Sunday's game was a bit of an odd one for D.C. United. They were the better team in the first half and played well in two or three chunks of the second half on the road against the LA Galaxy, a team that has had little trouble with United when playing host for about a decade now. There were signs of real progress on several fronts: Lamar Neagle scored a goal in his competitive debut. Nick DeLeon had easily his best game of this young season. The Black-and-Red smartly pressured the ball, and the team that was shot-shy in 2015 fired 16 attempts over 90 minutes.
On the other hand, of course, is the 4-1 scoreline in favor of the Galaxy. LA made some adjustments to United - mostly in how deep their central midfield set up - but more importantly seemed more focused and energetic after what was probably not a fun halftime talk from Bruce Arena. That's not to say that LA simply shifted into some amazingly high level of play, though; United gave up four very preventable goals to lose. Furthering the frustration, DeLeon hit the post with the score at 1-1, and United wasted chances both to boost their lead to 2-0 and to get back level when LA was up 2-1.
So was this an indicator that United will do a lot right and still struggle all year long? Or simply one game for a team transitioning from one way of doing things to another? Ben Olsen certainly seems to think it was the latter, telling Steve Goff at training that he sees issues that can be corrected in training:
...ultimately set pieces let us down [corner kick, free kick, plus a penalty kick]. That is on us as a coaching staff and on individuals to make sure we are seeing out plays. It’s a fixable issue. ... There was a lot of good. Offensively, some of the movement and some of the chances we got, for an away game, I haven’t seen us have in some time. There are positives. We still let ourselves down and we’ve got to work on the deficiencies, but I like this group.
What makes this a game with "fixable" problems? Well, for one, United gave up two set piece goals that were both a mess. How does Chris Rolfe end up having to man-mark center back Daniel Steres on the first goal? Rolfe doesn't do a good enough job, sure, but he should never be marking the opposing team's biggest target. There's either a failure of organization here among the players, or a failure from the coaching staff to sort out marking assignments. Unfortunately, replays cut out moments before Mike Magee delivered the corner kick, so it's hard to tell how Rolfe ended up on Steres. What is obvious is that Bobby Boswell ends up marking Steven Gerrard, who isn't much of a threat in the air, while a more prominent target ran free. United can fix that by simply being more attentive.
How about the next one? What can be fixed there? Unfortunately, this one is a bit harder to patch up:
SMH indeed. It's a nice finish from Magee, but structurally United is a mess here. There's a failed offside trap, both because Sean Franklin doesn't notice it's a trap and stays deep in marking Gyasi Zardes, and because the trap was nowhere close to catching Magee offside anyway. There's also a total breakdown in the shuffling of responsibilities. Before Sebastian Lletget cuts inside to cross here, the Black-and-Red should have sorted some things out:
- Marcelo Sarvas and Steve Birnbaum are both in a spot to break up a pass to Robbie Keane, meaning they can't do anything about the rest of the play. This needs to be solved by simple awareness from Birnbaum, who should see that Sarvas has that taken care of. If Birnbaum isn't so concerned with Keane here, he might have been able to call Franklin off of Zardes.
- That leaves Franklin with Zardes, who he opted to stay with rather than rule out of the play by pulling the offside trap, and not Magee.
- Franklin could have used some help here, though, from Neagle. That's Neagle at the far left edge of the frame, most likely trying to prevent an attempt to tee up Gerrard for a blast from the top of the box. That's a good idea in a vacuum, but not in a situation where the back post was open for a few seconds (which is an eternity in this game of ours).
Let's move on to goal #3, which effectively ended the game. This one's easy: Andrew Dykstra should never be sticking his leg out to trip someone who has already taken a shot. The ball is gone in this case, and to make matters worse, Magee's chip over Dykstra bounced wide. To make it even more frustrating, Boswell was easily in position to hack the ball off the line if it had been on goal.
United wanted offside on that play, but UniMas's production crew made every effort to never clarify that issue. Let's go ahead and assume that the offside trap was simply late, and that Ashley Cole's precise long ball was for an onside Magee. That's not ideal, but United simply cannot afford errors from Dykstra. We know he isn't going to pile up impossible stops like Bill Hamid, and that's fine as long as he's otherwise sound. This was not sound goalkeeping.
And finally, the fourth goal. LA once again uses runs to the posts to prevent United from turning the center of the box into a mosh pit, and as with the first goal the service is driven in hard (leaving Dykstra with no choice but to stay on his line). This time, though, the marking assignment of note - Neagle on Magee - makes sense. Magee simply gets goal-side of his man, and he's always had a knack for this kind of glancing header. Safe to say that set piece marking was a theme at practice this week.
