Last year, after a particularly uneventful 0-0 draw between D.C. United and New England, I paid homage to one of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons and divided the game up into 22 talking points. Saturday’s game against NYCFC was not so dreary, but I enjoyed the format and promised myself I’d bring it back.
And so, without further adieu, 22 short stories about D.C. United vs. New York City FC:
Hamid was only beaten by David Villa’s snapshot from 13 yards through traffic, and he even nearly tipped that away too. It’s not ideal to start with talking about a second straight win that involved Hamid having to make 3-4 big saves, but sometimes you have to lean on your stars. Given how United-Red Bulls has tended to go in recent years, he’ll probably have to add to his lengthy highlight reel again next week.
From a purely defensive perspective, DeLeon probably just had his best game as a right back. Here’s a map of where NYCFC’s key passes and successful crosses came from:
One 40+ yard ball into the box from Ronald Matarrita, and one cross from Jack Harrison (that was “completed” but also picked out a target in a pretty bad spot). This came against a team with David Villa (who loves to drift left of center), Rodney Wallace (who is in great form), and Matarrita (one of the best attacking defenders in MLS). It also must be said that Harrison’s cross came well after DeLeon had moved into the midfield.
DeLeon also had the most touches of any United player, the highest passing accuracy of any United player that attempted more than four passes, tied with Jeffrey for the team lead in interceptions...basically, what I’m saying is that DeLeon was arguably MOTM even with Lucho doing Lucho things.
A corollary for DeLeon’s performance is that, at least in my opinion, NYCFC made an effort to avoid Birnbaum in favor of targeting Boswell. Villa has operated left of center throughout his career (sometimes even as an out-and-out left forward), but on Saturday he was camped out right of center in an attempt to expose Boswell.
This could be something we see happening on a regular basis this season. Birnbaum has rebounded from some poor performances to start the year, and as long as he’s partnering Boswell, it appears that he’ll have to spend more time doing the clean-up work (clearing loose balls, tracking secondary runners, etc).
Bos Bobwell made the league site’s team of the week, and it’s hard to argue. Dealing with a quick attack that throws a ton of numbers forward, and that features a forward who could still start in any league on earth, Boswell looked as good as he has since he returned to the District from Houston.
The concern that United will struggle to be a front-foot team that keeps the ball more often will remain as long as he’s in the lineup, but the fact is that United’s defense is better organized, and the gaps between the lines aren’t appearing as often with him starting. Right now, it’s hard to argue with United banking some points while they’re still figuring out who they’re going to be this year.
Wait, hold up. Who the hell is Bos Bobwell?
About a decade ago, the now-defunct BobbyBoswell.com included a video of Luciano Emilio trying to do a plug for the site. “Lucigol” was still new to the U.S. and was working on his English, and what came out was “Bos Bobwell.”
I was reminded of this during the game when I noticed Luciano Emilio and a team of kids from the Luciano Emilio Soccer Academy taking in the game. This marks at least the 10th time I’ve seen one of two United players to win the Golden Boot at RFK in recent years. He’s still super friendly. Go say hi.
With Boswell in the lineup, teams are going to start openly cheating to force United’s play out of the back towards him and Kemp. Why? Because both of them choose to hit it long too early in their decision-making process. Kemp’s accuracy as a crosser probably makes it tempting to assume he can pick out a long pass, but at this point he usually just hits a toss-up for a forward and a defender to fight over in mid-air.
If United is going to avoid having under 35% possession, either Kemp needs to start doing more with his long balls, or he needs to start finding shorter passes. That means anticipating and picking out the pass before he’s even on the ball.
Sports teams of all stripes like the “next person up” trope when it comes to injuries. In this case, Jeffrey was next up, and he did a reasonable job filling in for the suspended Marcelo Sarvas. It’s fair to say he exceeded expectations after some early-season struggles as a ball-winning #8. Within the context of a very direct tactical approach from United, his 78% passing accuracy was good, and his missed passes were all attempts to play over the top rather than mistakes in dangerous spots.
Is he in contention to stay in the lineup? Probably not, but he’s closer to that discussion than I thought on Saturday morning.
That’s more like it. After being more or less a non-factor (give or take a bad call costing him a goal) to open the season, Sam scored one goal here, and Acosta’s goal came on a rebound from his powerful strike from an angle.
