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4 thoughts about D.C. United’s draw with Sporting KC

The Last Word returns to tackle a frustrating season opener

The atmosphere, as fans cleared out of a cold RFK Stadium around 9pm Saturday, was one of disappointment. D.C. United fans of all stripes seemed a bit deflated after the Black-and-Red - coming into the season having scored 36 goals in their last 15 competitive games - were held to a 0-0 draw by Sporting Kansas City. In a game of few chances either way, United largely had the terms dictated to them by the visitors, which is never the way you want to open a season.

During some of that long, free-scoring run last year, United scored three or more goals four different times. On East Capitol Street Saturday, United didn’t even create three moments of danger. A missed penalty kick (talk about deflating) and one wild scramble from a corner midway through the second half were the only times KC truly looked like they might concede. After that, United’s best look at goal may have been a blocked shot, or perhaps a cross that found no runners. It was that kind of night.

Still, there’s plenty to talk about, so let’s get to it:

Credit where credit’s due

Normally, teams in week one struggle to find much in the way of attacking fluency, while preseason work on team shape shows through. 0-0 is not particularly uncommon. However, KC deserves some credit for taking that to an unusually high level. Their defensive shape, ability to press as a team, and their connectivity between the lines were all clearly in midseason form. Tip your hat to them; they came in and shut United down. The ugly 63% passing accuracy from the Black-and-Red is the result of a few things, but top of the list is Sporting’s intelligent work to force United into a lack of precision all over the field.

It was clear from the moment lineups were announced that KC was thinking first and foremost about forcing turnovers. Latif Blessing was touted as a big deal for them in the offseason, but at 19 years old and more of a true forward than anything else, he’d have been a risk on the road against a team that has shown they can score in bunches. So instead, Peter Vermes chose Jimmy Medranda as his right forward. Medranda came to MLS as a midfielder, and spent most of his minutes last year at left back, where he pushed Seth Sinovic out of a starting job. He’s a skillful player, sure, but the first thing that jumps out when you watch him play is his enthusiasm for pressing the ball.

However, the bigger key was something that wasn’t obvious until kickoff. Roger Espinoza, over his career, has played left-center midfield, left back occasionally for Honduras, and during a stretch last season where Sporting was dropping deep, he even played left midfield in a 4141. The key word there is “left,” because Espinoza has been exclusively left-sided no matter the formation or his role within it. He’s the midfield engine for KC, doing more of the hard work than anyone else.

Knowing that United plays their #10 left of center in their 4141, Vermes opted to switch his ball-winner to right-center midfield. That meant Benny Feilhaber playing left-center midfield, and going up against Jared Jeffrey on a regular basis. Vermes was betting that Espinoza would be able to hamper United enough that sacrificing Feilhaber a bit by moving him closer to a ball-winner would be worth it. On Saturday, it proved to be the right move.

Finally, KC’s back four was collectively able to read the Black-and-Red’s intentions time and time again. Patrick Mullins was not a huge factor in this game, though his hold-up play might have set up a goal for Julian Buescher if not for a fairly fortunate Ilie Sanchez block. United’s wingers couldn’t get much going, though Patrick Nyarko was probably the brightest spot for United going forward. Lloyd Sam, meanwhile, finished the game completing 9 of 19 passes, with no attempted dribbles, and with just one attempted cross (that didn’t find a target). Outside of one clever second half flick that freed up Nick DeLeon, Sam - coming off of a very good preseason - was a total non-factor.

All of this is the long way of saying KC was very good on the defensive side of the ball for 90 minutes. Sometimes you have to tip your cap.

So-so showing from Buescher

With Luciano Acosta out, Ben Olsen had several options. He could have gone with a more defensive lineup, adding Rob Vincent or Ian Harkes to a midfield already featuring two more conservative options. Or, he could have gone back to the 442 we’ve seen so much of in recent years, with Jose Ortiz partnering Patrick Mullins.

Instead, Olsen did what I was hoping he would do: he gave Buescher the gig. We’ve seen Buescher succeed in this position - last year he was arguably the best player on either team in United’s 4-2 loss at Orlando - and it’s nice to see United stick to their guns in terms of approach. Buescher is not a Lucho clone, but he can be the #10 in a dangerous MLS attack.

