On what appeared to be an unseasonably chilly night in Florida, D.C. United started the second leg of their preseason with their first win in 2016, defeating the NASL's Tampa Bay Rowdies 1-0 at Al Lang Stadium. Fabian Espindola, captaining the side, scored the only goal of a sometimes chippy game in the 28th minute on an assist from Luciano Acosta, who played his first match for United.
Ben Olsen once again sent out his team in something other than a 442, opting instead for a 4411 surely designed to suit Acosta. The starting eleven featured Andrew Dykstra in goal behind a back four of Luke Mishu, Jalen Robinson, Steve Birnbaum - back from USMNT duty - and Taylor Kemp. In the midfield, Patrick Nyarko and trialist Rob Vincent played on the right and left, respectively, while draft pick Paul Clowes was partnered by Nick DeLeon in the middle. Acosta had a free role underneath Espindola. In a lot of ways, there isn't much difference between how their partnership worked and how Espindola played with Chris Rolfe at times last season.
United seems to want to be more of a front-foot team this season, and once again there was an emphasis on high pressure from the start. The Black-and-Red mostly dictated the terms for the first half-hour, occasionally pressing the Rowdies all the way to their own endline. That pressure gave United their first chance, as Acosta stripped right back Darnell King inside the Tampa box. Acosta found himself at a narrow angle and tried to shoot into the roof of the net, but 'keeper Matt Pickens stood tall to tip the ball over the crossbar.
The visitors stayed on the offensive, with Birnbaum's knockdown of an Espindola free kick setting up a great opportunity from point-blank range only for a desperate Juan Guerra tackle to foil United in the 13th minute. Less than 60 seconds later, Mishu forced a turnover and tried to find Acosta. His pass was errant, but it rolled on to Clowes, who poked the ball forward to Espindola. Espindola struck his first-time shot with power, but it missed the upper corner by a yard or so.
The game started to show a bit of an edge in the 17th minute, as center back Justin Chavez cleaned out Acosta near midfield. Espindola took exception, and referee Silviu Petrescu ended up having to calm both players down.
Petrescu would be in the spotlight again on United's 28th minute goal. Acosta once again pressured King, this time along the endline. King appeared to have gained position, but Acosta tugged his shirt to get back into a spot to poke the ball away. The foul went uncalled, but that wasn't the only issue the Rowdies will have; in the aftermath of the foul, the ball also appeared to roll over the endline. Petrescu didn't call that either, and Acosta alertly rolled a pass back to Espindola, whose rasping low shot beat Pickens and flew into the lower corner.
The goal sparked an eventful few minutes. Clowes was booked for a foul at midfield in the moments after Tampa kicked off, and then within a minute Acosta had a partial breakaway denied by Pickens. Vincent got his head to the ensuing corner, but his effort floated harmlessly wide. In the 35th minute, Dykstra had his second poorly-struck clearance of the match, though on both occasions he did enough to avoid a loose ball sitting in front of an open net.
The Rowdies started to get a foothold towards the end of the half. A long ball found King overlapping from deep, but Robinson did just enough to recover and steal the right back's chest trap inside the United penalty area before he could shoot. In first-half stoppage time, Junior Burgos used an uncalled shove on Birnbaum to give himself a chance to take a shot from along the endline, but Dykstra made the save.
In the midst of all that, Petrescu had to hand out three more yellow cards. King went in the book in the 32nd minute for tripping up Espindola near the touchline. Burgos got his booking in the 41st minute for exposing his studs in a tackle at midfield, and then Birnbaum got a yellow of his own for a scissor tackle on Kalif Alhassan in the 43rd minute. Birnbaum may have been a bit lucky to only see yellow, as his tackle was also from behind.
At halftime, the Rowdies replaced 10 starters while United made 3 moves of their own: Dykstra was replaced by trialist GK Benjamin Kirsten, while Acosta made way for Collin Martin. Birnbaum was replaced by an academy center back. Tampa's second group started the half vigorously, with Kirsten called into action early to clear a dangerous loose ball after a mix-up between Mishu and the unnamed academy player.
In the 51st minute, the Rowdies created another good look. Halftime sub Georgi Hristov caught Robinson going the wrong way, opening up a chance to go to goal. Hristov let United off the hook, though, opting to shoot immediately rather than driving into the box. Kirsten ended up with an easy save as the Bulgarian's shot was aimed right at his midsection.
Tampa was in control for the first 10 minutes of the half, but slowly United got themselves back into the game. Espindola tried to beat Stefan Antonijevic to get into the box, but accidentally ended up fouling the defender instead. In the 58th minute, Kemp got past his Jeremy Hall along the left, forcing Hall to foul. United couldn't make much out of the free kick, but it was an improvement on the slow start to the half.
That's not to imply that the Rowdies were backing off. A great diagonal ball from Darwin Espindal in the 63rd minute sent Hristov into acres of space on United's left. Hristov eventually squared for target man Tommy Heinemann, but the big man couldn't really settle. Eventually he did manage to get a shot away amid a crowd of defenders, but again the ball went straight to Kirsten.
United made three subs around the hour mark, and then swapped out everyone else - bar Robinson - in the 65th minute. Those subs included first round draft pick Julian Buescher, making his debut as an attacking midfielder (with Martin moving over to the left wing). Trialists Paul Torres and Andrea Mancini checked in, along with a right winger who may or may not be rumored trialist Leandro Paiva.
Alvaro Saborio, who entered in the 61st minute, had the game's next chance. A Kirsten punt caught the Rowdies napping, and Saborio ended up shooting from an angle with his first touch. Michael Langer made the save for Tampa but gave up a rebound that bounced just inches too high for Martin's lunging attempt to prod it home.
United would have another good opportunity in the 79th minute. A poor punch from Langer fell to Buescher, who promptly cut inside his marker before firing a powerful, curling shot on frame. Langer scrambled to make a reflex save, but the rebound flew out of the box and right to Martin. The United homegrown player quickly reacted to shoot again, only for his shot to hit Saborio in the thigh. Saborio adroitly adjusted his feet to bash the ball past Langer, but was correctly called offside after his hopeful run in pursuit of a rebound on Buescher's shot left him beyond the last defender.
The Rowdies did everything they could to level the score in the final 10 minutes, but were denied by the impressive play of Kirsten. Heinemann barged down United's academy center back to give himself an 81st minute breakaway, but Kirsten made a kick-save even after Heinemann tried to freeze him with a stutter-step. Torres also deserves some credit on the play, as the shot had enough on it to get past Kirsten and likely would have rolled into the empty net without an intervention.
Espinal would draw the next big save from Kirsten in the 86th minute after dribbling past Aguilar - playing right back at the time - and another United player. Espinal wasn't at the best angle, but Kirsten's quick jump off his line gave him the chance to block a powerful shot from the Tampa winger. A series of communication mix-ups between Kirsten, the academy center back, and trialist Constantine Kolokotronis two minutes later nearly handed the Rowdies an easy opportunity, but United did just enough to get the ball out of danger.
Hristov had the final chance for the home side after being brought down by Jared Jeffrey just outside the box, but his curling free kick went about a foot over the crossbar.
United's next preseason match will be their first against MLS competition, as they'll take on the Philadelphia Union Wednesday evening in this very same venue. The Rowdies will provide a stream on Youtube as they did for tonight's match.