If you’re a D.C. United fan, you probably expected a win against the Chicago Fire last night, and that’s exactly what you got. United turned a good start into a lead on an Ola Kamara penalty kick, doubled their lead the same way after Chicago made a push to get level, and put the game to bed as Kamara produced the first Black-and-Red hat trick since Wayne Rooney put three past Real Salt Lake in March 2019.
Even if it did rely on the MLS wild card that is hoping fouls actually get called correctly, it was a confident performance that saw United set themselves up well for Saturday’s trip to Atlanta while also staying ahead of the Five Stripes and CF Montreal (who both also won last night).
With all that in mind, Ryan, Adam, and Jason have some thoughts, context, and quotes for you before we switch gears for the big game on the weekend.
It’s cool that Ola Kamara keeps scoring!
This segment was initially conceived as an unseemly victory lap on the fact that Ola Kamara has become the reliable goalscorer we’ve been saying he could be if fit, confident, and playing in the right system.
But let’s be real: one, who wants to read someone saying “I told you so!” for 800 words. And two, the target range I’d been offering for what “reliable goalscorer” meant was about 16 goals or so in a full season, and we have around 30% of this particular season to go. So in the end, those assertions were also not exactly right, so the self-congratulations will have to wait for something else.
Kamara is the MLS Golden Boot leader, with 16 goals in 18 games. That’s a goals-to-games ratio that is just a hair off of Josef Martinez’s 2018 season, where he scored 31 goals in 34 games, the second-best total in league history. It’s already the highest total anyone has managed for this club since Luciano Emilio scored 20 in 2007, which despite what I want to tell myself is actually 14 years ago. It’s a scoring pace that, if he maintains it and plays in each of United’s remaining ten games, would see him get to 25 goals. That would be the highest total anyone for this club has ever managed in MLS play, breaking Raul Diaz Arce’s record that has held for a quarter-century.
So obviously we’re seeing something we haven’t seen in a very long time around these parts, which is great. And we’re seeing it despite so many things that would point to this being impossible. Here’s just a sampling:
- Kamara has only appeared in 75% of United’s games this year, and only got above 1,000 minutes played this season last night. His 1,038 minutes this year are 48% of the possible minutes total for a DCU player right now.
- United’s two Designated Players are both attackers, yet Paul Arriola and Edison Flores have been on the field at the same time for a whopping 146 minutes this year (less than 7% of the season).
- Other elements of D.C.’s attack have been missing, like Adrien Perez getting a long-term injury mid-season, or Nigel Robertha missing the last nine games due to injury, meaning there’s not a consistent cast supplying him other than Julian Gressel.
- As Hernán Losada pointed out after the game, there’s not a lot of other scorers drawing attention away from Kamara. United’s next best scorer is Yordy Reyna, with four goals.
- All of this is coming in a system that United is new to as a club, and to Kamara (whose prior success in MLS was in a possession-heavy style that played out of a 4231).
Yes, Kamara’s scoring rate feels like something that will level out, but we’ve been saying that for months, and it hasn’t happened yet. Plus, all the stuff you just read is evidence that things could be going better, which is wild.
So let’s just savor this. Sometimes the reactions after a game aren’t so deep. — Jason Anderson
On doing what you’re supposed to do
Look, it’s fun to score three goals in the first 45 minutes, really! But let’s bring attention to a point here from Rick:
It's hard to argue with a 3-0 halftime lead, but #DCU did little to nothing until the Arriola shot off the bar followed by Kamara's headed goal. Chicago has a 1.23-0.46 xG advantage if you eliminate the penalties, and 0.39 came on Kamara's header.— Seoul Train (@BlasianSays) September 16, 2021
I'm not grousing, but
Compared to the last game (when D.C. had a bunch of chances, smoked the New York Red Bulls on xG and could only muster a draw), getting a couple of good breaks and a late first half play that led to them finally passing the Fire on the non-penalty expected goals battle for the night is underwhelming, sure. But, getting past the Fire — a team that has a bottom five record in MLS in both goals scored and conceded — to begin with is something you’re supposed to do as a playoff team, especially against .
More than that, learning that handling the business that you need to is something that Hernán Losada’s bunch is going to understand quickly, assuming they haven’t already. The Kamara hat trick was nice, but Montreal kept pace by surviving a bumpy middle third to handle Orlando City on the road Wednesday night, and Atlanta United did the same by throttling FC Cincinnati. United got within one point of NYCFC, but is still tied with Montreal on points and is just one ahead of Atlanta.
