D.C. United has been starting fast all year, and used two set piece goals early to set themselves up for a 4-2 win over FC Cincinnati. Paul Arriola scored twice, Julian Gressel moved into a tie for second in MLS with his 9th, 10th, and 11th assists on the year, Edison Flores was a major factor, and United thumped a visitor at Audi Field without even needing Ola Kamara on the scoresheet. Pretty good, right?
The Black-and-Red ended the night back above the red line, they’ve got MLS’s second-highest scoring attack, and that left us with a lot to talk about. So, me (good morning, it’s Jason), Ryan, Adam, and Ben thought this one over, and here’s what we thought:
Overloads: A How-To
United has mostly played a 343 formation this year, and that means that on paper, you’ve got two central midfielders in a league where most teams play with three (and some even add a fourth). Hernán Losada has talked about creating overloads anyway, at times citing a desire for his wide forwards to help create a 4v2 advantage on teams that drop two defensive midfielders deep, or having a wingback move inside in certain moments to make sure the central duo for United is never actually just a duo.
Tonight, maybe more than in other games, we got a new wrinkle. I’m having to paraphrase, as a tech snafu has left me without the audio at an hour where there’s no one awake to get the file from, but it’s a clear concept: in the post-game, I asked Losada about how they managed to seem to always have space in central midfield despite ostensibly being outnumbered there.
Facing a 532 in which one of the two forwards was just Lucho Acosta given total freedom to be wherever he wanted, United was looking at potentially having three center backs staying home just to deal with Brenner. That’s not good resource management in either direction. It means fewer players available to track runners from deep defensively, and it means fewer players pressing or getting forward on the ball.
Losada said that United mostly stuck with their normal tactics — a recurring theme in answers this year, underlining the consistency of the message players are getting — but offered an adjustment detailed in the image on the left as one specific to Cincinnati:
With only one forward staying high, a defender was free, so when United pressed, Najar was often allowed to jump into the midfield from right-center back. Losada said that United could temporarily operate out of some back four ideas (with the wingbacks having fullback responsibilities), but since they were pressing at the time, we’re really talking about just that one more number high up to crowd the midfield.
The result? While Cincinnati did have plenty of shots — we can’t pretend this was a complete obliteration like some of United’s other home wins — that wasn’t the game they really wanted. United leveraged the extra numbers to have the more open game they were better off being in, and had plenty of time on the ball when they needed it.
The ability to adapt and find that extra man or two in the middle from so many places means United can adapt to a 532, or a 4231, or a 433, or whatever else teams are going to send out after them. — Jason Anderson
While it’s a relief that this happened, this had to happen
So two weeks ago after D.C. beat Chicago, I talked about the need to do what you need to do against bad teams, and I’d noticed this Saturday night:
Come to Audi Field be prepared to be down 3-0 at the half to #DCU. Third time this year we've done it. #VamosUnited— Zachary Abaie (@ZacharyAbaie) September 26, 2021
Now this is not insignificant, because you SHOULD be merciless at home, but it should be noted that those three times happened against Cincinnati, the aforementioned win over the Fire, and in July against Toronto FC. That’s the bottom three teams in the East, and three of the five worst defenses in MLS.
Looking ahead, Wednesday they play a tricky Minnesota side whose defense is stingy and who underperform their xG totals, but who also haven’t scored a goal in either of their road games this month (albeit against very strong teams in Seattle and Sporting KC). On the weekend, United has a big matchup with an Orlando side that is both above D.C., but also currently on a four-game losing streak.
Wins, and that’s convincing wins against the bottom of the table should be the expectation. Garbage-time goals aside, Saturday night was and should have been easy. But if there was a time for D.C. to carry this ruthlessness forward, this next week is as good a time as any. Potentially going into the international break on a 5-1-1 run would serve as a good confidence booster, particularly when you come out of said break playing the top 3 teams in the East over a seven-day period. Note that the first game in that set (home vs. Nashville) will likely mean playing without Edison Flores, Yordy Reyna, Junior Moreno, Paul Arriola, and Andy Najar, as all are confirmed or presumed call-ups into their respective national team squads for World Cup Qualifying, which wraps up two days before.