That didn’t really happen on Saturday:

Let’s break this down even further. Let’s extend the wide edges of the penalty areas, and divide the field into three vertical sections: right of the boxes, left of the boxes, and the (much larger) middle section. Here’s how Buescher did in those spaces:

Right: 6 of 6 passing, 1 successful dribble
Left: 8 of 15 passing (including his one key pass of the night), 1 unsucessful dribble
Center: 3 of 6 passing, 1 successful dribble, 1 blocked shot, and one of those missed passes happened to be the moment he was taken out by Tim Melia to win the penalty kick

Even from out wide, he passed further towards the touchline (look especially at the passes on the right). This is a corollary to our first point: United were hounded out of the center of the field by Kansas City all night long, and the move to position Espinoza in Buescher’s face worked like a charm for Vermes. United normally likes to have their #10 nearer to Patrick Nyarko, so their two primary chance creators (Lloyd Sam, who just never got going in this one, is the other) are far enough apart to force teams to stretch out, so asking Buescher to move to the right a) would create a new problem and b) would be easily addressed by Vermes just flipping Feilhaber and Espinoza into their normal spots.

Anyway, I still have faith in Buescher’s ability to stand in for Acosta. Hopefully this turns out to be a learning experience for him. He’ll need to show more courage to receive and pass from what amounts to the lion’s den to push for more time as a #10, and he’ll need to connect in that heavy traffic more often than this. However, this was also a rough night all around for United in possession, and Buescher was not immune. I will note that, in a game of few genuine chances, he ended up creating the single best chance for either team by winning the penalty. It’s not enough, but it’s also more than most of his teammates within the context of a game that didn’t go all that well.

Don’t write the kid off.

A (not so) brief note on penalty takers

I never scored a lot of goals as a player, and a penalty I missed at 12 years old made me realize a) I need to get better at penalties to avoid further trauma, and b) if I get good at penalties, I will actually score goals sometimes. As a result, I spent a ton of time studying everything about penalties: the mechanics, the psychology, goalkeepers, everything.

One thing that became clear to me is that the suggestion I heard a lot at RFK, on Twitter, and elsewhere - that Mullins, because he’s a forward, should have taken United’s penalty - is not automatically true. Penalties are not the same thing as finishing. It doesn’t have a normal shot’s variables. The ball is still, it’s in a defined spot, the goalkeeper is stuck on the line (or, is supposed to be, anyway), etc.

And as such, the tools required are different. It’s about having composure and not letting the obvious pressure of literally thousands of people expecting you to do something that, under no pressure, you could do 99.9% of the time. It’s about focus and muscle memory. And there’s a little bit of poker in there, in terms of not giving away your intentions (unless you’re so good you can crush the ball into a corner every time, in which case you are essentially unstoppable).

What it isn’t about is your position. Now, that’s not to say that Marcelo would have been my first choice to take the penalty last night, or even that Mullins was not at the top of my list. During his career at Maryland, Mullins was only the team’s designated PK taker as a senior (when, to his credit, he went 9 for 9). Before that, Matt Kassel (2010) and John Stertzer (2011-2012) took the penalties for the Terps. And guess what? They were both midfielders.

For what it’s worth, United’s issue with penalty kicks is that their two best players for the job are not starters. Sebastien Le Toux, a winger-forward known more for his work rate than anything else, is one of the best in league history (13 for 14 on his career). Lamar Neagle converted both of his attempts last season, despite being a winger-forward who is probably not United’s most clinical finisher inside the box.

Ben Olsen said after the game that there was no designated penalty taker on the field, and that Marcelo stepped up in the moment. So be it. Not every penalty goes in, particularly on the inexplicably chewed-up surface at the south end of RFK on Saturday. But one miss doesn’t mean Marcelo was the wrong option (he had converted his only previous attempt for United), and a person being a forward doesn’t make them the right option (example: Fabian Espindola’s checkered history from the spot for United).

Kudos to Sean Franklin

Let’s close with a good note. During this offseason, one of the major talking points was a rumored move to center back for Franklin. Could he turn back time to the position he won Rookie of the Year at ten seasons ago? Would someone who had spent so many years at right back be ready for the battles that come in the middle?

For the most part, Franklin made sure the answer to those questions was “yes,” at least in week one. Despite Dom Dwyer making every effort to line him up, and despite Dwyer’s relentless physical aggression, Franklin was up to the task. Numerous times, Dwyer threw himself into Franklin in an attempt to make space before the ball arrived, and Franklin was strong enough to not give an inch.

In the end, Dwyer was restricted to just one shot from inside the box (and that required an obvious two-handed shove in the back that went uncalled). Franklin wasn’t perfect - that shove is part of any good forward’s repertoire, and Dwyer’s 79th minute rip was helped by a moment of hesitation between Franklin and Marcelo - but Dwyer is a threat to score 20 goals this season, and he was held to one truly good chance. With how much KC put into setting up the Dwyer-Franklin match-up, that’s a pretty satisfactory performance from United’s “new” center back.