With a four game road stretch in the month of July looming and a disappointing record at home this season, D.C. United felt real pressure to win Saturday night's game against the New England Revolution. With four losses in eight games at home in 2016, there is now only a tiny bit for margin of error for United at home for the rest of the season.
United took care of all that worry in the first half against the Revolution, with Lamar Neagle opening the scoring in the 20th minute, before turning provider on Sean Franklin's goal seven minutes later in the Black-and-Red's 2-0 win. In three games against New England this year, United took seven of a possible nine points without conceding a single goal.
"We showed a lot of confidence early on," Neagle said after the game.
Before the game, there was much ado about the lineup and formation that Ben Olsen fielded. For the first time all season, Fabian Espindola, Alvaro Saborio, and Luciano Acosta started a game together. Their only previous time on the field was the last 22 minutes in the 1-0 home loss to Toronto FC in April.
Including all three necessitated a formation change from Olsen, who fielded what he referred to as a 4-1-4-1, but which at times looked like a 4-3-3. Regardless of what it's called, United excelled in the formation, striking twice early, and then comfortably seeing out the rest of the game in the second half.
"I thought it was a good first half, throwing a little bit of a wrinkle at them this week, and preparing for a different formation," Olsen said in his press conference after the game. "I think they handled it well. Thought it was an absolute group effort on both sides of the ball."
Olsen has historically been a fan of the 4-4-2 in his seven years as a manager, but was willing to make the switch tonight as Espindola and Saborio returned from short injury layoffs. This meant that Jared Jeffrey was moved back to the bench while Marcelo Sarvas was asked to sit back and protect the back four.
But United hardly looked like they were involved in an experimental look. Saborio just missed finishing a cross from Espindola early in the game, before wasting a wonderfully placed ball from Acosta on a counter attack in the 10th minute. Those lost chances didn't deter United, though, as goals from Neagle and Franklin underlined their early dominance.
"Some of its about getting our most dangerous guys on the field together," Olsen said of the formation change. "And asking them to work in a way that isn't always natural for them, but for the betterment of the group. I think today they did that."
"It's not easy. You have to look after each other in that system, or in any new system. It's not as well rehearsed as what we were playing before. So you have to adapt, and I thought they did good job of that."
It also helped that before the game was 30 minutes old, United had their two goal lead and were able to settle into the formation change. It was just the second time all season that United had scored twice in the first half, and tonight it allowed the Black-and-Red to keep their Eastern Conference rival at arm's length with relative ease.
The fast start was something they wanted to put emphasis on, especially given their overall poor record at home. "That's how we should play at home, come out flying, firing. That's what we talked about," Franklin told B&RU after the game. "We were going to be on top of them from the whistle. We did that tonight, and that's something we haven't done."
Now United must travel to play Real Salt Lake next Friday before playing the Philadelphia Union, Columbus Crew SC, and Toronto FC on consecutive Saturdays in July. It'll be a trying time for a team with just one win on the road this season thus far, but the performance on Saturday gave a glimpse of what's possible for this team.
"This was an important game for us, knowing that it's our last home game for a while," added Franklin. "We knew we had to get three points tonight, and it was a great effort from the whole team."