D.C. United were handed a golden opportunity this past weekend, opening their 2022 season with a home game against expansion side Charlotte FC. The good news is that United made it count, winning 3-0 on a cold Saturday night on Buzzard Point. For a team with designs on moving up the table and making the playoffs, it was the only acceptable result, and the Black-and-Red delivered despite the pre-game bad news that was an injury for Russell Canouse.
Before we move on to this weekend’s road game against perennial strugglers FC Cincinnati, here are a couple of thoughts from me (it’s Jason, I’m back doing these, and they’re not gonna be this many days after the fact!) and Ryan Keefer:
So, good news first: Michael Estrada continues to score. A week after marking his first appearance in a club shirt with a goal in United’s preseason finale, he scored twice against Charlotte. Fun fact about soccer: when you sign a new striker, and they score goals right away, that’s great news!
Estrada looked composed and well-versed in his penalty kick routine, opening the scoring from the spot after Griffin Yow’s shot struck Brandt Bronico’s hand. United created 11 penalty kicks last year, converting all but one, which means once every three games, they were getting a spot kick.
If Estrada is going to keep Ola Kamara out of the starting eleven — we’ll get to why I’m saying “if” in a second — then someone has to be as good as Kamara was on penalties last year, when he went 9-for-10. Before Kamara, United had a bit of a rocky relationship on penalties, generally converting them at a merely average or even below average rate. This team thrives by creating what they call organized chaos in the box, which will mean more penalties, so hopefully Estrada can be as clinical going forward as he was with this one.
Estrada’s second goal was deflected, but a minor point here: most deflections like the one this shot had end up lofting up over the crossbar. How did the new guy end up putting his on frame? Simple: this was a beautifully-struck shot that had so much power and spin that it bent and moved back on goal after ramping off of Christian Fuchs, leaving Kristijan Kahlina baffled. It’s fairly simple, but that clean of a strike, from a technique perspective, might end up being a (very different) goal without the deflection. Sure, there’s luck involved here, but maybe not as much as you think.
Now, for the less-good news. Despite the goals, Estrada simply wasn’t involved much in this game. No starter for either team had fewer than his 20 touches, and he had zero recorded defensive actions (unless you want to count two fouls conceded). Estrada had just seven attempted passes, and the only number in which his contribution was high compared to the rest of the players in this game is in the giveaways department; per WhoScored, he lost the ball six times due to poor control, a number that lead all players on the night.
It wasn’t all bad by any means, as Estrada had two successful dribbles and won two free kicks, and you know...he did score. But when you see Kamara come in and end up with nearly as many touches (18), one more shot attempt, one more defensive action, and five more passes (which he also completed with more regularity, connecting on 10 out of 12 while Estrada was just 3 for 7)...well, it’s a tiny sample size, but it’s interesting nonetheless.
Now, there are game state issues here, to be fair to Estrada. Kamara’s time in the game was nearly all played while 3-0 up, which meant facing a more tired and more demoralized Charlotte team just as they pushed even more numbers forward than they had been before Kahlina punched a cross off Kamara to effectively end the game. He had an easier situation to step into, with much more room to operate. But still, you do have to wonder a bit about whether the Golden Boot winner might not push back into the starting job once he regains fitness after some lost time in preseason.
Bottom line: it’s good to have this kind of competition in place up front, and this is before Nigel Robertha could even suit up, before Adrien Perez was fully fit, and before Taxi Fountas gets to town. That’s an improvement over 2021, and Estrada will improve on all of these data points with time. — Jason Anderson
The “old” kids on the block
Kevin Paredes’ departure presumably led some to wonder just what would become of Moses Nyeman and Griffin Yow, D.C.’s homegrowns who would be next up, so to speak. And the results were...OK? Nyeman was paired with Drew Skundrich, and they served as a fulcrum of sorts, with Skundrich drifting to the left to help cover for Brad Smith, and Nyeman on the right doing that on the right (to a lesser degree).
