Over the weekend, D.C. United and the Chicago Fire settled for a 1-1 draw. United is a better team than Chicago, but on the day it was a fair score. The weather conditions - a constant downpour, heavy winds, and cold temperatures - effectively prevented either team from doing much that approached good soccer. The Black-and-Red's passing accuracy as a team was just 70%, and that was the best of the two teams on the field. There were only four shots on goal in the entire game.
The conditions make it pretty hard to go in depth about this game as a whole. It's hard to judge either team for their sloppy play, as there's not a team in the league that would have played a quality game in those conditions. There are, however, a few points that are worth considering:
What would a Steve Birnbaum transfer mean for United?
On the Chicago feed of the game, Paul Tenorio - who covers MLS for FourFourTwo USA along with being the Fire's sideline reporter - broke a story, noting that there's at least one bid for Birnbaum. Yesterday, Dave Kasper told Steve Goff that United isn't interested in selling him, which is a reasonable position for the club.
However, every single player in MLS is for sale at the right price. Let's say Birnbaum starts for the USMNT during the Copa America Centenario, and more clubs become interested in meeting whatever United/MLS's price tag is. MLS is a selling league, and United has a long history of selling when the deal gets into the realm of fair (which makes them a more palatable landing spot for good young Americans). So what happens if a Birnbaum move develops quickly?
In the short term, Kofi Opare steps in alongside Bobby Boswell. Opare isn't as good in the air or at emergency defending as Birnbaum is, but that's not to say he's bad in either category. United's defense would be weaker, but not by so much that it would be a severe worry. The real worry would be defensive depth, with Jalen Robinson struggling to prove he's ready for MLS minutes at center back and Markus Halsti lacking the agility needed to deal with quicker attackers.
Most likely, we would see United attempt to make a trade within MLS. They'd have plenty of general and targeted allocation money, but let's be honest: In the summer, in a league where no one's really out of the running until late September, it's unlikely that United will be able to find someone that can challenge Opare and Boswell for their minutes. We might see a special confluence of circumstances - LA's desperate move for Sacha Kljestan is how Opare ended up here, after all - but most likely United has to make due with a player whose resume screams "3rd best center back on a mid-table MLS team."
That doesn't sound particularly appealing, but if Birnbaum fetches millions, it might set United up for a move in 2017. After all, they'd have plenty of money to put towards acquiring another player, and with Boswell already 33 one would hope the scouting for a good center back was already underway before this bid came in. The acquisition of Luciano Acosta might be an indicator that United, armed with enough money, can in fact find players who can be effective from outside of this league or the draft.
Is the 4141 Olsen's preferred Plan B now?
The above link to Goff's chat with Kasper also includes Ben Olsen discussing the 4141 formation United rolled out against the Fire. As Olsen noted, it's a system Acosta is used to from his time with Estudiantes. It's also a lineup we saw last year a few times, particularly when mid-week fixtures required major squad rotation. We also saw United play a blend of 4141 and 4132 in the 2-1 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps early in 2015. Interestingly, Chris Rolfe started both that game and on Saturday, but with different responsibilities. In Vancouver, he had the job of jumping up as a second forward during attacking moments, whereas in Chicago that job fell to Acosta more often (though, per Olsen, apparently that didn't happen often enough).
In the past, Olsen has used more formations than people tend to recall. In 2011 and 2012, a 4132 was used for a while, and 4231 popped up in the back half of 2012. However, it's only in the last year that we've seen this 4141, and it has some promise thanks to Acosta as well as the upgrades on the wings. It's certainly an appealing option in an Eastern Conference full of teams playing 4231, a formation that United usually settled for simply fighting to a draw in the midfield throughout the last two years. Going 2v3 in central midfield is a risk that United now has the option of avoiding against certain opponents.
That's not to say it's a flawless set-up with the roster as it stands today. Marcelo Sarvas and Nick DeLeon would both be very good partners for Acosta in this formation, but neither of them is an ideal fit to the deep-lying defensive midfield role. Marcelo has surprised as the #6 in United's normal 442, but sitting underneath the rest of the midfield requires a level of positional discipline that subtracts from what the Brazilian veteran does best. I'm not saying he is incapable of playing underneath a midfield four, but it would be even more of a surprise than his success as the most defensive player in United's current set-up.