With that out of the way, let's talk about what United did well. After all, having fixable problems is only half the equation here. The Black-and-Red spent the preseason trying to high press early in games, but they seem to have moved on to more of an emphasis on selective pressure.
Let's look at the first goal for an example of how this is supposed to work. Birnbaum pokes the ball forward, mostly to prevent a throw-in, and it falls to Nigel De Jong. DeLeon and Luciano Acosta already provide good pressure based on their pursuit of the loose ball, though, and the Dutchman is immediately forced into some bad options:
There is no easy pass here. Chopping the ball to Steres would put him under intense pressure from Neagle, who could end up breaking in on goal. Thanks to the positioning of Rolfe, a crossfield ball to Robbie Rogers is also asking an awful lot. Lletget is upfield in a good spot, but a) we're still talking about a long pass and b) De Jong is on his less favored left foot while leaning the wrong way.
The choice ends up being Gerrard, who crucially only looks open. The moving parts here are key: Neagle has taken up a position where he can rule Steres out yet also harass Gerrard, while Rolfe has done the same with Rogers and Gerrard. United is set up in such a way that they want De Jong to make this pass to the "open" man.
And that's precisely how the goal happens: Neagle anticipates that the ball is going to Gerrard, which both prevents Gerrard from settling quickly and distracts him from the approaching pressure from Rolfe. LA doesn't know it yet, but United has already put the noose around their neck. Gerrard barely survives the pressure from Neagle, but he only finds out that Rolfe is coming when Rolfe has already won the ball. Six seconds later, it's 1-0.
If United is going to succeed without a superstar goalkeeper and without an MLS All Star or two in their attack, things like this are going to be crucial. The Black-and-Red have been the go-to example of a blue-collar club in MLS in recent years, but they've also been a very back foot, reactive team. The idea in past seasons was to defend deep and wait for colossal mistakes. This year, we're seeing a move toward forcing those mistakes.
The result? A more palatable approach where United threatens goal regularly rather than simply here and there. The Black-and-Red have 49 shot attempts in their three competitive games, which is 6 more than they managed in any three game sequence in 2015. The shots on goal numbers (24 in 2016, as compared to a maximum of 20 in their best three-game run in 2015) are similar, and a lot of it comes from this willingness to shift from back foot to front foot when the moment is right.
Finding a way to be better going forward is going to be critical while Hamid is out. United will have a harder time posting shutouts, and teams are also more likely to come out a team missing their key defensive cog. Being a more dangerous attack - no matter the method - mitigates that. It's part of the yin and yang of soccer: By being a more threatening team going forward, you can often leave yourself with less defending to do.
Where does all of this leave United right now? They're more or less who we thought they were: A work in progress that is good at some new things. They're faster, they've improved their attacking depth, the midfield is more technical and more dangerous with the ball, and they play a style of play that is less of a bore. They look better as an attacking team despite Fabian Espindola's poor form, a totally unfamiliar central midfield partnership, and an inability to get Patrick Nyarko firing on all cylinders in these early games.
However, they're also showing the signs of learning on the job with a more proactive approach (side note: No one's arguing that United is flying forward and setting a new standard in entertaining soccer. It's just a step in the right direction. I see you, strawman). The unfamiliar midfield partnership has had some bad moments. The back four has not looked as sturdy, perhaps owing both to Hamid's absence and to a totally new midfield being in front of them.
In other words, United has a lot to work on, but they're not inherently broken. And for fans who were willing to risk a spot in the playoffs in exchange for a more aesthetically pleasing team to watch, or some youth in key attacking spots, you've up to this point got what you wanted. We didn't even really get to talk about Lucho Acosta, whose relationship with those around him will probably be the subject of a future piece or three on this site. Julian Buescher looks like he can contribute now. Attack-minded wide men who haven't hit their prime years - Miguel Aguilar and Rob Vincent, for example - are getting minutes that went to the more defensive Conor Doyle last year.
The challenge for Ben Olsen, his coaching staff, and the veteran core that remains from last year, is to make sure those things can be elements in a team that wins some games. There are too many changes going on for United, without Hamid, to spend a big chunk of the season leading the Supporters Shield race. That doesn't guarantee a season of struggle, but then it also doesn't guarantee that the Black-and-Red will avoid some major problems. At this stage, they look like they could break a number of different ways. Their trip to LA just gave us a clear itinerary when it comes to what needs to be fixed first.
Note: This piece originally stated that Daniel Steres is 6'4", which was incorrect. Steres is actually 6' tall. We apologize for any confusion.