I have to think we’ll find a lot out about this team under this coach in the next week. — Ryan Keefer
Until tonight, at her first game in person since Covid hit, I hadn’t told my 7-year-old that Lucho was playing for another team. He’d been her original favorite player, “The Little Guy,” since as long as she can remember. And now, her he was, in the opponents’ colors.
“Why does Lucho have to play for the other team?” she asked me, literal tears in her eyes. (I know it sounds like I’m putting this on, but she was legit torn up, ok?)
She wasn’t sure where her loyalty ought to lie. By kickoff, we’d both agreed that we’d root for D.C. to win the game but for Lucho to do well and maybe score, too. Well, that’s exactly what we got.
Luciano Acosta returned to Buzzard Point for the first time as a visitor Saturday night. And for about 75 minutes, Losada’s team just about bottled him up. With little time or space in the attacking third, Acosta did that thing he often did here when United were behind — or just bad — dropping wide and deep into the fullbacks’ usual positions to get on the ball in a little bit of space to build up those combinations he loves so much (and for good reason).
It really didn’t work, and he was quiet for all but a brief spell when Cincinnati made the game a bit more interesting that in should have been. Late in the second half, as the Black-and-Red took their foot off the gas up 4-0 and then 4-1, Lucho found his moment, somehow keeping the ball amidst a gaggle of United defenders and then deflecting a shot in off one of those defenders to give us the final 4-2 scoreline. Acosta’s preternatural skill and guile were well on display, for one moment anyway.
And for anyone who cares about these things, he didn’t celebrate. — Adam M. Taylor
The league’s best set piece team keeps doing what they do
As was trumpeted this past week by MLSsoccer.com’s Joseph Lowery, United is the best team on set pieces in the league so far this year from an underlying data perspective, and they continued that streak in this game against Cincinnati. United’s first goal looked so very easy, even though it was a well-planned and well executed goal: Julian Gressel played a short corner into Edison Flores, who was able to play it back to Gressel. Gressel ran the ball across the six yard box and Paul Arriola was just there on the back post to score.
The second goal also featured Gressel, who now is second in the league in assists. His free kick completely froze the Cincinnati goalkeeper, and Steven Birnbaum was there to put a chipped header into the goal. Two goals in the first 25 minutes, and United were on their way to a solid victory over Cincinnati. — Benjamin Bromley
Ryan and Ben are both right about the importance of that early lead in terms of going out and getting a win. United created a hugely advantageous game state to such an extent that they could cough up two avoidable goals at the end and still win comfortably.
But the good news here is that we have a knock-on effect serving multiple players really well in what is yet another week where we’ll be doing this whole thing again Wednesday and then again next weekend. Arriola’s second goal late in the half is a major difference, opening the door for Losada to rest him, Russell Canouse, and Andy Najar (whose availability as a starter really does seem to be the single most determinative thing for United in terms of going from being a decent team to one that is truly dangerous in the postseason).
That sets those three, all key starters that are not really replaceable in terms of skill set, up for Wednesday against the Loons. It also likely brings some good vibes for Felipe and Frédéric Brillant (team-first guys who nevertheless really want to be starting), and it gave Yordy Reyna a low-pressure situation to test out just how well he is after last week’s ankle tweak. Everyone wins.
It goes on from there. Losada got to rest MLS’s Golden Boot leader in Ola Kamara midway through the half, bringing Nigel Robertha back after two months out injured in nearly ideal circumstances: plenty of space to run into as Cincinnati pushed numbers forward, but no major pressure to be a match-winner in a tight game. Griffin Yow got minutes on his birthday, while doing that meant getting Kevin Paredes — who has missed time with three different knocks this year — out of a game that was getting physical.
It all feels good and sets the subs up well, but it also plays a crucial factor in this packed stretch run. These minutes saved will help against Minnesota and Orlando this week, and they’ll help keep non-starters sharp when they do have to be rotated in (as Ryan said, that daunting and potentially vital game against Nashville may be one United faces with an unfamiliar starting eleven).
All I can say is enjoy the luxury while we can. — JA