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4 thoughts on D.C. United’s unsettling loss to the Columbus Crew

After an aggravating loss, The Last Word is focused on the bad, the good (no, really), and United’s disjointed attempts to press teams

I don’t think I was the only D.C. United fan who walked into RFK Stadium expecting a win over Columbus Crew SC. The Crew were struggling, after all, and United showed a knack for bouncing back last season after defeats. Luciano Acosta was back in the lineup. The cold, rainy conditions favored United against their possession-hungry visitors. It looked like this was going to be the night that the Black-and-Red got their season going.

So much for that. By the time this one was over, Patrick Mullins had picked up a hamstring strain that will keep him out for a little while, fans switched from asking for a goal to demanding a goal, and United saw their most likely USMNT representative concede two penalty kicks en route to a 2-0 loss.

So what the hell happened?

Bad News

Every goal ever scored has its roots in a defensive error. However, there are your tiny errors on a golazo, and your small errors (e.g. a player needing a full second to make a split-second decision on who to track), and your big errors. The big errors are the ones where the player or players involved should know better, and make some kind of fundamental mistake in terms of judgment, positioning, or physical action.

D.C. United is giving away goals on big errors. Against Sporting Kansas City, they avoided big errors, and guess what? They got a shut out and a draw despite having their worst attacking showing of 2017. Since then, they’ve been making so many big errors that they leave no room for missed chances at the other end. That’s a recipe to lose, because even the best teams don’t bury every half-decent look at goal. United has good attacking players, but realistically we can expect one or two games all year (at the very best) where the Black-and-Red can’t miss. Remember last year’s 6-2 win against Chicago? Those don’t come around often for a reason.

That’s why I’m more worried about the defense than the zero in the Goals Scored column. Finishing comes and goes, and as we’ll get into later, United is creating looks that, normally, this team would convert often enough to be competitive. They can do better, of course, but they’re closer to being where we thought they’d be as an attack than they are as a defense.

Is it time for Bobby Boswell to return to the starting lineup? Perhaps. Boswell should certainly look at this week off as a chance to present his very best stuff, as should Jalen Robinson and Kofi Opare. Steve Birnbaum and Sean Franklin are not working as a center back duo right now because they’re simply making too many mistakes (both as a duo and as individuals).

Good News

No, seriously, this is a real section about things United did that were good. I’m not kidding.

Two weeks after a missed penalty kick and a sequence that saw two different shots saved off the line followed by a solid save on a third look within 15 seconds, and one week after United had a goal wrongly called back for offside, DCU produced this shot chart on the night:

That’s ten shots inside the 18 yard box, and of those ten, eight are within the width of the 6 yard box. That sounds good, but I wanted to know how it stacks up compared to the rest of the league. From this weekend’s games, the only team to manage more shots inside the 18 yard box was NYCFC, who managed fourteen against the deep-lying Montreal Impact. Philadelphia also managed ten, but that still means United took more shots inside the box than just nineteen other teams. Within the width of the 6, the results are the same. NYCFC had nine, while United’s eight left them tied for second in the category with Portland.

What does this mean? In terms of creating shots in good locations, United did a good (verging on great) job. Sure, the kind of rotten luck alluded to earlier in this segment reared its head in the form of two sterling saves from Steffen, who foiled United’s best attacking move (the Ortiz-Sam combination midway through the second half) and their best set piece (Nyarko’s header a few minutes later).

But this also underlines the fact that United is frustrating right now because they’re simply not finishing. A team creating this shot chart should have goals to show for it, even after you accept the opposing goalkeeper making two big stops..

We can all use a little extra good news right now, so indulge me on a little good news bonus round:

It’s a tiny sample size, of course, but Harkes is producing 2.5 key passes per game, good enough to be tied for 7th in all of MLS. His passing accuracy has been the best on the team for any player with a start (a very respectable 84.4%), and he’s generally making it difficult for anyone else to take his spot. If Harkes maintains or improves upon this, and Acosta does what we know he can do, United’s attack should keep creating plenty of good looks.

They just need to start doing something with them.

