Worry. That's the feeling I had after D.C. United were undone by FC Dallas Saturday, and I know I wasn't alone. I saw it in the faces in the stands, and I heard it in the gallows humor and rueful laughter walking alongside fans in the concourse and in Lot 8. Six games into the season, United has zero wins, only three goals, and they've been routed twice. It's safe to say it's been an ugly month.
There have been positives - the first 70 minutes at Queretaro, and the first half in LA were both good - but they've been followed by defensive letdowns that, every time, have seemed to leave United discouraged. The Black-and-Red aren't responding when they let in goals, and it seems fair to link that lack of resiliency to Queretaro's second goal in Mexico, to LA's crucial third goal in the season opener, and to the killer second goal Dallas scored before halftime.
It's one thing to worry about a lack of goalscoring quality, or the individual defensive errors that are keeping United from otherwise being a team grinding out boring results. It's another to worry about this team losing the unshakable mentality that allowed them to overachieve in 2014 and 2015. Bill Hamid's absence means a lot, of course, but United isn't losing games because of goalkeeping. There are problems all over the field right now.
And yet, the thing that worries me the most came after this game. In the traditional post-match press conference, Oscar Pareja spelled out exactly how his team won at RFK:
"We knew that there’s a key player in [Marcelo] Sarvas, and when they want to build, normally they start with him. I thought Mauro and Maxi did an excellent job to clog him and make him drop 10-15 yards more than he wanted. And at the same time, we wanted to disconnect the fullbacks. For me, two of the best fullbacks in the league are Franklin and Kemp. They’re very good going forward, and we wanted to make the sacrifice with Castillo and Barrios, and that’s where the tactics developed today. And [we] just tried to close that outlet. And the way Fabian and Mikey [Barrios] ran today—that’s an example for us… not just that, but they attacked them, and Mikey scored two goals and Fabian and a few options. So the back-and-forth runs that they made during the whole game—it was impressive. So those were the highlights, tactically, that we wanted."
Let's break this into two parts. We start with Marcelo Sarvas and FCD's use of their attacking midfielder Mauro Diaz and their lone forward Maximiliano Urruti to make his life more difficult. The idea Pareja is describing is simple: By making sure Diaz is making the normal area Sarvas plays in a no-go zone while using Urruti to apply pressure (and sometimes, vice versa), Dallas would leave the veteran forced to play from an abnormally deep spot and at a harried tempo. If United dropped back to help, they'd have to connect a few more passes or likely dribble past one more defender to start an attack. If they stayed forward and just hoped Sarvas would play out of it, the Brazilian is - at best- left trying to complete longer, more difficult passes.
It's not the first time United has faced something along these lines. In particular, the Montreal Impact had great success using Ignacio Piatti to cancel out Perry Kitchen last year on the day that United only attempted 1 shot in 90 minutes. The Black-and-Red won that game, somehow, but they never figured out how to deal with Kitchen being taken out of the game in possession. Other teams incorporated this into their plans, but Dallas is the first team to buy in to the extent that the Impact did.
Here's the result. What follows is a map of where Sarvas was attempting his passes from against Dallas. The blue circles are my (admittedly unscientific) estimation of where he was doing his passing from in each previous game. The lighter blue dots are for the game at New England, in which the Revs chased him into two distinct areas (making one circle an inaccurate representation):
Pareja is pretty much spot on with his analysis of what happened. Sarvas was forced to play deeper than normal, and more towards the left side of the field than the right. That latter part isn't necessarily disruptive to him as an individual, but forcing him deeper certainly contributed to United's sluggish attacking play. The energy that the Black-and-Red had before the first goal dissipated, but it probably wasn't a purely psychological issue. Dallas did a good job of altering United's plan A as far as getting out of the back, and that was a major factor in FCD looking so untroubled in winning this game.
This is a huge concern for next week because Sarvas won't even be available to harass. Markus Halsti has only just started training at full speed, so it's unlikely that he gets the call. Ben Olsen said he could see Julian Buescher playing as a 6 at one point, but realistically he has only used him as an attacking midfielder. The spot in the lineup is probably going to Jared Jeffrey, who barely played last year and seems uncomfortable in the double pivot. Will Olsen trust him with the same level of responsibility as Sarvas? Or will he ask DeLeon to drop further and do something that might accentuate the very issues he's had as a central midfielder? My guess is that he'll go with the former, but neither choice seems appealing right now.