On the other hand, playing a position that requires less running would potentially extend the 34 year old's career. It would also open up one of Marcelo's major strengths. Playing a deeper role means having more time on the ball, and Marcelo's passing range and his vision for switching the point of attack are major reasons why the LA Galaxy brought him to MLS in the first place. With Patrick Nyarko and Lamar Neagle on the wings, having someone who can precisely and quickly swing the ball up a given flank could be an excellent way to open games up.
Similarly, Jared Jeffrey has always seemed built for this deeper role, and his play in 2016 has been an indicator that he can be relied on to play more minutes. That's not to say United should opt for a formation that requires him to start full-time, but he can jump into the 4141 more easily than the 442. The same goes for Halsti, though his time with the club seems to be limited at this point.
If Marcelo is the #6 and Acosta has the more attacking role, that leaves DeLeon starting as the third player in the middle. In terms of him connecting the rest of the team and covering ground, there are no issues. DeLeon's 87.3% passing accuracy on the season puts him in the top 10 in MLS, which is crucial as the linking player in a three-man midfield. The concern I'd have is his finishing ability. With Acosta preferring to do his work outside the box and only one striker on the field, United would need a goal threat coming through the middle. Neagle and Nyarko will provide some goals, but having a third man making a run is often the reason defenses become disorganized.
Still, DeLeon's ability to finish isn't the major concern here. That would be United's lack of an ideal fit up front for this system. Alvaro Saborio's back-to-goal play certainly helps bring the midfield into the attack, but he has struggled with reliably getting himself involved in games as a starter. On top of that, he's not the most mobile player any more, and that can make it very easy to isolate him from the rest of the attack.
Fabian Espindola is United's best forward, but making a 4141 work with him would be very difficult. Espindola's problem is more or less the opposite of Saborio's: He wants to be too mobile, and this set-up requires a player operating as a central reference point for the attack at least some of the time. Espindola's choices this season have also been suspect, as we've gone over time and time again on this site. In a 4141, he would need to trust his teammates to carry a higher share of the load more than he does in the 442.
The other issue United would run into in a 4141 is that it likely rules an effective player - that is, Rolfe or Neagle - out of the starting lineup. Having too many capable starters is never a bad problem, but it does require good psychological management and intelligent rotation of players so that everyone involved stays sharp and mentally engaged. It will be fascinating to see whether the formation stays in place against NYCFC this weekend, particularly with Rolfe suspended and Espindola not necessarily fit to start.
On a day where set pieces were the most likely source of goals for either team, United both scored and conceded from dead balls. On the season, that leaves United with 2 goals from set pieces against 4 conceded. For a team that isn't loaded with high-end attackers who can create goals out of nothing, that's not good news. Sure, this weekend's goal required a glorious delivery from Arturo Alvarez, a good run by Jonathan Campbell, and weather conditions that forced Travis Worra to play conservatively in terms of coming off his line. The specific context isn't that important in the face of the raw fact that the Black-and-Red have given up 4 set piece goals over 9 MLS games.
Broadly speaking, that's not good enough. Sure, the number is inflated by giving LA 2 set piece goals in the season opener, and the delivery on both LA goals as well as this week's was perfect, but still. With Bill Hamid an unknown amount of time from taking the field, and no replacement for Perry Kitchen's physical strength about to step into the starting lineup, United needs to be smarter to prevent this from becoming a major problem.
What does that mean, exactly? It's the free kicks following fouls that United has struggled with more than corners, and in particular it's free kicks inside the defensive third but still out along the touchline. Players pushing out wide to defend simply need to do so without having to concede a foul. If the Black-and-Red are going to be weaker inside the box, then the object becomes not giving teams the opportunity to serve balls in.
Hamid is irreplaceable in this regard. It's not that Worra, or Andrew Dykstra, or Tally Hall, or Charlie Horton are bad in the air or make poor decisions coming off their line. They're just not as good as Hamid is in traffic. They don't have his size, his strength, or his acceleration. Hamid's physical gifts alone are a natural deterrent on set pieces; teams have to pick a post, because serving the ball into the middle is off the table. As much as Worra has been a pleasant surprise, he can't say the same thing. And neither can Hall, if he manages to push himself into the starting job in the next month or so before we start hearing about Hamid's return.
Until the #28 comes back, United is going to have to modify their play elsewhere. That means not going to ground or grabbing a jersey so quickly when defending, and it also means avoiding situations where fouling turns into the safer option. Improved organization all over the field will help, as will quicker transitions to defensive positions in the midfield. United needs to make sure they're not leaving someone isolated, particularly in the moments after a turnover. Otherwise, teams are going to keep looking at set pieces as a recipe for success when they line up against DC.