There have been a few big nights or important periods of time for D.C. United, and the returns have been, like much of this 2016 season, iffy at best. That season-opening trip to Queretaro? 70 surprisingly good minutes followed by 20 that left United with little chance of making a statement in CONCACAF. More recently there was that stretch of four straight at home. We thought United needed to take 9 points, but had to make due with just 6 (which ended up only being tolerable because the rest of the East failed to do anything of note at the time).
Last night against Orlando City, in unquestionably the biggest single game of the season up to this point, United did better than iffy. A 4-1 romp over the Lions is enough to see United - at least at the time of writing - take back the sixth and final playoff spot in the East. It also gives United a decided advantage in the goal difference tiebreaker (+2 to -8), which could come in handy if Orlando recovers from this to finish the season even on points and games won with the Black-and-Red.
Let’s dive into some of the details from this one:
Sometimes the simple solutions are best
Orlando’s 4231 is a pretty narrow one, with Jason Kreis preferring his wide men to get close to the attacking midfielder in an effort to encourage possession soccer and combination play. That’s a calculated risk, with Kreis gambling that his team will have enough of the ball to keep opposing fullbacks stuck defending rather than taking advantage of the space this leaves open.
While it can’t be said that United seized this game from the opening whistle, they did do well enough to stop Orlando from pinning fullbacks Taylor Kemp and Nick DeLeon back. Take a look at their average positions on this map from WhoScored.com:
That’s Kemp taking up a spot that was, on average, virtually just as high up the field as winger Patrick Nyarko. Kreis took his risk, and Ben Olsen replied with a gamble of his own. That’s an awful lot of space for Bobby Boswell to have to cover if something goes wrong, but tonight it worked like a charm. Kemp ended up with three assists, while the dangerous trio of Kaka, Kevin Molino, and Matias Perez Garcia were all more or less quiet. Perez Garcia did end up with 5 key passes, but most of these came from set pieces.
A different kind of commitment
Olsen was left with another significant decision to make before the game was even a quarter of the way through. Marcelo Sarvas was left hobbling after a midfield challenge, and despite trying to grit his teeth it was clear that he couldn’t continue.
A quick look down the bench saw United with precious few options to cope with replacing the beating heart of their midfield. Julian Buescher was the lone central midfielder available, but Olsen has often avoided deploying him and Luciano Acosta at the same time. That left choices like bringing in Luke Mishu to push DeLeon into the midfield, or adding a second forward and switching to a diamond.
However, Olsen only ever had one thought in mind. Buescher was the only player instructed to warm up when Marcelo pulled up, and he was who stepped in when the substitution was made in the 23rd minute.
United’s transition to a more attack-minded way of playing - still not out-and-out attacking, certainly, but anyone who tells you they’re no more positive now than they were earlier in the year is either not watching the games or ignoring what they’ve seen - has at times felt like it’s still on trial. The mid-season trades were made with that look in mind, but you could easily argue that United needed to bring in guys like Mullins and Sam regardless of formation.
Tonight, in a more-or-less must-win game, with their most experienced player coming off the field and zeroes on the scoreboard, Olsen made a commitment to the new look. He sent in Buescher, a more attacking player than Marcelo, in order to both preserve the formation and to keep two capable attacking fullbacks in their roles. Olsen and his teams have normally been associated with the bravery and fearlessness meaning of commitment we hear regularly in soccer (thanks, England!), but tonight he won by making a tangible commitment to United’s current style of play.
Marcelo’s injury is a big problem
From the stands, I thought Marcelo got stepped on, and the fact that he didn’t grab his foot or ankle indicated some kind of twist of the knee. It turns out that it was a challenge Marcelo made on Kaka:
The post-match quotes indicate that this isn’t just something that will be fine once the pain subsides:
This is the exact quote from Olsen on Marcelo: "I would expect him to be out for, uh, I don't know. We'll see. It's a knee" #DCU— Steven Streff (@streffsoccer) September 25, 2016
That does not sound like good news. Even a moderate knee sprain can require 4-6 weeks out, and that would mean no Marcelo until the playoffs (which are still a hypothetical at this point).
It’s an acute problem for United at the moment. Jared Jeffrey, the most logical replacement, is out with a concussion. DeLeon appears to be the best option at right back until Sean Franklin returns from his calf strain (another injury that tends to last a month or more). That leaves United having to roll with Buescher at home and on the road for the time being, or bringing Mishu back into the lineup after the Notre Dame product’s rough September.
Compounding all of this is the fact that United plays again on Wednesday against Columbus - a game that, if lost, pretty much undoes all the good from last night - and then heads to Toronto to play TFC on Saturday. With these injuries, rotating players becomes pretty difficult. Collin Martin was upgraded to questionable just yesterday, but he’s missed the entire season with a foot injury. United may have to give him some minutes anyway, just to prevent overuse injuries in what’s left of their midfield.
Antonio Nocerino is a clown sent to amuse us all
The offseason saga of whether Nocerino would join United or Orlando didn’t bother me all that much in and of itself. A player choosing between two offers is a familiar concept, and I wasn’t exactly sold on the idea of bringing in an expensive player over the age of 30 to step into what was, at the time, a double pivot system. Orlando’s conduct in the process, and the reaction of their fanbase, was more irritating to me than Nocerino signing with them. They made the better offer, and frankly it seemed like DCU dodged a bullet.
It might have been more of a storyline if Nocerino and the Lions had come to RFK in, say, April or early May. Instead, the whole thing seemed like a background decoration...until Nocerino was inexplicably not booked by referee Sorin Stoica in the 30th minute. Nocerino dragged Acosta down as United broke forward; it was a textbook “professional foul,” one that players commit knowing full well the yellow card is coming.
Stoica gave Nocerino the “no more of that young man!” talk rather than doing his job, though, giving fans a reason to remember their ire at the former AC Milan midfielder. That only escalated when basically the same damn thing happened in the 58th minute. Nocerino simply went in very late on Sam, the kind of foul that gets you a yellow card in MLS on a very consistent basis. Stoica let this one go too, even as Nocerino dismissed his first attempt to have a word.
Nocerino seemed dead set on leaving this game early, and finally got his marching orders in the 66th minute. I’ll let the gif tell the rest of the story:
This loss hurts Orlando in the standings, and in the near future
So Nocerino, the player who seems best suited to the #6 role under Kreis, will miss Orlando’s game at TFC this Wednesday, which probably means plenty of space for the Reds to exploit in their quest to help United (and, uh, themselves I guess). However, it’s critical to note that in the same moment that saw Stoica not hand out a yellow for the foul on Sam, Kaka gestured to the bench twice. The Brazilian superstar needed a sub, and came off in the 64th minute.
I didn’t notice this at RFK, as I was busy being stunned by Stoica’s inexplicable leniency, so I took the Kaka sub as a white flag moment for Orlando. If he’s injured, though, Orlando will be far less thoughtful and skilled going forward. Brek Shea will give them some speed and power, but TFC is set up to deal with that more comfortably than someone with the soccer IQ to break them down with movement and the technical ability to complete the final ball.
Here’s hoping Greg Vanney decides to go all out mid-week and then rotate his guys on the weekend. Come on, Greg, we’re your old pals in DC!