We all know Lucho is the straw that stirs the drink around here, but he can’t do it alone. If Sam plays like this while Lucho does his thing, United is going to be getting back to being a team that regularly scores 2-3 goals.
This was the least accurate passing performance of his young professional career, though at least some of that is down to United’s very direct approach after halftime. Harkes had to alter his normal role, dropping deep to help Jeffrey out to such an extent that United kinda-sorta played a 4231 for more of this game than a 4141.
While it wasn’t the best platform for Harkes, he did chip in with 7 recoveries (compared to just 4 against the Union), something United needed without Marcelo in the fold. It’s a good sign when a young player can adopt new, less-than-ideal responsibilities and still make some kind of impact.
Earlier I said DeLeon could arguably be MOTM. I hedged, and really I should have hedged a bit more, because Lucho was huge on both sides of the ball. Aside from the goal (and the dribble and pass combo that sparked that whole attack), Lucho won 3 tackles and had as many recoveries as any field player (8, tied with Jeffrey and Nyarko).
On a day where United needed everyone to chip in on the less glamorous side of the game, United’s most glamorous player was able to deliver a game-winning goal and add to his highlight reel, yet also put in the kind of work we associate with midfield grinders.
Matt Doyle mentioned something that gets at a concern that’s starting to creep in for me:
Patrick Nyarko seems to have lost half a step – watch him close, and you'll see he isn't creating separation like he was late last year
I’m not ready to say this is completely correct yet, but it is something to keep an eye on. I think that in each of the last two games, Nyarko has been letting defenders get too close before he’s on the ball, and has mis-timed some attempted moves, but I can’t rule out a tiny bit of lost speed.
Ortiz had a hard time getting involved in this one, and it’s hard to blame him too much. United’s direct approach, coupled with three center backs in NYCFC’s lineup, left him with little to do but work hard and try to angle the Pigeons towards less dangerous passing angles when building out of the back.
Sometimes being a forward is a thankless task.
A third of the plaudits DeLeon got for locking down the right side should go to Franklin, who came in as a 59th minute sub for Nyarko, moving DeLeon into the midfield. It’s a credit to Franklin that he entered a game that rapidly saw NYCFC throw the kitchen sink at United and never looked he was behind the pace of play.
Even if Franklin isn’t a regular for a while, having him available as a sub to protect a lead - either for DeLeon directly, or replacing a winger, is a valuable thing. Don’t be surprised if Franklin keeps getting into games during this road trip, particularly if United has a result to salt away.
Sebastien Le Toux
There isn’t much of note from Le Toux’s performance, because United simply didn’t have much of the ball. What is interesting is that he was chosen ahead of Lamar Neagle and Alhaji Kamara to play the lone forward role for the final 18 minutes.
Kamara, I get. He’s still young, he hasn’t had much playing time, and in this case Olsen’s priority was defensive. Kamara works hard, but he’s still raw when it comes to defending from the front. Neagle, though...I can’t be the only person surprised to see Le Toux playing as a lone forward while Neagle was held back for a few more minutes before coming in to play wide.
Speak of the devil, it has to be said that Neagle isn’t having the impact he had with United last year. It’s still early, of course, but the fact that Le Toux is getting forward minutes over him underlines the point. United’s leading scorer was a terror as a super-sub off the bench last year, and we haven’t seen that guy yet in 2017.
That said, in a predominantly defensive role on the left wing, Neagle was busy in his 5+ minutes. He won a tackle, had an interception and a clearance, and completed his only two attempted passes despite basically having to spend his entire time on the field playing deep on the left side due to NYCFC’s pressure.
Facing an opponent that had steamrolled his team in transition a few weeks ago while missing your starting defensive midfielder and having to turn to a slower center back for leadership and organizational help, Olsen had a tough job in this one. After half an hour, it seemed like his charges were handling the defensive side, but were unable to get their attack going. By halftime, things had gotten worse, with the visitors really taking control (even if they only created one good chance, a header for a 5’4” playmaker that Hamid dealt with).
An adjustment was needed, and Olsen deserves some credit for finding one that helped United get a vital win. The move wasn’t innovative or even particularly surprising: United went direct and tried to make the game a battle of attrition. What’s important here is that it was a proper solution to NYCFC, who do not want to find themselves in that kind of game.
