Early Sunday morning, D.C. United trudged off the slippery, untrustworthy surface at Avaya Stadium with what were surely mixed emotions. A hard-fought 1-1 draw was a marked improvement over their last outing, to be sure, but the Black-and-Red were in the lead after 87 minutes, and also wasted some chances to add a second goal (both before and after the San Jose Earthquakes equalized) while also hitting the crossbar. It was a step in the right direction, but it was also a punch in the gut when Adam Jahn's shin directed a cross that never should have happened past Travis Worra.
Unlike our previous deep dives into a particular game's happenings, let's talk about a trend that has United fans grumbling (well, one of the trends, anyway). Luciano Acosta, by far the club's biggest off-season acquisition, is not getting starts. The young, energetic loanee from Boca Juniors has shown a breathtaking combination of dribbling ability, speed, and audacity on the ball, yet a team that has just 4 goals in 7 competitive matches can't find room for him. What gives?
(Quick aside: Acosta's move to the bench has also meant Julian Buescher - scorer of the best of United's goals in 2016 - is getting left out of the gameday roster entirely. Please take a second to grumble about that before we move on.)
Ben Olsen recently addressed this with candor in an interview with Steve Goff of the Washington Post. While his position on the subject might not be very fun, he does raise a few very good points. Acosta is 21, in a new league, having just moved his family up from Argentina a month ago. When I was 21, I had to be prodded to get a job that required a 15 minute drive and probably couldn't have looked after a goldfish successfully.
There are also tactical concerns that are hard to argue with, no matter how into #FreeLucho you happen to be. United is still playing a flat 442, and as Olsen points out, that formation does not include Acosta's best position. He's having to play as a withdrawn forward on a team packed with players who are naturals for that role while he also learns how to play in a new and very different league. Acosta has had his moments closer to goal, but most of his best work has come in pockets where he'd be playing if United were built to use a true enganche.
Olsen, when asked by Goff about the possibility of changing formations to play Acosta in a position that fits his game, did not rule the prospect out. Unfortunately, his hands might be tied by who else is on the team. With this particular roster, the formations that give Acosta the role he needs to be his best are all missing some other vital facet.
Here's a quick breakdown of each option's flaws:
I think United could put together an adequate back three, especially since Sean Franklin would probably do just fine on the right in that set-up. The problem? Wingbacks. Patrick Nyarko does respectable work defensively, but asking him to cover the whole flank by himself would subtract mightily from his attacking play while requiring him to be sharper than he's ever had to be on the defensive side. Meanwhile, Taylor Kemp would be too predictable going forward. Teams would know United needs to set him up with some kind of give-and-go to get him into good attacking positions, and without a second wide player out there to play off of it would be very easy to cut him out of the game.
On a related note, if the argument becomes "well, let's play a more natural wingback on the right," then we're talking about dropping Nyarko for Kofi Opare (with Franklin moving into a role that will quickly drain him) or Luke Mishu. I doubt anyone seriously wants to pursue that as a plan right now.
This is a far more likely possibility for Olsen, who has played this way in the past (think late 2011 and the back half of 2012). It puts Acosta into his ideal role, it retains the back four, and it also probably improves Nick DeLeon's overall game. With less of the responsibility of being the late-arriving man in the box and more nearby options to connect to in the short passing game, I think we'd see DeLeon sharpen his game centrally.
(second quick aside: Olsen was asked about this in the interview with Goff, and I happen to agree with him for the most part. If you're stuck on "DeLeon isn't a central midfielder," you're barking up the wrong tree. That's not a major problem right now. He's doing a solid, if unspectacular, job.)
However, the flaws here are pretty straightforward: The same goalscoring issues United has right now would be present in a 4231. Nyarko has never scored more than 4 goals in a season, and how often does someone have their best goalscoring season after turning 30? He's doing great work setting others up and forcing defenses to stretch out, but a 4231 would push him higher, and that requires the sort of winger who scores more often. I'm not saying he can't do it, but it would be a surprise.
On the other side, Chris Rolfe would probably be able to fit the bill, and United could extend his ability to be effective by giving Lamar Neagle regular minutes there as well. Rolfe had 10 goals last year, while Neagle scored 8 in 2013 and 9 in 2014. The left wing would be just fine in my book.
I'm not convinced Acosta is a goalscoring midfielder, but I think there's a bigger issue here. Fabian Espindola has not played well this season. It's telling that his showing in San Jose - probably his best game in 2016 - was still below what we've come to expect from him when he's healthy based on 2014 and 2015. In a 4231, Espindola would have to spend most of his time being available in the center channel, which is not his game. This formation would only serve to emphasize the problem.
Barring Acosta or Nyarko surprising us with goalscoring output, or DeLeon finding his 2012 form in front of goal - which, let's emphasize, is an outlier at this point - United would only end up placing more of an emphasis on what Espindola doesn't do. Olsen could turn to Alvaro Saborio as a starter here, but Sabo hasn't been mobile or involved enough as a starter to justify that. Neagle could run up front by himself, but he's not a natural there. In a lot of ways, United runs into the same problems in a 4231 that they do in a 442.
Olsen brought this up in the interview, which is rather surprising. It's an interesting idea, but what applies to Nyarko in the 4231 is just as true here. For Espindola the issues would be even more severe, as his support from Acosta would be coming from slightly deeper. In a 4141, you really need a forward who can stay in central positions and hold the ball up when their side is building possession.
The other problem here is that United's lack of a real #6 would become even more glaring. Sarvas would be better in the line of four in the midfield rather than playing as an anchor man between that quartet and the defense. Moving to a 4141 would require Markus Halsti or Jared Jeffrey making a consistent statement that they should start over DeLeon.
Given his long-standing lack of playing time and the low expectations folks seemed to have - and I'm definitely one of those folks - going in, Jeffrey did very well in San Jose. However, the Quakes play a 442 that is a lot like United's, and while Dom Kinnear seemed to threaten to use his wingers to attack Jeffrey (both Matias Perez Garcia and Alberto Quintero are best cutting into central positions playing right and left midfield, respectively), that never actually materialized. I suspect that Perez Garcia was told to stay wide to be in position to defend against Kemp, while Quintero's straightforward approach to the left wing is less easily explained.
Anyway, the point is that Jeffrey did well, but he also wasn't given a particularly tough test. This wasn't FC Dallas throwing Mauro Diaz, Victor Ulloa, and Carlos Gruezo at him. It was also just one game; to move to a 4141, Jeffrey (or Halsti) would have to consistently have strong showings to justify the change.
Acosta could also play as a true #10 underneath two forwards if United shifted into a diamond. And we shouldn't forget that Espindola's tendency to drift wide made him a great X factor for Real Salt Lake in this same set-up. Problems solved, right?
Nope. The Black-and-Red don't really have the shuttlers - that is, the "wide" midfielders who in this system don't really play very wide at all - to pull it off. Put aside the fact that MLS teams seem to need a full season to truly learn the defensive and offensive rotations and understanding as a unit to succeed in a diamond for a minute. United just doesn't have the players for it. DeLeon would make an excellent shuttler - actually, I'm of the opinion that this would be his ideal role - but no one else on the team fits the bill. Sarvas doesn't fit in here, while both Nyarko and Neagle need wider starting positions and more attacking freedom than a diamond would allow. United would run into the sort of problem the USMNT does when they try to play DeAndre Yedlin and Gyasi Zardes wide. It's just too much ground for two central players to adequately defend.
Oh, and Nyarko and Neagle end up on the bench for Halsti/Jeffrey. There's also the attacking weight the fullbacks have to carry, which would test Franklin in terms of durability and Kemp in terms of decision-making.
That brings us back to square one: Trying a "4411" that, in reality, was 98% of what a United 442 is, or finding a way to fit Acosta into the 442 as it is currently constituted. Olsen was right about Acosta not fitting into DeLeon's role in the double pivot. His work rate is there, but he loves to take risks in pressing people that guys in a double pivot just can't afford to take. I've heard discussions about dropping Espindola on Twitter and in the stands, but that doesn't open up a spot for Acosta. Rolfe is purely a withdrawn forward; he and Acosta are not a compatible forward pairing as a result.
Suddenly, #FreeLucho ends up with a pretty narrow group of choices. You could drop Rolfe, but that would mean dropping the player who has the highest number of key passes per 90 minutes on a team that already struggles to carve out genuine chances. There's an argument for that - Rolfe is creating shots, but not particularly good ones - but I don't think Acosta did any better than Rolfe in that spot.
If you want to retain Rolfe but move him out to the left, you'd have to drop Neagle after he was - at least for me - pretty easily the Black-and-Red's best player in San Jose. Neagle fits what United needs at left midfield better than Rolfe does right now thanks to his engine and speed. Neagle can be erratic, but right now I think he provides too many things - including, perhaps, a reliable set piece taker? - that United needs from the start.
Olsen might have an excuse to experiment this weekend. Nyarko's hard landing after making a brave defensive header required a stretcher, and while he has returned to training there's no word as to how much he'll be able to play. We saw Lucho play out on the left after United was down to 10 men against Dallas, and he injected a small bit of life into an otherwise lifeless game. Could he play on the right?
I don't know that Acosta has ever spent time on the right wing, and he'd have to help defend against the relentless attacking runs of Vancouver left back Jordan Harvey if he did this week. It's a lot to ask of a guy who is already dealing with the adjustment to the US and to a new team. It would also have to be seen as a slap in the face for Miguel Aguilar (who already doesn't get enough time for my liking, even if I understand that his defensive choices make it tough to start him).
However, sometimes in life you have to roll the dice. United needs more attacking quality on the field, and Acosta has attacking quality. Barring an attacking breakout that boosts confidence across the front six, rolling the dice on Acosta as a wide midfielder or on starting him over Rolfe has to be on the table. It's going to be awfully hard winning games without Bill Hamid unless the attack can produce a multi-goal game every now and then (or, you know, regularly...let's hold off on our discussion of running until we get this walking thing down).
Ultimately, this is a tricky situation for Olsen. There isn't a particularly strong argument for dropping Rolfe or Neagle right now, while starting Acosta on the wing would have to be seen as a stab in the dark (even with that cameo against Dallas). Switching to a 4231 would help Acosta, but it would not play to Espindola or Nyarko's strengths. In the case of the former, United also has no compelling alternative.
In other words, #FreeLucho may be less of a movement than it is wishful thinking. Acosta's most reasonable path towards a starting role involves displacing Rolfe as Espindola's partner or playing so well that United can cope with having Rolfe playing out on the left instead of Neagle. As much as I like what I've seen from Acosta going all the way back to the preseason, I can't say that he's ready to step in and play at that sort of level. For the time being, we may be stuck simply hoping that Acosta is getting into games after 55 or 60 minutes.