Much has been made about the coaching duel on display during D.C. United’s surprising win over Atlanta United. It was a rare nationally televised game for the Black-and-Red, and it was abundantly obvious that the focus in MLS circles all across the country was the home team. D.C. was just there to make up the numbers heading into this one, and that held true in the opening minutes...until things took a major turn, that is.
Let’s sum up what we’re talking about here: Atlanta dogmatically throws numbers forward. They want to keep the ball, and they want to flood the attacking third with players. They have big-name players and play “good” soccer, by just about any definition.
United, taking those things into account, opted to respond by flooding their defensive third with numbers and look for counters (specifically counters that involved few passes). They did stick with the selective pressure that we’ve seen in every away game, but in a road game they were never going to stand there and slug it out toe-to-toe.
In the early going, Atlanta got the game they wanted. United may have prepped all week for what ATL does, but they still weren’t actually prepared to face it at full speed. Judging from the recent string of Black-and-Red games that involved conceding early in a half, there’s significant reason to believe this is about mental readiness (for the team as a whole and for individual players) than about tactics. If you come out with the deer in the headlights look, there’s only so much that can be done. ATL would have had their way playing their style, or long ball, or any other aggressive approach.
Atlanta did almost everything they wanted in the first 10 minutes. Greg Garza and Yamil Asad had an assist and two more key passes in that spell. Bill Hamid had to deliver two great saves at the back post inside of three minutes, and it’s hard to imagine United recovering from conceding that early. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Hamid is United’s response to the game-changers we see around MLS.
Hamid couldn’t stop Kenwyne Jones on a wide-open, point-blank header, though, and Olsen knew something had to change. He dropped the 4141 for a 4231, moving Ian Harkes alongside Jared Jeffrey as a second defensive midfielder. The idea - “we need more players with defense-first roles right away” - is not complicated. The understanding that the danger was coming through zone 14, leaving Jared Jeffrey with too much to do and causing confusion for Bobby Boswell and Kofi Opare, is more what’s worth noting here.
Atlanta was creating their openings on the left, but United was getting confused by things happening up the gut. On the first chance, a Jones run dragged Boswell to the near post and out of the play. On the second, a Jones layoff to Miguel Almiron caused this horror show:
Jones makes the pass and then occupies Boswell. Jeffrey chases him as well. The opposition’s best player is on the ball about 25 yards from goal, no one’s in a position to close him, and he has a wide-open teammate to pass to. All of this, despite four players being primarily focused on him. It’s bad. This is bad.
So Olsen had to do something to clog this zone up and prevent this sort of chaos from breaking out. Harkes didn’t suddenly excel in a deeper role (frankly, he looks less comfortable pushed back every time Olsen has tried this), but an extra deep midfielder left United doing a lot less chasing and a lot more maintaining their shape.
Olsen’s move took Atlanta’s preferred approach off the table, and the Five Stripes responded by...well, pretty much just trying to make it work anyway. They still created some chances, but they weren’t quite Big Chances, and that shift seemed to frustrate both Atlanta’s players and the crowd. The home side got sloppy and started forcing things, where previously they were moving through the visitors like a hot knife through butter. It was just enough doubt that, once bad luck struck Atlanta in the form of Michael Parkhurst’s own goal, they lost their way in a substantial fashion.
Let’s make no mistake here. It’s not great to need a substantial tactical change 10 minutes into a game. United needs to find a way to come out of the locker room ready to go. However, by the time Jones was celebrating his goal, that was a future problem to consider. In the heat of the moment, on the road and reeling, United had to make an alteration that changed the game. They did it, and they deserve some credit for giving themselves a platform to win.
Moving on, we should discuss United’s suddenly effective attack:
#DCU in March: 0W-1D-2L, 0 goals for— Jason Anderson (@chestrockwell14) May 1, 2017
In April: 3-1-1, 9 goals for, 4 multi-goal games
That’s a rate of 1.80 goals per game, which is not all that far behind the scintillating 2.36 per game United had during that glorious 33 goals in 14 games run to end 2016. Take out the 6-2 outlier win over Chicago, and that comes down to 2.08, further emphasizing that the Black-and-Red are getting back to the sort of scoring punch that the end of last season (and this year’s preseason) gave us reason to expect.
The thing is, United could have had more goals in April. Lamar Neagle couldn’t put away that last chance in stoppage time Sunday/ The Black-and-Red had three shots off the post or bar against New England, and Lloyd Sam was denied a clear penalty kick in that one too. Jose Ortiz hit the crossbar against the Union, if you want to go that far back.
However, United isn’t going about things in the same way they were in 2016. They’re less able right now to engage in back-and-forth transition play than they were last season, and have had to succeed with counters from deep. With Patrick Mullins making his first appearance of the month in the final minutes Sunday, they haven’t been able to use a target man as a reference point up front. Le Toux and Ortiz both want to run the channels, and they’ve had to figure out how to get the job done without a trait that we’ve said all along is fundamental to how DCU attacks.
How is that happening? Luciano Acosta and Lloyd Sam are largely responsible for it on the creative side. Acosta was brilliant against Atlanta, scoring a golazo while producing an assist, three more key passes, and seven successful dribbles (which means every time he tried to dribble at someone, he beat them). Sam added three more key passes in Georgia, and that’s a week after he had all five of United’s in New England (where he notched an assist).
The flip side? No one else is really chipping in. We’ve already mentioned that Sam had all of United’s key passes against the Revs, and if you take them off the board this week, you’re left with Mullins setting up Neagle for that stoppage time opportunity, Franklin’s assist on Acosta’s goal (which is to say, an assist on a goal where Lucho did 99% of the work), and...that’s it.
The good news is that Mullins, after being out for over a month, came in and created a chance. United needs him as a target, of course, but they’ll also become a lot more dangerous by having a third chance creator on the field. Hopefully this is a sign that United can go back to what worked so well in 2016 while still having the Impact-style “defend, defend, defend, and then counter” move in their pocket away from home.
I say “hopefully” because Mullins, it must be said, wasn’t at his best before the injury. Now that United has some wins under their belt, and he’s had the chance to hit the reset button on his season, we should expect to see Mullins have the sort of influence that he showed last year.
Frankly, to grow beyond simply being a good counter-attacking team, United needs that to happen, because Acosta and Sam can’t carry the offense entirely by themselves for an entire season. While I fully expect Le Toux to get one more start - Mullins probably won’t have more than 45 minutes in his legs this weekend, and Le Toux has certainly earned his time - it’s important for United to come out of this run of games at home with Mullins doing what he’s capable of to diversify the D.C. offense.