After a frustrating start to the season, D.C. United broke out over the weekend by steamrolling the Vancouver Whitecaps at RFK Stadium. The 4-0 win saw them score more goals over 90 minutes than they'd managed in their opening 5 MLS matches. Fabian Espindola and Alvaro Saborio both scored twice, and Luciano Acosta picked up his first 2 assists since joining the club. Even the weather - predicted to be a rainy, windy evening - turned out to be better than expected.
United got a bunch of things right for the first time in 2016, and while we can't sit around expecting 4-0 routs every week, there are some things within the Black-and-Red's control that need to be replicated on a regular basis for this to be a successful team. The Whitecaps were a mess, there's no doubt about it - I don't think their gameplan made sense, and the players compounded that by executing it poorly - but that doesn't make this a fluke that contains no real lessons for United. Let's take a look at three of them:
Lesson 1: A disciplined, patient Espindola is the one this team needs
In the past, Espindola's odd approach to being a forward was a gift. His drifting out to the left wing left defenses confused about the new angles that creates, his long-range shots and chips caught goalkeepers off guard, and his combination of irascibility and arrogance served as fuel for his ability to do the unexpected. While he was never a Golden Boot threat his assist totals made up for the fact that he's never been a particularly prolific scorer.
This season, though, none of those has been true. His lack of consistent positioning is a huge reason why Acosta isn't getting starts. Those long-range shots have been attempted way too often, and many have just been blocked before even forcing a save. His attitude on the field has seemed to feed an idea that he can't trust his teammates, so we've seen a ton of attacks die with him deciding to have a go from 30 yards or forcing a killer ball that never had a prayer. Coming into the game, he had 1 goal and 1 assist in 7 appearances (far below what United needs out of him).
Let's talk specifically about his shot choices. Here's a breakdown of where Espindola has been shooting from thus far:
|Game||Minutes||Total shots||Shots inside the 18||Shots on frame||Blocked||Point blank||Goals|
|@ San Jose||90||5||3||1||2||2||0|
|Dallas||90||7||3||1 (saved PK)||4||2||0|
In 2016, Espindola has taken one shot for every 14:30 he's played. That's far above what has been normal for him over the course of his career (in his 14,516 MLS regular season minutes, he has averaged roughly one shot every 33 minutes played). His decision-making process this year has been poor, and this is a big part of it. He's been shooting to punctuate attacking moves that weren't actually done yet.
He's also been shooting from too far away. Coming into Saturday's game, Espindola had taken 28 shots, but only 13 - that's under half, math majors - had been from inside the 18. A healthy portion of those longer shots were from well over 25 yards, too. 12 of his shots were blocked, meaning that they were either too predictable or just hopeful hits into a crowded area. These were not good numbers.
And then he goes and has an almost too perfect showing. 7 shots, all from inside the penalty area. All on frame, nearly half from right on the doorstep, and 2 ended up going in. How does someone have such a crazy course correction?
We have to be honest: This probably isn't going to happen again. The hope here isn't that Espindola be incredibly precise every week, or that he avoids shooting from long range ever again. Rather, it's that he keep trending towards this sort of ideal. The decision to keep attacking moves going paid off time and again, as his teammates were able to progress up the field and create a more promising opportunity in a higher percentage spot. By opting not to shoot early, Espindola's shot quality went up while not actually hurting his quantity. The point blank shot column gives me some hope here, as he's been trending in the right direction for four straight games.
If Espindola is more patient - in this case, more willing to connect another pass rather than try to score as fast as possible once the Black-and-Red get within 35 yards of goal - he becomes a better forward partner. He's still going to wander, as we can see from his chalkboard (note the cluster on the left side of the 18), but by involving his teammates and trusting them more, he's still going to get looks.
This doesn't just matter for him, though getting your star attacker on track is certainly a nice plus. Espindola being more willing to involve his teammates makes him a better partner for Acosta, who made a statement of his own by supplying two of the best passes any United player has had this season. Acosta is probably some distance behind Chris Rolfe in terms of understanding how to play off of Espindola, but then again he's only had 2 minutes playing alongside this far more effective version of Espindola.
Regardless of who takes the lion's share of starts alongside Espindola - it'll be Rolfe for the time being, which isn't exactly a terrible option - he needs to play like this. Espindola trying to do it all by himself just makes United a team that kills their own attacks too often. The guy we saw against the Whitecaps had the bravery to try another pass rather than simply hit and hope, and it made a huge difference.