Let’s talk about press

This is the sequence that lead up to United’s second goal, and it is probably making you offer up some guttural expression of frustration as you watch the loop. Down 1-0, at home, with under half an hour ago, and United are disorganized with a dash of passive for flavor. The attempt to press the Crew never comes off, and between some slow reactions and a lack of cohesion, the Crew basically walk through the Black-and-Red (give or take one nice touch and pass from Federico Higuain).

Let’s start with someone who is doing more or less what they should be. Jose Ortiz had pursued the pass back to Zack Steffen, and then pursues Alex Crognale at an angle obliging the rookie to pass forward. This, when you are pressing all by yourself, is good. Ortiz robs Crognale of the time-killing pass back to Steffen, or the nearly as desirable switch over to Nicolai Naess. A forward pass means pushing the ball towards United’s midfield, who one hopes would set themselves up in a unit to box Columbus in and force a turnover.

Sadly, it all goes to hell as soon as Crognale picks out Josh Williams. Marcelo recognizes the chance to press before Crognale even takes his first touch, but no one else does. Luciano Acosta is too late to step up, and Patrick Nyarko is occupied by Harrison Afful (who he should just let go for Taylor Kemp to deal with at this point, because at this stage of the game, you have to take risks to get the equalizer).

The result is that Ian Harkes has a huge zone to cover all alone, and there are two Crew options to account for on the fringes of that zone. Harkes smartly opts to block off Higuain, but takes one too many steps back towards him. That’s why he’s one step short of blocking Artur from poking the ball to Higuain.

United is already out of shape at this point, with Kemp ending up further forward and more narrow than Nyarko as the ball comes to Higuain. “Pipa” shows his technical quality with that first touch, but more crucially his soccer IQ is on display. He recognizes what Nyarko hasn’t: Afful is off and running, and Kemp has been pulled into the midfield. Higuain sends him into space, neither DCU player can poke the pass away, and United is in deep trouble.

Even if Steve Birnbaum doesn’t give away the spot kick - and yes, when Ted Unkel is your referee, that little extra arm movement when shielding the ball is opening the door to a senselessly dramatic Unkel-stomp penalty call - Kamara has two good passing options, and if he just fires into Bill Hamid, the possibility of a rebound to those options is uncomfortably high.

Last year, one element of the Black-and-Red’s goalscoring outburst in the 4141 was their success at both high-pressing and mid-pressing teams. They haven’t been anywhere near as organized this season in that department, and it hurts them at both ends of the field. Individual players have to be better, and it looks like something that needs intensive work at training to improve.

Frankly, it’s good that they have a week off to dig deep into the film work and the team-wide understanding of pressing triggers and creating smaller three-man units within the overall structure. Those smaller units are the groups that actually force the turnover, and right now they’re not being formed quickly enough or consistently enough.

Crew curveball

Let’s put this game into some context. Gregg Berhalter’s Crew have played 4231 throughout his tenure, only dabbling with a 3412 in Open Cup games or in preseason. In competitive MLS play, they are one of the most reliable teams in terms of formation. On top of that, Berhalter has been adamant about their stylistic approach: Columbus wants to possess, they want to stretch the field, and they want to play what is generally considered “good soccer.”

Funny what a little pressure does. After a poor 2016 and a bumbling start to this season, Berhalter opted to move away from both his preferred formation and his preferred style of play. Out went the 4231 and the expansive, daring soccer Columbus has played since he took over, and in came a 343 played with a narrow, defend-and-counter mindset.

With no tape on Columbus playing this way, it’s not surprising that United looked a little confused at times during the game. The Crew deserve credit for executing their plan fairly well. United may have created plenty of looks, but they also found it hard to play through the middle and went through several lulls that took the crowd out of the game. For a first attempt, it worked pretty well.

That said, United probably gets a point or three if not for the outstanding play of Steffen and Crognale. The former bore some responsibility for a disastrous 2nd minute goal the previous week, while the latter was making his professional debut. Both delivered on their return to the DMV, with naming them to their Team of the Week; if we still did a player of the week across the SB Nation blogs, Crognale would have made my ballot. If not for their impressive showings, this game probably goes much differently.