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Amidst season of change, is D.C. United at risk of losing identity?

A look at D.C.’s tactics during a challenging 2022 campaign

MLS: Nashville SC at D.C. United John McCreary-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into Monday’s game in Orlando, D.C. United had suffered more than its fair share of disappointments during the 2022 campaign, one of the biggest of which came in Week 16.

In front of a sellout crowd on its return to Audi Field, D.C. United should have given supporters reason to smile against Nashville SC. Instead, the game ended in a 3-1 loss that deepened the frustration that has come with key outgoing transfers, failed incoming transfers, and the dismissal of a head coach whom the fanbase had taken to.

The loss provided many moments that could be used to sum up D.C.’s season thus far (with Andy Najar’s whiffed shot in the 11th minute one of them), but the five minutes leading up to Nashville SC’s second goal stood out.

D.C. United had 81.50% of the possession during that span, yet Taxiarchis “Taxi” Fountas got the ball twice. The first was in the center circle, just inside Nashville’s half, when he dropped deep to take the ball off Sofiane Djeffal before playing a short, lateral pass to Julian Gressel. The second was again just inside the opponent’s half, when he received a pass from Djeffal with his back to goal, took a poor touch, and lost possession, leading directly to Hany Mukhtar’s first goal:

While Nashville’s set up – with its three center backs shielded by two 6’s – makes life difficult for players like Fountas, there was no urgency to D.C.’s play. The players seemed content to move the ball slowly from one side to the other without penetrating Nashville’s lines. There was no attempt to play quickly, rearrange the defense and find openings.

For a team that had established an identity as one of the most entertaining in the league over the past 18 months, the match was damning.

Under the leadership of Hernan Losada, D.C. United built a system centered on committing numbers forward in an attempt to win the ball in positions from which the team’s best players could inflict the most damage. They did just that last year, finding the back of the net 56 times in 34 regular season games, which put them only behind the New England Revolution (65) and Sporting Kansas City (58) in terms of total goals scored.

Losada was fired in April of this year (replaced by longtime assistant Chad Ashton on an interim basis), but the club “remain[ed] committed to further progressing the high-tempo, attack-minded, and entertaining style of soccer,” per an email to season ticket members.

While it’s easy to believe that this is, in fact, the club’s vision given the players on the roster and the names it has been linked with, it’s difficult to ignore what’s happening on the field. Individual errors have cost the team on a number of occasions this season, but in having to drop deep, Fountas exposed the systemic issues that exist as well.

D.C. United looked most dangerous this season in the month following Fountas’ debut and Losada’s dismissal. During that stretch, they conceded a lot of opportunities, but you never doubted their ability to squeak out a result because you knew that Fountas and the other attackers would get their looks at goal, too. In that sense, the system served as a crutch.

Take the game at Inter Miami in mid-May. Having played reactive defense for 45 minutes, D.C. United found itself down two goals heading into halftime but fought back to earn a 2-2 draw. Fountas’ first goal of the night was this year’s Black-and-Red at their best:

If you pause the clip at the one second mark, you’ll observe two things: 1) Gressel is positioned high on the right, and 2) Russell Canouse has rotated into the space evacuated by Gressel.

An aspect of Canouse’s game that is often overlooked due to its perceived simplicity is his ability to plug gaps, which has been on display since he arrived in the summer of 2017. By the end of his first full year in the nation’s capital, he was widely regarded as one of the best 6’s in the league. Wayne Rooney received most of the credit for D.C. United’s turnaround that season, but Canouse was equally as important to the team’s success.

Part of D.C. United’s dynamism in the back half of 2018 came from Oniel Fisher bombing forward like he was prime Dani Alves. That could have left the team vulnerable down the right, especially with Frédéric Brillant as the center back on that side. For as dominant as Brillant was between the summer of 2018 and the end of 2019 (both via the eye test and, in 2019, goals added metric), his one major weakness was his lack of mobility. With how high a line D.C. United played in the second half of 2018, Brillant needed Canouse to help him cover for the overlapping Fisher.

Now, Canouse is doing the same for Gressel and, when fit, Najar. Over the past 18 months, most of D.C.’s best attacks have come down the right, as Najar has revolutionized the right center back position with his underlapping runs on and off the ball. Each time he drives into those pockets, defenses cave inward, opening up acres of space on the right flank for Gressel. Without Canouse to plug those gaps, D.C. United wouldn’t be able to commit numbers forward on that side.

