In the last two weeks, D.C. United has faced a Canadian visitor playing a formation that mirrors their own, but the games couldn't have gone more differently. The Black-and-Red were flattered by a 4-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps, but the 2-0 on the board in the 87th minute was quite fair. Toronto FC, meanwhile, scored almost immediately and then were fairly comfortable in making Sebastian Giovinco's goal stand up for the 89 minutes that followed.
What changed? Is TFC really just that much better than Vancouver? And how did United, in a week spent at home, manage to lose their edge in the attacking third? First, we should dispense with some simple items: Flying from Vancouver to DC to play is more difficult than coming from Toronto. The distance is more taxing, and there's a 3 hour time difference to account for. Anyone who has flown from the east coast to the west coast can tell you that the west-to-east leg is the tougher part of the trip. The Whitecaps were also playing without their two best central midfielders. TFC, meanwhile, started Michael Bradley and Will Johnson.
So that's all surely a part of it. TFC arrived at RFK Stadium more well-rested and with a better group of available players. Those aren't specifics, though, and you probably came here for specifics. Let's get into some reasons that DCU wasn't able to replicate their more dangerous showing against the Whitecaps:
United's shot selection went bad again
The Black-and-Red took plenty of shots, just like they've done in most of their games this season. And yes, there were some moments where poor finishing or good goalkeeping mattered: Clint Irwin's save on Patrick Nyarko in the 31st minute was probably the key moment of the game outside of the goal. However, this is probably a familiar sight by now:
Outside of context, an MLS team taking 18 shots probably wins a whole hell of a lot more often than a team that only took 10 shots. DC took 18 shots, but you can see why that number doesn't guarantee much. Half of United's shot attempts came from outside the box. United only took 10 shots from within 25 yards. It's a pattern that we've seen in most home games this season. Queretaro, Colorado, and Dallas all held United to broadly similar numbers.
Here's the problem: United is not a particularly gifted team when it comes to shooting from long distance. The starters don't have a long list of highlight reel 30 yard blasts. Julian Buescher is on the outside looking in right now. Rob Vincent scored a few long shots in the USL, but that was in a system that allowed him to play further up the field; he seems less comfortable in a 442 at this point.
Of course, that's not the only problem. United's attacks are breaking down and ending with shots that never should have been taken. The Black-and-Red are suffering from various issues: Sometimes they lose patience. Sometimes they don't have the creativity to get closer to goal. Sometimes there's just no central presence, which restricts United to the periphery of the attacking third. It's telling that Patrick Nyarko, a winger who has a modest goalscoring record, ended up taking 30% of United's actually useful shots in this game.
TFC's bunker wasn't asked any hard questions tactically
Nyarko cut in from the left for a big chunk of this game, as Ben Olsen switched his wingers during the course of the match. This wasn't just a "let's see a different look" move. Against a bunker that was pretty calmly keeping United contained, inverting Nyarko gave the Black-and-Red more of a threat running into central areas from the flank. Lamar Neagle more or less played the same on both wings, and oddly enough didn't get into nearly as many dangerous positions.
It was a reasonable move, but it's also one of the most straightforward changes a coach can make. In this case, it was also the one change that worked at all. Alvaro Saborio came on for the ineffective Chris Rolfe. That's a big change in terms of skill set, but Sabo did almost nothing in his 29 minutes. The Reds brought Damien Perquis in for Josh Williams, though that was probably less about improving in the air and more about Williams recently missing time with an illness.
The other move was to remove Nyarko for Luciano Acosta, and using Lucho on the left for the second time this season (and, unlike his appearance against Dallas, the Black-and-Red had 11 players on the field). Choosing a player who could drift into central areas and combine changed the dynamic, but Acosta looked distinctly uncomfortable with the role. He was finally pushed into his best role, playing as an attacking midfielder, in the 87th minute (with Nick DeLeon moving to the left). It wasn't enough time to pry TFC open, and given the way the game was unfolding, it was way too late.
The move to more of a diamond would have helped a lot if it came about earlier. Bradley and Johnson owned the area in front of the back four, but they weren't really tested from down the middle. Espindola and Rolfe's tendency to drop off the front line meant that they were often dealing with those two. They were also regularly outnumbered, as the Toronto back four compressed the space to further prevent gaps for them to exploit.
