It was a relatively quiet offseason for D.C. United during this winter. Having rebounded in the second half of the 2016 season to become one of the highest-scoring teams in the league, United didn’t allow an early playoff exit to drastically affect the makeup of the club going forward. Instead, the team inked several players for the long-term, including Steve Birnbaum and Patrick Mullins.
Perhaps most notably, United paid the biggest transfer fee in club history to make Luciano Acosta’s move from Boca Juniors permanent. Acosta, a diminutive playmaker from Argentina, had a slow start to his MLS career after joining the team while they were already in the midst of their preseason. Just days after Acosta joined the team, he was thrown in the starting lineup against Queretaro in the Champions League quarterfinals.
The transition, Acosta recently told B&RU, wasn’t as easy as he expected.
“It wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. I thought it was going to be easier to adjust,” Acosta said through a translator during United’s preseason in Florida. “But it ended up being more complicated.”
The complications might have hit a peak come May 20th. The Black-and-Red had ventured just north of the nation’s capital, to face off against the Philadelphia Union. United would lose the game 1-0, conceding a stoppage time winner. But in the 61st minute, with things not going well for Ben Olsen’s side, he removed Acosta, 61 minutes into the game. Acosta, visibly frustrated, walked right past Olsen, taking a seat on the bench without so much as acknowledging his head coach.
At that point, Acosta had a goal and three assists to his name. After a formation change and some acquisitions in the attacking end, the Argentinian finished the season strong, racking up a total of three goals and 11 assists while becoming the focal point of United’s attack.
“My expectation was to come and do everything as best as I could,” Acosta said. “Do everything right, and hopefully continue on permanently with the club.”
That permanent move became a reality in November, when the team announced that Acosta had been bought from Argentinian powerhouse, Boca Juniors. For Acosta, who has a wife and young child, making the move was a no-brainer.
“One of the reasons I decided to stay was because [his wife and son] were happy here,” Acosta said. “It’s a beautiful city. It’s a country that’s very different than Argentina,” he added. “It’s a different world than I’m used to. Here, me and my family are going to have a better life.”
And D.C. United are better with Acosta in the lineup. Acosta’s early transitional struggles meant less time on the field in the early stages of 2016. He started the first couple of weeks, but then was used as a substitute as United also struggled to win games to start the season.
By the time that Fabian Espindola had been traded to the Vancouver Whitecaps, and Patrick Mullins and Lloyd Sam were brought in, Olsen had changed his formation from a 4-4-2 to a 4-1-4-1. That gave Acosta a role that he was capable of thriving in. And United reaped those benefits, moving from outside the playoff positions at the end of July to the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference by the end of the season.
In doing so, United went from averaging about a goal per game through the first 21 games of the season, to scoring multiple goals in 12 of their final 13 games of the season. During that stretch, Acosta chipped in with two goals and seven assists.
Now going into 2017, Acosta has become more familiar with his surroundings. He’ll likely be playing alongside 10 teammates this year that, for the most part, were with the club at the end of the 2016 season.
“I know everyone already, so I don’t have transition on that side,” said Acosta. “I know how everyone plays, and I’m comfortable playing with everyone. I know what movements they are going to make, I know what they are going to do on the field.”
And with Acosta’s emergence last year, he became the latest in a recent trend of Argentinians coming to MLS and succeeding on and off the field. United fans might not have many fond memories of Marcelo Gallardo, but Diego Valeri and Ignacio Piatti have been two recent examples of Argentinian playmakers coming into the league and excelling.
“Latin Americans, South Americans, we live soccer with a different level of passion. That helps us take our play to the next level. That passion for the game,” said Acosta before adding “And on top of that, [Argentinians] are the best in the world.”