Pareja also praised United's fullbacks, backing it up by saying that he asked his excellent wingers to focus on making their lives difficult. That comes from making sure they were hard to pass to by taking up a space between them and the ball, and from being willing to pressure them when they were in possession. First, let's look at where United's key passes - that is, passes that lead to a shot attempt - came from.
Good news: United took a step in the right direction in terms of creating from better spots. There are only 2 key passes inside the box or in "zone 14," but there are 2 more from Chris Rolfe just outside those areas as well as another from Fabian Espindola. Against a team that got their lead and were happy to sit in and wait for counter-attacking opportunities, that's a silver lining.
However, the bad news is that United didn't create enough truly good looks in part because their fullbacks were effectively contained. Sean Franklin attempted just three crosses from open play (connecting on one), while Taylor Kemp only put two crosses in from the other side, and his did not find a target. That's down from a combined 11 cross attempts (4 successful) from that duo against Colorado, who play the same formation as Dallas. The Revs pinned United back so much that they found a different way to take Franklin and Kemp away as attacking options (namely, by forcing them to stay home and focus entirely on defending), but on the road against the Galaxy Kemp attempted 5 crosses (completing 2). Franklin, perhaps out of fear of being torched by Gyasi Zardes, mostly stayed home and added just one cross to the total.
This reliance on crosses isn't necessarily the best plan for a team that does not start an aerial target, but it is a big part of how United creates chances. Franklin was United's leading provider of key passes (including crosses that became shots) from March through June of 2015. As for Kemp, Matt Doyle posted an illustrative passing map from this game, showing how Dallas only let Nick DeLeon find Kemp with back passes. That's indicative of a larger trend, and it means that Kemp gets the ball in an area where he tends to play long balls. United is not built to win those long balls, and by forcing United's central midfield to go backwards Dallas also forced Kemp to stay there and be an option (after all, if you're being forced to pass backwards, there needs to be someone to pass to; otherwise, your opponent might as well just force an outright turnover).
Dallas set out to do three things to shut down United's attack, and on all three fronts they were successful. United still took 15 shots, but keep in mind that the score was 2-0 after 28 minutes. FCD could just contain and wait for the Black-and-Red to attempt the sort of "I have no other ideas" shots that we discussed last week. Throw in some gigantic defensive errors on all three goals, and you have the recipe for a rout.
So here's why I'm worried: Dallas has provided arguably the clearest blueprint yet on how to shut down some key portions of United's attack. They didn't quite shut down Patrick Nyarko - who, somehow, did not win a penalty kick from one of the more obvious fouls committed in soccer on planet earth this past weekend - but they did enough to shut United out on the road, with 3 second-choice defenders (including a rookie playing his first professional minutes of any kind) and a back-up in goal. The way they did it is something that can be replicated by other teams fairly easily. That's terrible news for a team that already has enough problems.
I do have a tiny bit of good news: United plays the San Jose Earthquakes this week, and they are a pure 442 team. That doesn't leave them in good spots to follow Pareja's plan. Their wide midfielders have to take up deeper starting positions than Michael Barrios and Fabian Castillo did. With two out-and-out forwards, there isn't someone taking up the spots Diaz does in the 4231. I'm not saying this will be easy - a goal-shy team going cross-country to play a team built around a stout, organized defense is not a recipe for success - but we should see United's fullbacks more engaged in the attack, which will open up options elsewhere.
However, for United to jump-start a season that is already in trouble, they're going to have to have more going on than 5 or 6 more cross attempts or slightly more favorable possession. They need Espindola - who took 7 shots last week - to stop calling his own number. They need to include Luciano Acosta from the start, no matter where he lines up. They'll need to build on the fact that they didn't give up a set piece goal last week against a team that is far more dangerous from those situations. And they'll need to avoid the defensive decision-making that handed Dallas 3 goals (and what should have been a fourth). That's a long to-do list for a team in a good place mentally, much less a group that just took one on the chin and lost their belief almost instantly.
So, like I said: Worry.