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Three things from D.C. United sneaking out of TQL Stadium with a 1-0 win over FC Cincinnati

The formation change, Sofiane Djeffal, & the nature of United’s start to the season are on the docket

MLS: D.C. United at FC Cincinnati Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

D.C. United beat FC Cincinnati, just like we all expected. The game went exactly to plan, Ola Kamara scored, United didn’t concede, very normal trip to Cincy...ok fine, we’re kidding. Yes, United won the game, but the path there was unexpectedly difficult. Some wasted early chances let Cincy back into the game, Moses Nyeman got sent off, and Bill Hamid had to end up being the undeniable Man of the Match in order to get that shutout. Cincinnati might be a bad team, but United found them tough on Saturday.

With that in mind, Jason (that’s me!), Ryan, and Adam have some thoughts about a game that was a mix of good — Hamid, plus a resilient team being resourceful enough to win — and not-so-good (giving up 1.6 expected goals to a team that has now lost 14 straight games).

Welcome back to an old friend

After a decent enough start, United began struggling in transition, with Cincinnati finding room to operate in between the midfield and back three, as well as between the front three. This wasn’t really happening until around the 20th minute, and really settled into an alarming pattern as the half wore on.

During the halftime break, Hernán Losada did something he hasn’t done before, rolling out a very conventional 4231 as a response. “Especially [defending] in transition, we were not doing the right things or the right choices, and that it wasn’t necessary any more to play in the back three,” said Losada after the game when asked about his thought process in making the change. “I think it worked, because at the start of the second half, the majority of the second half, we were more relaxed with the ball. We were more confident.”

Changing to a 4231 helped mitigate United’s problems quite a bit, while also opening up different attacking avenues. First of all, let’s focus on how the new shape slowed Cincinnati down. The main aspect here is in central midfield, where United went from having their line of two attacking midfielder/wide forward/whatever you’d prefer helping to form a four-man midfield box. This was common for United last year (particularly against a 4231), and on paper it made sense when planning to face a team that has set itself up to play a 442 diamond all year. You create even numbers in that zone, as you can see over to the right.

Jason Anderson / Black and Red United

But of course, Cincinnati didn’t play their diamond, switching to a 3412 and giving United a dose of their own medicine in terms of pushing their wingbacks high and covering the space in behind with their right- and left-center backs. It was a departure, and to credit Pat Noonan, it worked. United should have been 1-0 up inside the first 20 minutes, but from there Cincy settled into their formation change and were — I kind of can’t believe I’m saying this — playing fairly good soccer.

The thing here as far as the midfield goes is that Cincinnati was having either Júnior Moreno or Yuya Kubo check back into the space between the lines, or having their back three step up into that space, collecting touches by exploiting a flaw in any box midfield scheme: if you’re not razor sharp as far as who shifts further into the middle when they have to, there’s a pocket that will always be available.

United weren’t particularly sharp in this regard, so changing to 4231 did away with the problem. Edison Flores became a full-time central player rather than setting up in a starting position in the half-space, clarifying who had responsibility for this area. This allowed Drew Skundrich (later Sofiane Djeffal) and Moses Nyeman to drop a bit deeper, which further slowed the transition game down on a day where United wasn’t defending well in that phase.

In other words, United traded numbers for stability and clarity. Flores took up the pocket Cincinnati was looking for, United decreased the space between their midfield and back line, and the result was a team back on their feet after looking wobbly as the first half wore on.

This switch came with another big benefit, and it’s one Losada has talked about over and over when asked tactical questions: overloads. United weren’t creating very many of them in the final 25 or so minutes of the first half despite ostensibly having a 4v3 in the middle, and Cincinnati’s bold choice to push their wingbacks up actually turned their direct play into a source of overloads that normally isn’t there for teams that go long so often. Two forwards plus Lucho Acosta as nearly a third, plus two wingbacks? You’re gonna outnumber a back three, that’s just simple math. The job is to get the ball up there, and Cincinnati were able to do it.

So Losada’s change to a 4231 helped deal with that overload, giving United four defenders to face the three or four Cincinnati attackers. It also created a new, far more beneficial overload on both flanks. United started the game with Gressel and Smith going it alone against Alvas Powell and Ray Gaddis, but moving to a 4231 meant both wings suddenly were 2v1. Yow and halftime sub Adrien Perez had Andy Najar and Brad Smith out wide with them, whereas Cincy was going to have to get help from center backs sprinting out wide — potentially leaving a slower player like Geoff Cameron 1v1 with Michael Estrada or Flores — or from Moreno or Kubo having to abandon their post, opening up seams for the central midfield trio.

The formation change came with a new directive: look for the early diagonal out towards the touchline, with Yow and Perez pushing high and wide. Even if those longer balls didn’t result in actual possession, Najar and Smith were the most likely players to pick up the loose ball should Powell or Gaddis win the header. That’s actually what Perez spent most of his time doing, while United started to find Yow with balls that he could actually run onto more often (which, by the way, broke a third dynamic Cincy had set up, which was to heavily tilt the field to DCU’s left side instead of the Black-and-Red’s tendency to be heavily biased towards getting the ball to Gressel).

I’m not here to tell you it was perfect. Cincinnati’s expected goals from the start of the second half to Nyeman’s red card were slightly ahead of United’s, though I personally attribute that to a) Cincy was more willing to just have a go, and b) United made some individual errors at both ends that either gave the home side a shot or spurned a shooting opportunity at the other end.

But I do think Losada’s perspective on this was correct. It simplified the game for United, and it ended three different less-than-ideal dynamics that were at play. I don’t think Losada will be starting this weekend’s game in a 4231 by any means, but it was a handy adjustment to make given how the game was going and an enforced substitution. — Jason Anderson

(quick side note: B&RU did ask about Gressel’s status in a post-game question about this formation change, but Losada’s answer was focused on the tactics at play. For what it’s worth, Gressel posted a video yesterday while riding an exercise bike, which is a promising sign).

Some of the glory, but Djeffal of the effort

I wrote the header before the actual body of this, so this may be all downhill from here, OK?

Sofiane Djeffal is giving himself a case to be in the conversation for a first-choice role. He came on for Skundrich, who had a modest (70% pass accuracy, one key pass) night, had an interception, three recoveries, and was 3/5 in overall duels. Djeffal came on for him at the hour mark, logged about half the touches, was only 50% in terms of completing passes, but won his only tackle, had two clearances, a recovery, won a tackle, and was 2/5 on duels. The long balls were a big difference, as Djeffal was 3/7, finding players downfield to keep a shaky backline honest. There’s also that set piece (on a foul he won! —JA) that he delivered onto Steven Birnbaum’s head, which led to the winning goal by Ola Kamara.

In an organization that appears to be giving a lot more time to younger players, Djeffal is a shining example of the trend. He caught the team’s eye last summer, training with Loudoun during the collegiate offseason, and is parlaying a solid preseason into minutes right away. He’s quickly emerged as one of, if not the, first choice off the bench for Losada, and he’s justifying the investment made on him so far, small sample size aside.

There are larger questions on the roster build and the issue of having a higher caliber, consistently healthy center mid or three remains a viable topic of discussion. But, given that Russell Canouse is coming off an injury, and Moses Nyeman will be out to his late red card, Djeffal’s probably going to get a chance to show off everything he can do. — Ryan Keefer

Would you really rather be lucky than good?

United through two games are sitting second in the East, with four goals scored and none conceded. It’s exactly where we thought and hoped the Black-and-Red would be when the schedule listed expansion Charlotte FC and three-time defending Wooden Spoon holders FC Cincinnati as their first two opponents.

The way we got here? Less like we all envisioned it. After coming out of the gate uncharacteristically flat against the Crown, the Black-and-Red were bailed out by VAR on a narrow offside call before forcing a penalty and mostly cruising from there. Another narrow offside call helped Bill Hamid & Co. keep the clean sheet against die Blau-Orange. (Note: if you’re not going to give your team a nickname so we don’t have to type out the city name on every reference, we here at B&RU are happy to do it for you.)

In both games, United broke the deadlock thanks to penalties awarded after bang-bang handling calls. The D.C. back line and — especially — Bill Hamid have done more than their part, but we haven’t seen quality and number of open play scoring chances the team needs from the press or from possession.

It’s hard to isolate one root cause for the lack of creation. Last week, Jason broke down a big example of Michael Estrada switching off for the moment, turning a promising pressing opportunity in Charlotte’s end into a Yordy Reyna shot on goal. Estrada’s hold-up play has also left plenty to be desired. In midfield, Canouse’s ability to break up play and transition the ball the other way has been missed as he recovers from a groin injury.

United has allowed themselves to be funneled to their left side, playing much more through Brad Smith than Julian Gressel, who finished 2021 with the third-most assists in all of MLS. Edison Flores hasn’t been able to carry over his form with Peru, where he scored two goals in CONMEBOL World Cup Qualifying.

But despite the obvious areas for growth, United have six points from two games. As players and head coach Losada said after the game, that didn’t happen last year when United were less than their best.

Of course I’d rather see the team playing better, and they need to figure things out in the next couple weeks before the schedule grows some teeth. But all else being equal, wins are better than not, and maybe we’re seeing this team figure out how to get points in situations where they dropped them in the past. — Adam M Taylor

Bonus thing

In this century, United has not won both of their first two games to start a season even one time. Not in an MLS Cup season in 2004, not in Shield-winning seasons like 2006 and 2007, and not in Shield-contending seasons like 2014.

No, it hasn’t been perfect, or even very good, but one thing we’ve learned over and over again in MLS is that good early results are arguably the single best indicator of playoff qualification. So, basically, go ahead and dance around, it’s good to be winning right now. — JA