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Four things about D.C. United’s eventful loss at Atlanta United

Despite some good moments, United was unable to halt Atlanta’s hot streak

MLS: D.C. United at Atlanta United FC John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

D.C. United once again scored some great goals against Atlanta United...and once again lost to the Several Stripes. United opted for a more direct style, which we’ve seen on the road regularly, and despite creating plenty of danger, were taken down by some Atlanta golazos and the play of Brad Guzan in goal.

It was a good game for neutrals, but this is not a site for neutrals! With that in mind, me (it’s Jason, the reason this piece was delayed until today) and Adam had possibly too much to say. Let’s get into it:

That Thing Everybody Hates to Complain About

It’s an adage as old as refereeing itself: like the field, the referee is something both teams have to deal with. And most of the time, it’s true. Even in MLS, where refs are famously inconsistent within games, the officials tend to expend their capriciousness without bias. Sure a picky ref might affect a more physical team more than another, or a lenient ref benefit a team of harder tacklers.

But it’s hard to make the case that both teams were dealing with an even-handed referee in this game. Joe Dickerson whistled United for 14 fouls in the first half to Atlanta’s two. Two! Watching the game, it’s not the case that United were overly physical or Atlanta faultless. The final tally was eight fouls on Atlanta — most of them in a relatively short spell of D.C. ascendency — to 25 on D.C.

It seemed that any 50/50 challenge that the Black-and-Red won would be whistled, while Atlanta were given much broader leeway. Dickerson seemed to have particular ire for Kevin Paredes, who caught a forearm to the neck and face after dribbling an Atlanta defender only for “play on” to be called. Dickerson later gave Paredes a yellow card on a play when the teenager just beat Atlanta DP Marcelino Moreno on a sprint to a through ball and poked it out of bounds — I certainly couldn’t make out a foul on replay.

I commented to the B&RU group chat when the assignments were announced for the weekend that I didn’t recognize Dickerson’s name. He’s a relatively new referee who has apparently moved up the rankings very quickly. He may need more development, and D.C. fans will certainly remember his name after this one.

Atlanta are a fabulously talented team, and they don’t need any help from a thumb on the scale. Unfortunately for los Capitalinos, they got one on Saturday. — Adam M. Taylor

Gotta feed the beast

All season, we’ve been telling you about how well Julian Gressel has been playing. You can see it with your eyes, you can see it on his stat line, and you can especially see it looking through more advanced data. He’s been having a good enough season that he merits Best XI consideration on the same level as Ola Kamara (who is, you know, the Golden Boot leader right now).

In this game, though, Atlanta seemed to figure out how do disrupt the supply line to Gressel, or at least prevent him from having the space to do anything dangerous once he got the ball. Normally Gressel is right at the top of United’s list in terms of touches on the ball in a given game, and he did lead the Black-and-Red in this game. However, his 64 touches often saw him collecting the ball while under pressure, with the idea largely being to simply keep possession rather than having any openings to play the kind of cross or line-breaking combination that he’s been so regularly able to deliver under Losada.

Here’s a chart of United’s open play crosses and key passes from Saturday. Yellow signifies key passes, black is successful crosses, and gray is unsuccessful crosses:

There are plenty of #31 squares on here, but Gressel’s key passes came from corner kicks, and while he also had some dangerous set pieces that aren’t showing up on here, those are also dead balls rather than open play moments. Normally United’s map with these categories would be, between Gressel, Andy Najar, and an attacker (be it Paul Arriola, Edison Flores, or Yordy Reyna), quite a bit busier on the right side.

It’s been less than a week since we talked about how crucial Najar is for United, so I won’t belabor that point. It was interesting to note during the game that Donovan Pines was making real efforts to get into the spaces Najar gets into, but realistically it’s an attempt to replace the irreplaceable. Pines, or anyone playing right-center back in this system, does have to get into those spaces, but without Najar’s unique skillset, the logistics of getting Gressel the ball in space start to slow down. An organized team with speed on that side can, with focus and serious planning, do what Atlanta did on the day.

Gressel got the ball, but he didn’t get the space. It’s a sobering lesson for United as we approach the stretch run in a congested Eastern Conference, because a) Atlanta isn’t the only team with the raw ingredients to make that space more difficult to come by, and b) we can’t realistically expect Najar to play 90 minutes in every game from here until the end of the year. — Jason Anderson

On Goals and the Multiverse

You hear it all the time, and for good reason: Goals change games. Game states determine tactics and risk tolerance and substitution decisions and tempo... they’re a very important thing to consider when trying to wrap your head around the events of a game.

Hernán Losada ran out something less than a first-choice lineup on Saturday, leaving Andy Najar at home and rotating Steven Birnbaum to the bench while also leaving Edison Flores out of the XI. Instead, Frédéric Brillant, Tony Alfaro, and Drew Skundrich got the nods, names that will pale in many minds next to the likes of Josef Martínez, Ezequiel Barco, and Luiz Araújo.