At times this year, Canouse has been sucked too far to the right, leaving Djeffal isolated in the center of the field. This wouldn’t be an issue if the center backs were able to scramble as well as they did last year, but they’ve looked shaky defending in transition, an important element of D.C.’s game.

United must commit players forward, though, because the system is predicated on it. It’s even more important that those players include the wingbacks, given their involvement in the attack; per American Soccer Analysis, Gressel and his counterpart on the left, Brad Smith have the second (11.0%) and fifth (9.0%) largest shares of United’s touches this year, respectively, a category that Gressel led the team in last year (11.0%). This makes sense given that D.C. United does not play through the middle:

In the build-up phase of possession, the midfielders serve as decoys. Their purpose is to sit centrally, forcing the opponent to mark them through the middle. This keeps the wide channels open, which Gressel and Smith take advantage of by pushing up. One of the wide center backs will hit a low, driven ball into the feet of an attacker checking into the half-space or, more commonly, a bent, lofted ball down the wing to Gressel or Smith.

In the moments in which D.C. United has looked dangerous this season, however, there have been two phases of the game in which it has asked its midfielders to get on the ball. The first has been when the team wins possession in its half after retreating into a mid- or low-block (either by choice or once its press has been beaten). Over the past 18 months, these moments of offensive transition have come to define D.C.’s style of play due to the work of Losada, who preached the importance of “[playing the] first ball forwards.” Djeffal’s ability to evade tight spaces and, thus, the counter press is important in these moments, for it allows D.C. to get out in transition.

Not every transition moment leads to a clear look at goal, however, and, given the game state, it sometimes makes more sense to put a foot on the ball and knock it around for a bit, even for a team like the Black-and-Red that prefers to play against the ball. This leads us to the second phase of the game in which D.C. United would like its midfielders to get on the ball. This phase occurs when the team is looking for an opening after progressing the ball into the opponent’s half. In this phase, the roles of Canouse and Djeffal are rather defined. Canouse serves as a pure facilitator, using lateral passes to help the ball from one side of the field to the other, thus shifting the defense. Djeffal, on the other hand, plays slightly more advanced and is given the freedom to use his ability on the ball to find an opening.

Going back to the clip of the goal United scored in Miami, you see Djeffal in this phase. The pass he hits at the beginning – that clipped ball to the wingback – has become his signature pass. His ability to consistently find that run is so important to United’s attack given its reliance on service from Gressel and Smith.

The problem is that Djeffal hasn’t been getting on the ball as much in these types of situations for weeks now. Some Twitter users have attributed this to his new role as a single pivot in a midfield three, a notion that I’d push back on slightly when observing the following graphics:

Passing map, Sofiane Djeffal against Atlanta United in April 2022.
Passing map, Sofiane Djeffal against Chicago Fire in June 2022.

The first one is Djeffal’s passing map against Atlanta United at the beginning of April, the first time he was deployed as the deepest of three midfielders this season. The second one is his passing map against the Chicago Fire on June 18, the second time he was deployed as the deepest of the three midfielders this season.

In Chicago, Djeffal, according to Fbref, recorded his fewest touches (28) in a game in which he has played more than a half. Against Atlanta, for comparison, he registered 45 touches.

If not his role, what caused this discrepancy? D.C. attempted 341 passes against Atlanta and 335 in Chicago, so it’s not as if the team as a whole saw less of the ball. There was, however, a difference in the aggressiveness of D.C. United’s press. According to Fbref, the Black-and-Red recorded 65 final third pressures against Atlanta but a mere 23 in Chicago. They followed that up by registering another 23 against Nashville. For comparison, Fbref has their season average of final third pressures at 40.3.

Say what you will about causation/correlation, but the numbers confirm the eye test’s suggestion that D.C. United is losing its identity.

In Chicago, the decision to use Drew Skundrich as a third midfielder rather than in a line of “2” with Fountas set the tone. Losada used Skundrich almost exclusively in a more advanced role, from which his sole purpose was to wreak havoc by forcing turnovers. Ashton’s decision to use Skundrich alongside Durkin meant D.C. spent more time defending in a mid-block, the effect of which was twofold: 1) the wingbacks were forced into less aggressive positions, and 2) Djeffal’s touches in Chicago’s half were limited.

Involving the wingbacks in the attack and getting Djeffal on the ball in attacking positions are two of the ingredients to success that I highlighted using the clip against Miami. This begs the question: when the team isn’t doing what makes it most dangerous, what is it doing at all?

As the season slips further away from D.C. United, so does its identity.

Rediscovering it should be the first priority this summer. Let’s hope Monday’s match with Orlando was the start.