D.C. United wrapped up the first portion of their preseason with a 3-2 win over Swedish top flight side Jönköpings Södra IF on Wednesday afternoon at the IMG Academy. Fielding different lineups each half, United raced out to a 2-0 halftime lead, with goals from Marcelo Sarvas and Luciano Acosta.
Sebastien Le Toux padded United’s lead 60 minutes in, before J-Södra struck twice late to provide the final difference. Overall, there were plenty of positive takeaways for head coach Ben Olsen.
“Today was great. The first half in particular. It was sharp and ahead of schedule, if I compare it to where we were last year at this time,” Olsen told B&RU after the game.
In the first half, United lined up with Travis Worra in goal and Nick DeLeon, Steve Birnbaum, Sean Franklin, and Taylor Kemp manning the back line. Franklin played at center back, with DeLeon playing on the right. The midfield consisted of Marcelo Sarvas underneath Lloyd Sam, Ian Harkes, Luciano Acosta, and Patrick Nyarko, while Patrick Mullins operated as the lone striker.
United enjoyed the upper hand for most of the first half, but both goals came from broken plays, in which United took opportunity of second chances. A 28th minute cross from Nyarko was headed away by a J-Södra defender, falling to Marcelo at the top of the box. The Brazilian veteran took one touch to settle before smashing a shot off the bar and in for the opening goal.
Acosta then doubled United’s advantage two minutes before the end of the first half. Harkes had an opportunity to shoot from outside of the box, but instead played a pass sideways to Acosta. The Argentinian could have tried his luck from range as well, but decided to feed Sam a pass at the top of the box.
A defender got the touch that Sam was looking for, knocking the ball into Acosta’s path as he broke through a crowd of green shirts and into the box. With just the keeper to beat, Acosta made no mistake applying the finish, capping off a strong first half performance for the team.
“There was a lot more good than bad in the first 45 for us, and in the whole game. We gave up a couple of goals late,” left back Taylor Kemp said after the game. “It’s the best we’ve done against a Swedish team.” In the past two years, United faced J-Södra twice, with the games finishing 0-0 and 2-2, while losing to Malmö as well in recent years. Kemp elaborated on the positives, noting “We kept the ball pretty well, [our] shape was decent.”
That can be attributed to how the team entered the camp, ready to make amends for the disappointing playoff loss to end 2016. “One thing I noticed, guys came in fit, and in that competitive mode,” winger Patrick Nyarko said of this first Florida camp. “Usually in the preseason, you build into things, but the competition from the start has been extraordinary. It’s nothing that I have seen before.”
United then brought out a completely different 11 for the second half, as is common at this stage of the preseason. Rookie Eric Klenofsky took over in goal, shielded by a back line of Jalen Robinson, Kofi Opare, Bobby Boswell, and Maxim Tissot. Rob Vincent, Jared Jeffrey, and Julian Buescher made up the central midfield trio, flanked by Lamar Neagle on the left, and Sebastien Le Toux on the right. Jose Ortiz took his spot as the lone striker.
United hardly missed a beat to start the second half, and came close to adding a third on several occasions before Le Toux notched what turned out to be the game-winner. A quick throw out from Klenofsky allowed Le Toux to play up to Ortiz, who was cutting across field from left to right. As Ortiz made his way into the box, Le Toux drifted to the far post, while Jeffrey made his way through the middle. Ortiz’s attempt at a cross was deflected, and Jeffrey headed the ball to Le Toux, who coolly collected the ball before firing home for the three goal advantage.
“Can’t ask for more from an effort standpoint. It’s a good group energy,” Olsen said post-game. “The second half started out bright for 20 minutes, and then they made a push, and we needed to absorb their pressure a little bit better.”
That push late on resulted in two goals for J-Södra, with the Swedish team going close on several other occasions. Chris Durkin was brought on for Buescher - with Vincent moving into Buescher’s spot and Durkin sitting deep - while Alhaji Kamara came on for Neagle in the final few minutes. Ortiz shifted out to the left wing, with Kamara alone up front.
Though his team didn’t quite see the game out the way he would have liked, Olsen thought that the Scandinavian side brought the challenge he hoped to test his players.
“One thing you can guarantee with a Scandinavian team is high physicality, and high intensity,” said Olsen. “That’s part of why I love playing against these types of teams early. They always give a real combative performance.”
The team now returns to the D.C. area for a couple of days, resuming practice on Monday. They then return to Florida late next week, a trip which sees them play the Montreal Impact, USL club Saint Louis FC, and the Philadelphia Union.