So that was unpleasant. D.C. United saw seemingly every mistake against New York City FC punished severely, with NYCFC running out 4-0 winners. Even in a pro-United soccer bar surrounded by friends, it was rough. It was the kind of day where even the things United did well - like scoring a legitimate goal to level the scores - were for naught. Sometimes it’s just not your day, and this past Sunday was certainly not the Black-and-Red’s day.
So what, beyond “wow, that sucked,” can we glean from this heavy loss?
After yesterday’s training session, Ben Olsen said that despite the scoreline, United was not so much a mess for 90 minutes. Here’s the full quote from Steve Goff’s piece:
“The more I looked at the game, it just boils down to a few plays that we weren’t good enough. It wasn’t systematic. It wasn’t how we pressed. … But can we now get a hold of the ball better, make better decisions and [improve] individual defending? To me, it was a game of 15-second moments where we didn’t do a good enough job.”
Believe it or not, there’s something to this. Sure, the Black-and-Red saw NYCFC accumulate 61% of the possession, but Patrick Vieira’s team is far more concerned about that figure than Olsen is with United. The Black-and-Red are concerned about where they have the ball, and the context surrounding those moments. United can win games with 39% possession, and they can do it without bunkering or reverting to a long ball-heavy style of play.
More to the point, though, NYCFC were held under 80% passing accuracy (which is in line with their 2016 average). When broken down into expected goals - a useful, though extremely rough measuring stick - NYCFC was expected to win 1.08 to 0.71 based on the chances both teams generated.
Now, 1.08 seems too low to my eyes, but sometimes the eyeball test fails (particularly when you’re just mad that your team lost heavily). In this case, expected goals point out that this was not a thorough beatdown as much as a game where NYCFC was at their best in a handful of moments where United happened to be at their worst. Sadly, the vast majority of those moments were in transition.
Let’s use the second goal as an example. Marcelo sees a moment to step up and pressure Alexander Ring after David Villa’s pass back to the Finn popped up and required a chest trap. Marcelo is inches away from winning the ball cleanly and forcing an even-numbers break (and when one of NYCFC’s five back in this case is Andrea Pirlo, that’s really a 5v4 for United).
Instead, Ring gets just enough on it that the ball ramps up off Marcelo and goes back to Villa. Not only that, but Marcelo - having sprinted to the spot - is now 3 yards behind the play. Ring sees the moment and takes off at full speed, and while he never gets another touch, he ends up getting Sean Franklin’s attention enough that his check back away from goal is what Franklin is watching rather than stepping to Villa, who has expertly drifted off of Birnbaum. It’s still an unlikely goal - Villa is not known for his aerial ability, yet he executes an inch-perfect header that defies his own momentum - but it all starts with a missed attempt to spring an attacking transition followed by a poor defensive response.
I’m sure you’re thinking of the old “other than that, how was the play Mrs. Lincoln?” joke, but at the very least it should be said that United weren’t “4-0 loss” bad for about 89 minutes on Sunday. They just happened to put together four “4-0 loss” bad moments, and they paid the price.
The funny thing is, United is supposed to be the up-tempo, transition-based team here. United wants to burst into the attacking third at speed; they want to play vertical soccer on the ground, and NYCFC gave them a taste of their own medicine. As much as the Pigeons held possession, they were only truly dangerous when they were able to break forward following a turnover or loose ball at midfield. If United cleans up their transition play, I’m not sure NYCFC creates too much knocking the ball around the back.
We talk about the workers in central midfield as the “engine room,” and in two straight games United’s engine room has struggled. Marcelo Sarvas drew plenty of criticism during the match, mostly because he was one of the players who struggled in transition on the first three goals. It was no roll of the dice or experiment that Olsen brought Rob Vincent in for Jeffrey while pushing Marcelo into the #8 role; Marcelo was simply struggling to keep up with the mental speed required to deal with NYCFC’s surging attack.
It wasn’t all bad from Marcelo, who completed 81.1% of his passes and put up 15 recoveries (a number inflated by the boxing ring that is Yankee Stadium’s pitch, but still a high total). However, when United didn’t have the ball, the Pigeons found it too easy to pull him out of position, and that lost 50/50 with Ring brings up the possibility that Marcelo hasn’t quite come to grips with his declining footspeed. That loss of speed isn’t so bad if his decision-making fully takes it into account, but I’m not sure we’re there yet.
Now, you may have just spent that paragraph saying “wait a second...if he was such a liability, why leave Marcelo on at all?” The answer is that, unfortunately, Jared Jeffrey was worse. As the leader of United’s press, his influence was negligible. As a ball-winner, he was well behind Marcelo on the day (Jeffrey had 6 recoveries, for example). But worst of all, while Marcelo and Harkes managed to be the 3rd and 2nd most accurate passers for United on the day, Jeffrey completed just 11 of his 20 attempted passes.
This problem will be less of an issue when Luciano Acosta returns. Acosta is a fighter in central midfield, and his ability to play out of tight spaces makes life easier for whoever plays alongside him. On top of that, Acosta playing as the #10 means Harkes can go to his more natural #8 role (which we’re about to get into), and Olsen can choose between Marcelo, Jeffrey, and Vincent for one spot.
Who should take it? I’m leaning towards Vincent, who was actually pretty effective once he entered this one. The Englishman managed to connect on 21 of 23 passes, had no turnovers beyond those two misses, won two tackles, and generally did more defensively for United in 37 minutes than Jeffrey did in the 53 he got.
Ian Harkes makes his debut
Time for some good news: Harkes was United’s best central midfielder on the day by some distance, managing 3 of the 7 key passes the entire DCU team had over 90 minutes. He posted respectable defensive stats, passed well on a tiny field in frigid conditions, and generally made a good case for himself to start this weekend no matter how fit Lucho is. This wasn’t some perfect, dream debut out of fiction, but it was head and shoulders better than what we’ve seen from everyone else in central midfield over 180 minutes.
One thing I’d specifically like to note is what kind of pass Harkes was finding on Sunday. Numerous times, he spotted an attacking run and found a window in which to break the lines of NYCFC’s midfield. Those vertical passes are a must for United’s attack if it’s going to get back to the high-tempo, chance-generating look they showed they’re capable of last season.
On a team with real speed and soccer IQ on the wings, and with Jose Ortiz most likely entering games as a change-up substitute up front, the kind of pass Harkes is picking out might not result in a ton of assists, but he will be frequently be the player making the pass that opens the door for the opportunity to exist. Basically, he could well become “the guy behind the guy” for United.
On top of that, with Columbus coming to town, the windows to play those passes will be huge. The Crew love to stretch fields out as wide as possible while pushing their fullbacks forward, and that should leave plenty of space for someone in black to send Patrick Nyarko or Lloyd Sam (or, perhaps, Sebastien Le Toux?) into great spots.
I alluded to my opinion on whether Harkes should keep his spot in the last section, but let me lay it out more plainly here: Ian Harkes should start on Saturday.
Big games in March? Big games in March.
United’s next three games are at home, and even though it’s still March, they’re big games. Regardless of how miserable this game was (for example, this piece is coming out today because I needed an extra day to put emotion aside and start it), we might not be thinking much about it if the Black-and-Red make these home games count.
3W-1D-1L is a 2.00 ppg pace, after all, and that’s a pace that would win the Supporters Shield. Sure, it’s clearly inflated with four home games, but you get the point. Even 2W-2D-1L is pretty good, and in this case 7 points from these home games must be the minimum standard.
Saturday is a real litmus test, because Columbus is a mess. Ballyhooed offseason signing Jonathan Mensah has been arguably the worst starter in MLS outside of the state of Minnesota, and the same inability to turn chances into goals that plagued Columbus all last season is in place. If United can’t beat this frustrated team that keeps shooting themselves in the foot, we might be looking at a long wait for summer reinforcements.
After that, United plays the Philadelphia Union, a club who the Black-and-Red looked comprehensively better than just 20 days ago. That’s another winnable game, and with a three-game deficit at home over the rest of the season, these matches aren’t just about momentum right now. United has a few rough sections on their 2017 schedule, and banking points now is how you prevent, say, three straight road games in July against Philly, Dallas, and Seattle from becoming a stretch that leaves you below the red line.