But, if not for an unsaveable free kick, D.C. would have gotten into halftime level. If not for that and a time machine-type save by Brad Guzan on a Russell Canouse header, the Black-and-Red may have even been ahead at the break. Based on expected goals at that point, you couldn’t have called it undeserved.

But that’s not what happened, at least in this universe. On this earth, Barco buried his chance, Canouse didn’t, and Losada had to chase the game. He got attackers like Flores onto the field by switching out of the 352 that had kept Atlanta’s midfield in check during transition moments and into a more aggressive 343 that made the central zone vulnerable to unencumbered counterattacks if one player got beat. And, well, that’s just what happened on the eventual game-winner when Marcelino Moreno got into space and then dribbled half of the D.C. defense.

It wasn’t the wrong choice by Losada, but it was one that he was forced to make by circumstances, by the game state. If Barco doesn’t curl that shot over the wall and into the upper 90, if Canouse angles his header ever so slightly downward or Guzan’s arm is elevated just a bit higher, then D.C. could have continued the less risky approach.

Maybe Atlanta’s quality still shines through and they spend Saturday night partying either way. But maybe D.C. continues to boss the midfield and a rotated Black-and-Red holds (or even beats) the surging Five Stripes. What a different feeling we’d have from that version of Saturday.

That seems to be a theme this year for D.C. United. They do so much right for the whole game and win the battle of the underlying metrics, but catch a bad break — give up a golazo from a free kick wizard or off of a nonsensically bad giveaway, say — and end up on the wrong side of the one stat that directly determines the game.

It’s frustrating because they’re so close to putting it all together, and with nine games this season, they still have time to do just that. Luckily, there are three reasons to think that this team might do it:

  1. They’ve improved markedly as the year went on and they’ve better embedded Losada’s system into the club. No reason to think that improvement will stop.
  2. Most of these tantalizing losses have come with some pretty major pieces missing, whether that’s Bill Hamid or Paul Arriola or, in this case, Andy Najar.
  3. Even with those absences, United have been competitive on the underlying metrics, which have proven to be a better predictor of future performance than final scores are. That wasn’t the case on Saturday thanks to two late sequences after United had thrown caution and defending to the wind, but in most of these games United would be expected to win based on the chances created.

This team’s not done, not by a long shot. — AMT

What about the golazo scorers?

United has, perhaps unfortunately, decided that the only way to score on Atlanta is on extremely difficult shots. Here’s Felipe basically unleashing a Street Fighter II hadouken fireball to get DCU on the board:

Yeesh. That ball is probably no longer useable due to damage suffered in this collision with Felipe’s foot.

Felipe probably expected to have a more regular role on this team after his impressively quick recovery from last year’s torn ACL. He is playing frequently, appearing in 20 of United’s last 23 games, but he’s only started five times. Even with his compatibility in a high-pressing system, it feels like Russell Canouse and Junior Moreno have locked down two central midfield roles.

It’s an interesting situation compared to the rest of the central midfield options. Losada has been leaning towards Drew Skundrich when he needs a third central midfielder, mostly due to Skundrich having the fitness and speed — I’ve seen people say they think he’s slow, but if you don’t get caught up in his gait and just focus on how quickly he covers the ground, he’s not far from Canouse on that front — to step up high and temporarily be a third player in the front line. It’s not a viable approach unless you have the speed to get there, which gives Skundrich the edge over Felipe, Moses Nyeman, and Yamil Asad.

There is something to Felipe’s game that no one else brings to the table, though, and it’s the ability to combine high-end technical ability (only Nyeman is in his realm among the central midfield options) with the audacity to go for something like this, and make a potentially game-changing play. Nyeman will develop that with time, but Felipe already has the ability to sense the moment and know when United needs to take the risk of him joining the attack, or in this case opting to go for goal on a full volley.

That won’t always work, but he’s got a great feel for when it’s worth trying and when it isn’t. As such, when United finds themselves in the circumstances of needing a goal over the next 2-3 months, we may see this exact Felipe-for-Moreno sub again.

Let’s move on to Flores, who also scored a spectacular goal off the bench:

That’s a “hey coach you shoulda started me!” kind of goal if there ever was one. It’s the kind of moment we need to see out of Flores, who remains one of the three projected full-strength starters on the team that can create something truly on their own (along with Najar and Paredes). United needs him to be productive down the stretch.

But that brings us to Flores’ place within the squad. He came back from international duty only to end up on the bench behind Yordy Reyna on Wednesday, and — even with Reyna out with a knock — being the odd man out in the switch from three forwards to three midfielders.

So in the last week, Losada had Flores available twice and chose a different crafty forward in the game where he played a 343, and chose a different formation in the second game, opting for Arriola to partner Kamara. Is it a sign of something more than just possibly some caution for a player who was out injured for a while, and then had a grind on international duty? We’ll find out around 6:38pm on Saturday. — JA