Last time out, the Black-and-Red found themselves in a transition game against a more technically gifted, smarter team. NYCFC forced them into that sort of match, and reaped the rewards. With this game in the balance, Olsen and the coaching staff tweaked the tactics, and they forced the Pigeons to play a style they’re not comfortable with. NYCFC ended up pumping crosses into the box and struggled to get much from Maxi Moralez and Jack Harrison. Even goalscorer David Villa had a quiet game by his standards.
Ultimately, Olsen won the coaching battle in this one, and United can go into the upcoming sequence of road games in a far better place than they would have if this game had carried on the way it was heading at halftime.
Death Metal Anthem
Took in the anthem behind NYCFC fans, who sang it like a death metal song— Jason Anderson (@chestrockwell14) April 8, 2017
I filmed our pre-game Facebook Live video on the quiet side, and opted to circle back to my normal post near midfield on the loud side by going past the away section. Usually this ends with some minor interaction with a visiting fan, whether it be a Baltimore native who married into a family of Timbers diehards or watching one Crew fan furiously insist (to both RFK employees and about a dozen other Crew fans who disagreed) that the stairwell to the fan zone behind the north goal is actually where the away section is.
Saturday, it gave me the first death metal version of the national anthem that I can recall hearing. Away fans usually like to belt out the anthem in a pretty traditional fashion. It’s a chance to be loud with a song everyone’s familiar with, that many people treasure, and that comes with the stadium PA system and an actual singer to help guide you.
NYCFC’s loudest fans took a different bent. They growl-screamed each word in a staccato fashion, yet somehow managed to keep time with the anthem? It was jarring, because that doesn’t really make sense, and yet...there it was.
Thanks for keeping things weird, Pigeons fans.
In the run up to the game, our friends over at Hudson River Blue wrote that Pirlo doesn’t fit with NYCFC’s style, and that they need to find a way for him to leave the club ASAP.
After a match in which he didn’t really control play, found just one player with a set piece, created no scoring chances, and was made to look helpless by Lucho Acosta several times in defensive phases, HRB reserved a whole section of their recap to emphasize the point again.
They aren’t wrong. If NYCFC finds a way to get rid of Pirlo - who is as technically gifted as anyone in MLS, and as immobile as anyone in MLS - and replaces him with even a respectable TAM-level defensive midfielder, they’re probably the best team in the East. If they land a truly elite defensive midfielder? Good night.
A Simpsons interlude is obligatory.
I love trash goals
Soccer is, as you have heard a billion times, called “the beautiful game.” When it comes to goals, the ones we remember - the ones we love - are the beautiful goals. In 2027, I’ll still be bringing up Crystal Dunn’s goal against Seattle last year, or Lucho’s chip against the Revs. I totally just watched the Dunn gif four times in a row before coming back to writing this piece.
But while the golazos are worth celebrating forever, the foundation of any winning team is a knack for scoring trash goals. I feel about trash goals like Alexi Lalas feels about set pieces.
Good news! United is scoring, and they’re scoring routine, ugly, scrappy goals. In the last two games, United has goals via a deflection, a penalty kick, a gigantic defensive error that came during a one-man high press, and a rebound.
Here’s why I love trash goals: you can replicate them. They’re goals that come from creating the conditions that lead to dangerous scoring chances of all kinds. Brilliant goals are hard to replicate, and a team that needs them needs magic to become routine.
United’s 2016 scoring outburst featured a ton of “easy” or “fortuitous” goals. If the Black-and-Red are going to get back into that kind of form, the trash goals need to keep coming.
Before we go, some fun:
Take note that Acosta beats Pirlo, then escapes him again, and then Pirlo - who has eyes on him while Tommy McNamara opts to block off a potential pass - doesn’t bother marking him on the goal. Swirl that around in your glass, really take in the aroma.
United’s oldest rivals, the New York Red Bulls. Both teams have the same record, and same goal difference. The good news? NYRB won their two games in their first two outings; since then they’ve got 3 losses and a draw (and that draw was at home, against lowly Real Salt Lake).
The bad news? The Red Bulls are on a 16 game unbeaten streak at home, where they are among the stingiest defensive teams in MLS, and last week Jesse Marsch abandoned the ill-advised 4222 for the 4231 that has worked for NYRB in recent years. They still lost, and played fairly poorly, but that’s not a permanent condition. United has to improve over what we’ve seen in their two wins to get out of Red Bull Arena with a result.