Which brings us to the weekend. D.C. go to Georgia to play that suddenly challenging Atlanta side whom they lost to at home a month ago, Cincy hosts NYCFC, and this bad Chicago side goes on the road to play Montreal. I’m sure Kevin Bacon will probably appear on one or all of these broadcasts somewhere, but I digress.
The point I’m getting at is that D.C. face the real chance of going from fifth to as low as ninth coming out of this weekend, especially if Miami and the Philadelphia Union handle their respective business at home against the Red Bulls and Orlando.
Generally, I keep my expectations bar low. But after Saturday, D.C. host six of their last nine games at home, including Columbus, the Red Bulls, Cincy and Minnesota United (winners of two of their 13 road games), and the last game of the season is at a league-worst Toronto FC side. If D.C. does what they are supposed to do, that gets them to 49 points, so they’ll have to figure out what to do to get points at home against Nashville and the table-topping New England Revolution, and they can collectively breathe a little easier.
It would be nice if they could snatch a result Saturday, but removing any doubt against the other pretenders out there is going to go a long way to extending their season to Thanksgiving. — Ryan Keefer
On enjoying the fruits of what you’re supposed to do
Whatever the xG said on Wednesday night, United forced Chicago to chase for 85 minutes, give or take, following Kamara’s early penalty conversion and his ensuing first-half hat trick. Goals change games, as the saying goes. Other than that One Big Save from Bill Hamid, the Black-and-Red basically never looked like conceding and coasted through the second half content with their three-goal cushion.
“Coasted” is the operative word there. With a trip south to face the suddenly resurgent Atlanta United (see what I did there?) this weekend, making tonight as easy as possible was a big deal. The three-goal lead gave Losada the luxury of subbing out Kevin Paredes and Donovan Pines at halftime and pulling Julian Gressel and Kamara shortly after. Don’t sleep on the minutes saved on those legs, especially with a six-pointer looming on the fast turf of Mercedes Benz Stadium.
Had this been a close game, with United needing to press late, that game in Atlanta — los Capitalinos’ only scheduled nationally televised game this season! — would set up in a much trickier way, with more rotation potentially needed. With the dominant win, though? We’re looking at a close-to-full-strength Black-and-Red saying, “Bring on the Five Stripes.” — Adam M. Taylor
A “vamos por más” how-to
Let’s break down that third goal, shall we? Now, I say that, but unfortunately there is no good video of the goal, because the highlights packages out there cut off too soon. Here’s the best we can do:
The pass from @JulianGressel— D.C. United (@dcunited) September 16, 2021
The finish by @OlaKamara #DCU | @FanDuel pic.twitter.com/d67ebJNDEt
Fortunately, Bill Hamid — you know it’s a good night for United when Hamid comes back and we barely get to talk about him — discussed it after the game.
“You look at that third goal, caught them sleeping off of a goal kick,” Hamid pointed out. The play started with him passing to Donovan Pines, which is very routine. But that’s where the Fire lost their way. “[I] play Don, Don plays Kevin, and Paul’s all alone. Before they even knew it, we had the ball past half field, Paul hits the bar. Julian’s there, busted his tail to get down the field. Good service. Ola busted his tail to get down the field, header in the far post.”
Watch from the start of that clip, and you can see that it begins with Chicago having just six men between the ball and the goal. Modern defensive structures and high-pressing patterns are devised to not allow this to happen this quickly, and yet United saw some passivity and quickly cut five players out of the play. Even after Jhon Espinoza got away with a blatant foul on Kevin Paredes, the Fire didn’t have anyone around to get to the ball before Arriola, and they didn’t have anyone to contest the rebound after Arriola cracked a shot off the bar either.
This was a crucial goal at a crucial moment in the game, too. At 2-0 on penalty kicks, Chicago can go into the locker room with some hope. They’ve scored twice in a game against United this year, after all, and 2-0 is not an insurmountable deficit. Most teams have it in them to pull one or two off a season.
3-0, though? When you give up that third goal just before halftime? On a play that started from something as seemingly harmless as a short goal kick? That’s going to take the wind out of anyone’s sails, and though the Fire kept running and sending men forward, a lot of their second half performance was lacking belief and conviction. They were beaten, and the moment they knew they were beaten was when Kamara’s header tucked just inside Bobby Shuttleworth’s right-hand post.
United’s not going to find themselves against a team that decides to take a play off like this every night, but when they do, being able to pounce like this is a huge tribute to the entire “Vamos por más” mentality. — JA