After years and years and years of missing on attacking players plying their trade outside of MLS, D.C. United seemed to have adjusted to a life of going to the draft or calling other MLS clubs to bolster their attack. The expectation was that, until revenue picked up at Buzzard Point, the ability to scout and/or pay for big-time attacking talent just wouldn’t be there. However, last winter the Black-and-Red - in dire need of a playmaker to liven up their attack - acquired a young #10 named Luciano Acosta on loan from Boca Juniors.
Let’s go over that again. The team that most would have expected to sign a 30-32 year old player from an unremarkable European league who probably didn't merit a Designated Player salary, or for adding to their attack from various CONCACAF teams, went out and got a #10. A 21 year old #10. From Boca Juniors. This happened. D.C. United had their first true attacking central midfielder since Branko Boskovic, and he was coming from a club with a worldwide reputation for developing just that kind of player.
It didn’t start off well, though. Acosta showed his skill and street smarts during the preseason, but against Queretaro and in United’s first three MLS games, there were no goals or assists to show for it. Acosta was playing between the midfield and a lone forward in a 4411 at the time, which meant plenty of cover to freelance. Unfortunately, with freelancer-in-chief Fabian Espindola starting up top, United’s attack often ended due to misunderstandings and a lack of a point man truly leading the line. United’s most dangerous half during this portion of the season came with Lamar Neagle up top in LA (with Espindola replacing the injured Patrick Nyarko at halftime, Neagle spent the second half of that one on the wing).
Ben Olsen accepted that his roster wasn’t going to fit together immediately, but he also needed to get some momentum in the early season, and Lucho paid the price. For five straight games, Acosta was a sub entering games in the 68th minute or later. He made an impact in killing off teams that were pushing for an equalizer - his audacious lob against New England and his two assists against Vancouver both came during this spell - but fans were itching to see the clearly talented youngster for 90 minutes.
That lob, and an injury for Espindola earlier in the same game, appeared to seal the deal. Acosta was in the starting lineup against Chicago the following week, and from there, and started 22 of the remaining 26 games. That’s not to say things immediately became great for Acosta. The formation still required Lucho to be sort of a second forward, and there was a brief spat on the sidelines after Olsen opted to sub him out the 61st minute in Philadelphia.
June saw the early signs of a transition to better times. United came out of a two-week break playing a 4231 in the Open Cup (where Acosta, as a sub, brightened the attack but had a penalty kick saved) and at Houston. Both of those games were 0-0 draws, though, and Olsen made a further tweak in the week that followed.
United debuted a 4141 against the Revs at RFK on June 25th, and Acosta notched his first assist in nearly two months in a 2-0 win. United went on a four-game road trip after that and persevered with the new look through some growing pains (namely three goal defeats at TFC and Philadelphia).
Acosta figured some things out during that stretch, and the addition of Patrick Mullins and Lloyd Sam also made it harder for defenses to focus on the diminutive Buenos Aires native. Lucho racked up 2 goals and 7 assists in his final nine regular season appearances, and United’s attack ended the season as MLS’s most prolific from August onward.
The goals and assists are only part of the equation. Acosta’s ability to escape with the ball in traffic keeps attacking moves alive while letting other players take bigger risks off the ball. That knowledge that Lucho will still have the ball means Sam, Nyarko, and Neagle don’t have to hold off on a run in behind due to worries about a turnover. MLS clubs are often hesitant to trust players that are shorter than 5’10", but Acosta’s balance and determination - along with moving a bit deeper than he had been early on - have put those concerns to rest.
That might not be the core reason United fans have taken to Acosta, though. It’s no secret that the past few years have been defined by a playing style that emphasizes hard work, a defense-first style, and more of the decidedly unsexy side of the game. It’s not solely down to Acosta that United became fun to watch over the final third of the season, but he has been a huge factor. Fans here have been crying out for someone that brings flair to the field, and Acosta’s desire to put on a show is no small part of his appeal. A merely effective player capable of putting up big numbers in a season would not mean as much in the stands at RFK as Acosta.
I mean, look at this dude:
Oh dang. Look at Acosta do this thing. pic.twitter.com/B6lUIFURXn— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) August 14, 2016
WOW! That's a fantastic goal from Acosta. pic.twitter.com/B4Qi8dLovy— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) April 23, 2016
Defensively, Acosta meets Olsen’s preference for a team that has no passengers on the field. The only starters to average more tackles per game are two ball-winning midfielders (Marcelo Sarvas and Jared Jeffrey), a fullback (Taylor Kemp) and arguably the best defensive winger in all of MLS (Patrick Nyarko). Acosta embraces the idea of winning the ball back immediately after losing it, and in fact he might do so to such an extent that it gets him in trouble. Lucho ended the season with 9 yellow cards, second on the team to Marcelo (who ended up leading MLS in that category), and a booking he picked up at NYCFC meant a suspension for United’s trip to Red Bull Arena.
However, that last bit is hardly a deal-breaker when it comes to Acosta. Steve Goff has reported that United is already in talks to keep Acosta in the District in 2017, with the potential transfer fee believed to be somewhere between $1-2 million. There are no guarantees here, and we could also see United simply extend Acosta’s loan.
However, it has seemed like Acosta wants to be here for a while now:
On top of that, United has already gone out and made major moves to bolster a 4141 built around Acosta’s style of play. Mullins and Sam did not come cheap, and United will probably need to make a couple more acquisitions to make sure this method of playing - easily the most entertaining side DCU has put on the field since Tom Soehn was on the sidelines - works long-term. From the outside looking in, United’s investment in Acosta appears to be high in ways that extend beyond a transfer fee.
I have a feeling I know how this poll is going to go, and I think you know how it’s going to go too. Let’s get to it: