Jason, I ate some post-game tacos and started writing this) and Ryan (I can’t say what Ryan ate but I hope it was good) put together some Thoughts on the latest installment of the Atlantic Cup.

4321: Our new foe?

Before the international break, Philadelphia came to Audi Field and set up in a 4321. United tore them apart, and by the 18th minute Jim Curtin was hurriedly switching back to the more comfortable diamond 442 that the Union tend to play.

So, when the Red Bulls listed their starters around 6pm last night and went away from playing with two strikers — after having recently tried virtually every even mildly common two-forward formation there is — it looked like a classic blunder. This didn’t work, why would you do this?

But maybe what happened was less that the Union picked the wrong formation (I’m formation agnostic, but I did see the idea out there), and more that Philly did a bad job of implementing it. In possession, Wiki Carmona and Caden Clark set up underneath Patryk Klimala as you’d expect from any graphic illustrating where players line up in a 4321. But unlike Philadelphia, the Red Bulls were flexible out of possession, with Klimala dropping in between Carmona and Clark to form a bank of three to deny United any easy passes into the midfield.

From there, they stayed compact and organized, forcing United to often drop a forward in to prevent a central midfield overload, and also making sure that the Black-and-Red’s play out of the back was slow and predictable. That’s where their goal comes from, and as a quick aside: United’s right to think that’s a foul based on how the rest of the game was called, but a) in MLS you don’t get minute-to-minute consistency from refs, and b) as a high-pressing team, United spends its time looking to pounce on this kind of iffy call going their way every game. You have to be prepared for someone pressing you to take the risk of crossing the line into a foul in the hopes that this time, the ref gets it wrong. Donovan Pines will do better next time, I’m sure, but on the night, it’s one big mistake in a game where he otherwise did quite well.

Back to the 4321: United took a long time to move the ball in the back, and couldn’t disguise their intentions well enough to open up windows to break that first line. That meant either long balls or passes to wingbacks who were having to track back, making it easy for the Red Bulls to flood the zone and press them along the touchline. The result was a lack of the fluency we’ve seen United build over the course of the season.

We certainly aren’t going to see every team give this a shot. This isn’t an old version of Football Manager, where you can crack a formation that will work against everything else. However, the idea of using a front three to block off passing lanes against United’s back three, backed up by a three-man central midfield to oblige United to drop a forward in to avoid being numerically overwhelmed, eventually leads to long balls to two players instead of three, and that means a less effective attack.

Up next for the Black-and-Red? A Chicago team that has been willing to change their alignment specifically for an opponent, and an Atlanta side that gave United problems by setting three players up underneath Josef Martinez, again forcing DCU into weighing either slower play or longer, lower-percentage passes.

Learning how to more regularly shift teams that can figure out this level of organization is a short-term need, but it’s also a long-term issue, because it’s not like the playoffs are going to be full of loosey-goosey teams when it comes to how they set up without the ball. — Jason Anderson

Miss u Andy

What’s the fix to all that? Well, it might just be Andy Najar, whose ability to disguise his passes, attract pressure, and break lines on the dribble. It’s hard to be so structured when faced with a defender that plays unlike any other center back in MLS.

The real-life outcomes are pointing pretty heavily to Najar going beyond being fun as hell and being a massive difference maker:

United’s points-per-game pace with Najar at right-center back would put them in 4th place, one point behind Orlando, on course for a home playoff game. Without him in that spot at kickoff — and this includes him playing as a wingback, or subbing in — they’re the Red Bulls picking up exactly one point per game and being on course to miss the playoffs by a lot.

Najar should be back for Wednesday night, and that’s pretty obviously a good thing. — JA

If this is “the new normal,” is it OK?

So what is it that we first think of when dumdums like me or smarty pants people with lots of paper on their walls say “the new normal?” Do you cringe? Should you cringe when it comes to that recalibration? I’ll keep throwing expected goals out there because I see the discrepancies almost weekly in either of the pro soccer teams D.C. United operates, because those differences do exist. Loudoun United’s xG underperformance has killed their optimism; meanwhile D.C.’s expected goals allowed is lower than their total goals against. Sometimes it has been due to bad bounces, like last night: the Red Bulls’ goal came off a deflection, for instance. Other times, it’s a seeing-eye worm-burner that gets by for a game-winner.