As far as the combined actions map goes, it harkened back to the days of Davy Arnaud and Perry Kitchen, where each had his role and stayed together to not expose anything in back:
Consequently and perhaps coincidentally, the news of Russell Canouse being hurt would seem to have required a last-minute adjustment for Losada, and may be why United’s central midfield had fairly nondescript assignments. Moses may not have had the chance to use his talents fully, is the point here, in favor of a more simplified approach.
As far as Yow goes? Well, in his second start for Losada he inherited Paul Arriola’s spot on the right side of the attack, and he led the starters in shots (3), won that penalty kick, chipped in a key pass, and provided hustle on both ends of the field:
I think Yow had a better idea of what was expected of him for the game and he got a chance to show that off.
There are a couple of different takeaways to glean here. The first is that the roster build is such that United let a couple of healthy veteran midfielders leave the team when they could have been needed. But an underlying notion I have about Losada is that he’s going to give kids a chance to run because they need the time to do so, whether it’s the ‘old’ kids or the ‘new’ ones. While game states gave Loudoun call-up Azaad Liadi a chance to enjoy a cup of coffee, Sofiane Djeffal got 26 minutes and made 11 of 12 passes while he kept things going centrally. Both registered blips on the xA charts and both have upside to them, enough that they have or will get the environments to do what they can with their fortunes.
People mention Edison Flores as a guy that United needs to have success in 2022, and that might apply on a lesser scale to Nyeman and Yow. They don’t have the team or external pressure that a DP would have, but the chance to do what Paredes has done is there for the taking for both of them, because if not, I think Losada makes it known there will be other kids ready to take their spots in the lineup. — Ryan Keefer
Just like they Drew it up
First of all, I’m sorry, the play on words here is groan-worthy, but I want to go into more detail on Drew Skundrich’s role in this game. Ryan alluded to the positional quality, with he and Nyeman kinda-sorta dividing the field in to a left half and a right half in order to balance the workload.
Skundrich’s usage since joining United has been fascinating to me, because when you look at his career track, it starts out very traditional for MLS before becoming very different under Losada. He was a do-it-all central midfielder at Stanford, and retained elements of that in largely a box-to-box role at his USL Championship clubs, most notably as a key cog for the Sacramento Republic.
However, with United, he’s been a little bit of everything. Losada used him as a pressing no. 10 in the early days last year as they played 3421, and then when that role became more part of the front line...he was suddenly a wide forward. There were still plenty of appearances as an industrious part of a midfield trio, but despite being a late-in-preseason signing that technically came from Loudoun, Skundrich wasn’t just a hard-working central midfielder who made up the numbers in terms of depth (which is what you’d expect based on how MLS clubs tend to see their USL acquisitions, if they ever even look at that league for players).
Losada using Skundrich as a pressing attacker was just as unconventional as playing Andy Najar at right-center back, a solution borne to some degree out of necessity that nevertheless shows a unique eye for how to make use of a particular player’s set of skills. Skundrich seems to be one of the fittest players on the team, and being both willing and able to run so much (especially while grasping the pressing structure and focusing that effort within the framework rather than simply charging around aimlessly) is a legitimately important trait on the Black-and-Red.
But on Saturday, he had a far more conventional role, deputizing for Canouse and being United’s chief ball-winner in midfield. Skundrich delivered a Canouse-style performance. He lead United in recoveries with 10, and had 16 defensive actions on MLSsoccer’s chalkboard, spread far and wide. We don’t have sprints attempted or distance covered available, but I bet if we did, he’d be right at the top from Saturday’s exertions.
United’s system doesn’t work if there are passengers, and it doesn’t work if someone’s doing superficial running without actually impacting the game. United had that going on with Estrada, and to build on Ryan’s point about Nyeman having a chance to seize the next few months, he was not able to turn effort into impact on the defensive side of the ball as often as he or United would like.
That left Skundrich with even more to do, and while it’s probably not sustainable to have one central midfielder in a pairing provide about 84% of the defensive actions, he was up to the task. This is probably the role we’re going to see him playing more of this year, with United adding forwards, and what we have so far indicates he’s up for the job. — JA