Lesson 2: Winning the set piece battle remains vital for United
So let's say effective Espindola keeps showing up, and Rolfe/Acosta/Saborio are consistently good foils for him. United is still not going to be a dynamite goalscoring team from open play. They can be good, but they're not going to just bowl teams over. This is still a side that can't afford to ignore set pieces, and this week at least they made sure not to.
First of all, we've now seen three straight games without conceding a set piece, and since having a nightmare defending them in LA they've only conceded once (against Colorado) from a dead ball. Granted, Dallas didn't exactly need to find a goal that way, but progress is progress. United shut the Whitecaps out despite the presence of Kendall Waston - the best player in MLS in the air - and Tim Parker, and despite being at a size disadvantage in general due to Andrew Jacobson and Blas Perez getting starts.
Even better, they came up with a goal at the other end. Initially, it looks pretty simple: Taylor Kemp aims a corner at the back post, Steve Birnbaum wins a battle with Parker to head off the bar, and Espindola simply reacts to a rebound that falls his way. However, further examination shows that United took advantage of Vancouver's set-up to create the opportunity:
Boswell and Lamar Neagle are both known to have a man-marker at this point, and United has had a look at Vancouver's defensive scheme. Waston has been given a zonal role with some freedom to go attack the ball, with the idea being that he's nearly unbeatable if he's able to take a stride or two before leaping. Jordan Harvey has a zonal role at the near post as well.
They're labeled in orange because they're eliminated from this play entirely by United's movement. Boswell crowds his marker Jacobson right into Waston, and Neagle does the same thing with Perez and Harvey. It's a 2v4 at the near post, but that leaves even numbers everywhere else. Kemp goes back post because he knows Parker will have no help against Birnbaum. Nyarko is entirely a decoy; he stays in contention just long enough to confuse Aird into freezing before backing out of Birnbaum's way.
How does Espindola get to the rebound, especially since this play starts with Russell Teibert holding his arm with two hands (with referee Jorge Gonzalez staring right at him, no less)? He fights off the grab to bump Teibert into a flat-footed stance while also fooling him with a feint. Teibert ends up looking completely the wrong way, seeing Birnbaum win the header while not seeing Espindola walk into the seam that, fortunately, was the right place at the right time.
That sort of invention - turning a crowded penalty area against a taller team into an even numbers situation - has to remain a part of United's gameplan just as much as defending set pieces stoutly is. Most likely, a combination of film work during the week and in-game adjustments paid off here for the Black-and-Red.
Lesson 3: The midfield standard is set
Nyarko and Neagle on the wings, Marcelo Sarvas and Nick DeLeon in the middle. That's a midfield you should prepare to see for quite a while, provided everyone stays healthy. Perhaps reveling in the rare situation where the opposing midfield didn't have more numbers, United defined the tempo the game was played at as well as where it was played on the field thanks to their midfield comprehensively outplaying Vancouver's.
Nyarko and Neagle are doing exactly what United was looking for in acquiring them: They provide speed, they look to get in behind defenders - Nyarko on the dribble, Neagle with his off-the-ball movement - and they are plugged in defensively. At this point, I have no interest in seeing Neagle making way if, for example, Acosta pushes Rolfe out of the lineup. United needs his high work rate and his overall athleticism too much right now. He and Kemp had to face Cristian Techera, the only true threat the Whitecaps put on the field, and they reduced his influence down to almost nil.
Sarvas and DeLeon were not particularly challenged in this one. Jacobson tried, but looked to be chasing the game throughout. Teibert completely abandoned playing in central midfield. It was an easy battle to win, sure, but United's duo won it decisively and they won it early. As much as fans were suspicious of DeLeon in the middle, that area of the field has only been a problem in one match (at New England). It's going to take an awful lot for Markus Halsti or Jared Jeffrey to break in, even though starting a more defensive player than DeLeon would allow Sarvas to take up his normal role. It's also going to be hard for Julian Buescher to get some more minutes as a #8 once his recently announced calf issue clears up.
All that said, most games will be tougher than this one. The Whitecaps arrived without Morales, who provides most of the creative impetus for their attack, and only had Kekuta Manneh on the field for a half. This weekend, Toronto FC is going to start Sebastian Giovinco and Michael Bradley. In certain ways, it may shape up to be a similar test tactically - TFC is probably going to go with a 442 again, and they will look to sit deep before countering - but against a team executing that plan at a much higher level at the moment. The trick for United is making sure that they can apply the positives from last week against a sharper opponent.