This isn’t a spot for bad baseball cliches, or to defend underperforming backup goalkeepers, but I digress. Here’s a fun exercise in the comparisons to squads from the last three years, with the 2020-2021 change alone furthering any shouts for Hernán Losada as Coach of the Year:

With the nota bene that things like own goals and penalty kicks are scored a little differently, Losada essentially turning the 2020 version of United into what we’ve seen in 2021 in terms of attacking play, proactivity, and defensive resolve has been a marvel. That said, this is the third time in the last four games where United has underperformed their goals against, and it’s been something of a theme this year.

For as much as I grimaced about what August would be like for them, United has some things going for them in September, the first being they have the chance to get the defense calibrated towards what’s ‘expected’ of them in September. Opponents like the Red Bulls, along with upcoming foes like Cincinnati and Atlanta, are in the bottom third of expected or actual goals scored. Minnesota (who D.C. also play this month) is underperforming the actual versus expected metric to the same degree as Loudoun is, so the opportunities for the defense to tighten things up should be ample over the next four games.

When you add in that D.C. will get Edison Flores, Junior Moreno, and Andy Najar back after all three had the weekend off due to their international duty — all three are expected to be ready (or close to it) for Wednesday’s game with Chicago — they’re going to have the opportunities to improve their offense further. Bill Hamid, whose ratio of goals conceded to expected goals conceded is by far the best on the team should help matters too. With five of their next seven games are at home, United should be able to amplify all those positives even further.

Let’s look at this from another angle: United plays their first four games in October against NYCFC, Orlando, Nashville, and New England. That quartet also tops the East, so by extension, all of those games are six-pointers in the race to host playoff games. If United is remotely considering setting themselves up to host their first playoff game since 2018, a minimum of 10 points over the next four games should be the expectation. If what the offense is providing is the new normal, then I’m happy to not convert chances, both knowing what the offense is generally capable of, and considering that both offense and defense are poised to improve over these next several games. — Ryan Keefer

At least they also didn’t get the points

We’d all love a prolonged era of United putting the Red Bulls into a garbage can in every meeting, but we’re not quite there. United did more than enough to win this game, certainly, but so be it. Sometimes you miss, right?

But right after that Yordy Reyna miss late in the game, the Red Bulls created a pretty good look of their own that Fábio rushed, sending the ball a couple of yards wide despite having the time to open his hips for a side-foot (read: more accurate) finish. And that, for the petty DCU fans out there, may be the bigger miss.

Look at this from a bigger picture. For United, it’s a road draw; not ideal, but fine. It’s pulling off the highway looking for a big meal after a long day on the road, and finding that TGI Friday’s is what’s open. We’ve all been there, and it’s...okay. If the Black-and-Red keep not losing on the road, and keep winning 70% of their home games, they’re going to end up near the top of the East. United even ended climbing a spot into 6th place thanks to Nashville’s win at Montreal that finished up around 10pm last night.

For the Red Bulls, though, dropping two points at home when you’re eight points out of the playoff places? It’s just not something a team that far back can get away with at this point in the season, particularly when you’re hosting the last team above the red line (which is what DCU was at kickoff). NYRB has just six home games left this year, and if you look at where they’ve gotten their points from this season, they should be very worried. The Red Bulls have picked up just five points on the road all year, and have lost three of their last four trips to someone else’s digs.

So yes, this was only a very mild help for United’s cause, but if you do not like the New York Red Bulls, this was still a pretty good outcome. If NYRB can’t improve their points-per-game pace at home (1.64) and on the road (0.50), they’re on track to get about 13-14 points, or a season finish of 36-37 points. That means they’re already in extremely deep trouble in the playoff race, with the red line sitting at 31 and a team like United (7W-0D-3L at home) with seven more games on Buzzard Point.

So sure, we set out on today’s trip hoping to get something better than mozzarella sticks and potato skins at Friday’s, but when it comes with this side of schadenfreude? I’ll drink another oversized mug of macrobrew to that. — JA