Viktor Claesson scored the game's only goal in the fourth minute as D.C. United lost their preseason opener 1-0 to IF Elfsborg. The Swedish side, who finished in 4th place in last year's Allsvenskan (a.k.a. the Swedish top flight), made their early lead stand up in a game that featured few shot attempts and generally looked like a preseason match featuring a bunch of unfamiliar players on both sides finding their legs.
With Bill Hamid and Chris Korb recuperating from knee injuries and Markus Halsti's wife giving birth just hours before kickoff, United started out the game in what appeared to be a nebulous 451 formation. Andrew Dykstra got the start in goal behind a back four of Sean Franklin, Bobby Boswell, third round draft pick Liam Doyle, and Taylor Kemp. Fabian Espindola was the lone forward, and we can say for sure that Patrick Nyarko and Lamar Neagle played on the right and left wings, respectively.
In central midfield, United moved through several phases. The posted lineup pointed towards trialist Kevan George and Nick DeLeon pairing up in the middle with Santiago Dittborn, another trialist, playing as a second forward. However, Dittborn was more of a midfielder throughout, and after 10 minutes George was playing as a lone defensive mdifielder while DeLeon and Dittborn played more or less alongside one another.
The unfamiliar lineup likely was a factor in the early goal. Claesson managed to carry the ball past Boswell and Doyle, who perhaps mis-communicated, and from there was left with an easy chance to beat Dykstra one-on-one barely 200 seconds into the game.
From there the game settled, with both teams trying to mix in some medium-high pressure and chances few and far between. DeLeon and Nyarko seemed to have an early understanding, with the United veteran repeatedly directing play towards the Ghanaian newcomer. Espindola served in one good free kick, but also badly struck a cross/shot attempt after beating Elfsborg's Adam Lundqvist on the dribble.
Despite the heavily right-sided nature of United's first half, the best chance came from the left. Kemp's chip fell in a dangerous spot for Neagle, who possibly could have just poked the ball over approaching goalkeeper Kevin Stuhr-Ellegaard. Instead, he showed a delicate touch by bringing the ball down from above shoulder height, but had no room to produce a shot attempt as an Elfsborg defender was close enough to block the ball away.
Moments later, United made a major lineup change. Ben Olsen sent eight new players onto the field, and the lineup became a more consistent 4411. The new team saw Dykstra remain in goal, with Liam Doyle joined by Luke Mishu at right back, Jalen Robinson in central defense, and Honduran trialist Brayan Garcia at left back. The midfield quartet, from right to left, was Miguel Aguilar, Costa Rican trialist Ariel Rodriguez, second round pick Paul Clowes, and Rob Vincent (on trial while currently under contract with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds). Dittborn stayed in as a roving attacking midfielder underneath Conor Doyle.
Following a collision between Aguilar and an Elfsborg defender that left the Swedish side's player down for over two minutes, United went close. That collision was ruled a foul, and Dittborn's 40 yard free kick very nearly found Robinson at the penalty spot. Sadly, the service hung up for just a moment too long thanks in part to the heavy winds at Bradenton, FL's IMG Academy.
Dykstra, (Liam) Doyle, and Dittborn were swapped out at halftime. Trialist Chris Konopka played the second half in goal, while Doyle was replaced by an unnamed academy player at center back. Dittborn, meanwhile, gave way to Homegrown midfielder Collin Martin. Fans will be interested to note that Martin was played in a central role for the entire second half.
The substitutions, rather predictably for this stage in the season, saw both teams struggling to create chances. Vincent took a long shot at one point, and perhaps the most notable point was Garcia's struggles with turnovers. Despite being well into his pro career, Garcia seemed very nervous and made a variety of giveaways, including two inside United's half. In the midfield, meanwhile, both Rodriguez and Clowes showed some vision and passing touch.
With the game lacking chances, it is worth noting what the focus from the benches appeared to be. Both clubs were strongly focused on demanding their whole team press up whenever the other side passed the ball back to the center backs or goalkeeper. At this stage of the preseason, team shape and other fundamentals are likely more of a concern to coaches - along with avoiding injury - than anything else.
Midway through the second half, another wave of substitutes came in. With no announcers and a blurry feed involved, it was hard to pin down exactly who was where. United moved into more of a 4231, with Jared Jeffrey replacing Rodriguez alongside Clowes in the engine room underneath Martin.
While Clowes seemed to bring a lot of energy and an instinct to keep the ball moving quickly through the midfield, United as a group was not able to create much. Elfsborg repeatedly got into comfortable banks of four, and it was only in the final 5 minutes that things got stretched out enough to possibly become an equalizer for the Black-and-Red. Unfortunately, their best look probably came from a corner kick that was taken low. United caught Elfsborg napping, but the resulting snapshot was not struck with power and resulted only in a comfortable save.
United will be back on the field this coming Tuesday, February 2nd, to take on Jonkopings Sodra IF, who won promotion to the Swedish top flight last year. That game will also be at the IMG Academy, and like today's will be available for streaming via IMG's service (which requires you to buy a subscription).
We will add highlights when they become available.