United needed to give them someone to combine with, and while DeLeon and Marcelo Sarvas did a good job of keeping the ball moving, they didn't offer much in the way of a threat. In a game where TFC was so comfortable, someone in the middle needed to burst forward and change the dynamic. When Acosta came on, he should have been deployed in the middle straight away. The game was already drifting away from United in the 68th minute, and they were out of gas by the time the major tactical move to a diamond came around.
First minute blues
United has given away so many early goals since the start of last year. They gave up 12 goals in the opening 11 minutes last season spread across 11 different games, and they've done it twice this year. It's ridiculous, and it doesn't make any sense. We're talking about a veteran-laden team that Davy Arnaud said was more prepared than any team he ever played for in his long MLS career. On top of that, United is a conservative team at their core. Surely they've tried a bunch of different ways to prepare for kickoff. We'll probably never know why it keeps happening.
However, we can break down why this goal happened. TFC pinged a few innocent passes around the back before Steven Beitashour thumped a long ball from the right towards Jozy Altidore. Steve Birnbaum won the header, but he also made mistake #1: His header was straight at Jonathan Osorio. This one is a good illustration of how strikers can be savvy about using their body even when they lose a header. Altidore never got in position to challenge for the header outright, so he instead pushed into Birnbaum as his recent USMNT teammate arrived. Birnbaum was spun to face towards Osorio, and the contact robbed him of enough momentum that the header lacked the power that would have left Osorio with a complicated ball to control.
That's a mistake, but it's not as bad as what happened a second later. As Osorio chested the ball down, Sean Franklin made the choice to try and cover about eight yards in the hopes of...blocking a pass? Making a tackle? Standing Osorio up, forcing something sideways or backward? It's hard to say. What we can say is that Franklin's charge didn't have any real chance of getting to the ball, and it had the added problem of leaving Altidore space to attack. Bobby Boswell kept Altidore onside, but he had been holding a smart line that Birnbaum left to win the header, and then Franklin abandoned to chase a ball he was never going to win.
The errors kept coming. Altidore, realizing the pressure from Nyarko was coming fast, hooked a blind cross in behind the retreating defense. The quick pass left Boswell and Birnbaum no time to lunge in and block the pass, and the ball was placed far enough away that Travis Worra couldn't dive out for it either. Taylor Kemp ended up being beaten to the spot by Delgado, but the problem actually started outside the box for him. Kemp has 5 yards on Delgado as the play is developing, but his decision to turn to face the assistant referee and appeal for offside instead of building up a full head of steam made the difference, as Delgado used that moment to eliminate the gap while also getting to top speed.
Kemp was beaten to the ball by a fraction of a second, and he could have at least prevented a clean layoff by starting a sprint one stride earlier. Instead, Delgado was able to prod the ball towards Giovinco for the goal. Of course, Boswell also had to lose Giovinco - who he seems to believe is 2-3 yards closer than he ever actually is during the play - and Worra had to lunge to his left in anticipation of a Delgado shot that never came.
In other words, every defensive player made a mistake. Some - Birnbaum's header, Worra's dive - were on the smaller end of the scale. Oddly enough, the most experienced three players in the group are the ones that made the bigger errors.
All of this adds up to a game that can be a bit of an illusion. United controlled possession, spent long stretches in the TFC end, took plenty of shots, and yet Irwin made one difficult save over the full 90 minutes. The Reds had to defend for almost all of the game, but that's what they showed up planning to do anyway. United wasn't that bad in this game, but they weren't good enough to break down a probable playoff team. That can't happen if they're going to climb the table.
Three of the next four games are at RFK, and realistically they should all be wins. The New England Revolution have looked roughly as good as United, and NYCFC looks both incapable of and totally disinterested in playing defensive soccer. The New York Red Bulls have been nothing short of a disaster. However the Black-and-Red can't take anything for granted at home when they've been shut out twice there before April is over.
Going forward, United needs to be more proactive when the opposition has come in and parked the bus. Playing Acosta underneath two forwards needs to be on the table earlier in games, and in general he needs to be coming in earlier than Saborio. It might also be nice to see Rolfe and Neagle swap roles for a few minutes here and there so that United could stretch the field vertically. Ben Olsen was right earlier this week to caution against wholesale changes, but the in-game changes could have been more aggressive this past week.