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D.C. United fell flat against Montreal, and they need to bounce back right away

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The Last Word grits its teeth and places an infuriating loss in context

Sometimes it’s hard to get it together and face a particularly galling loss. Carving out the time to further discuss D.C. United’s utterly disappointing showing against the Montreal Impact becomes a chore when the mere thought of the game angers up the blood. It’s comforting, at least, that Ben Olsen gave us an NSFW summary of what went on:

I’d like to hammer home just how winnable this game was from a couple of different angles. First of all, Montreal was short-handed. Now, so was United, as any fan of the team knows, but the Black-and-Red a) are a deeper team and b) were closer to their best eleven anyway. Consider all of the following issues Mauro Biello was facing when it comes to the Impact side that won this game:

  • Chris Duvall is their 2nd best right back, behind Hassoun Camara
  • Kyle Fisher is, at best, Montreal’s 4th best center back, and started due to Victor Cabrera and Camara both being injured (and, arguably, due to Wandrille Lefevre being in the dog house)
  • Biello switched Laurent Ciman to right-center back for the first time since the first few weeks of his time in MLS
  • Marco Donadel was rested, and his replacement Adrian Arregui was clowned numerous times by Luciano Acosta
  • Starting right winger Dan Lovitz is a career left-sided utility player, and arguably isn’t in the top 5 options for this role on the Impact roster
  • Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla had only played wide or up front coming into this one, which was his debut as a central attacking midfielder
  • Dominic Oduro’s poor form this year has seen him fall behind Tabla on the right and behind both Matteo Mancosu (who missed out injured) and Anthony Jackson-Hamel (who was only fit to play as a late-game sub in this one), meaning the Impact were starting their 3rd best forward up front by himself

Please take a second to internalize all of that.

Give or take the presence of Ignacio Piatti, Montreal came to the District and won with the kind of lineup you see MLS teams trot out to face lower-division competition in a mid-week Cup game. And what’s worse is that said lineup didn’t even overachieve on the day! Montreal won without a special goal, or Evan Bush standing on his head, or anyone in their lineup really catching the eye.

Normally if this had played out, you’d expect Piatti to have saved Montreal with some sort of individual genius. He’s one of the few players in MLS that is capable of carrying a B-minus team to victory on the road. You know what, though? United bottled him up.

This is a map of every key pass, dribble attempt, shot attempt, cross attempt, and foul won by Piatti on Saturday. The triangles are dribbles, the circles are shots, the pentagons are fouls won, and the squares are passes or crosses. You can’t say he was anonymous, because we’ve got 13 data points here, but look at where they happened. His closest shot of three attempts was from 23 yards out. His one attempted cross came from wide on the right rather than on the left where he normally plays.

Most importantly, United restricted the best dribbler in MLS to only three attempts, and only one successful attempt in an even remotely dangerous spot. Piatti normally forces teams to foul him in positions that set up promising free kicks, but United didn’t foul him within 50 yards of goal.

Here’s more of an emphasis on where Piatti was forced to play this game:

This is a map of all of Piatti’s pass attempts (minus the key passes). The main cluster is just to the left of where the center circle meets the midfield stripe. Take notice of how few of Piatti’s successful passes (those are in green) are actually forward passes.

But even this silver lining only helps underline the overall thing we have to take away from this game: United neutralized their opponent’s best attacking player on a day where most of the rest of their attack was made of second-choice (or worse) players, and they still contrived to lose.

Let’s move on...or at least, let’s move to the side a bit:

United entered this game on the back of a 3-1-1 April, and specifically following two very respectable road results. After a slow start, they were building what looked like actual momentum heading into three straight at home. This is how you build a platform towards getting in the conversation at the top of the East.

Losing to a weakened version of one of MLS’s lesser teams right now completely undoes the good work of winning in Atlanta, and it stalls whatever momentum United was building. Generally United does bounce back after bad performances under Ben Olsen, but we also said that after the NYCFC loss and got a 2-0 loss at home to Columbus.

Meanwhile, United’s home record now stands at 2W-1D-2L, which is the kind of record that just screams “missed the playoffs” if the pattern holds all year long. Here are the home records of the East’s current playoff teams:

3W-2D-0L
5W-0D-0L
3W-1D-1L
4W-1D-2L
4W-1D-0L
3W-1D-0L

In other words, the remaining two home games in this stretch have become critical. When the full time whistle blows in a couple of weeks, after United finishes their game with the Chicago Fire, the Black-and-Red will have just ten home games left in 2017, while facing thirteen more away games.

Things get tough very quickly, too. United’s next two games are at Vancouver (longest road trip of the season) on May 27th, followed by a game at Orlando - they’re the 5-0-0 team in the above set of home records - just four days later. Following a home game against June 3rd against the (say it with a smile) struggling LA Galaxy, they’re looking at this run through the back half of June and into early July:

6/14 - US Open Cup 4th round game
6/17 - at Toronto FC, who look like the best team in MLS right now
6/21 - home vs. Atlanta United, who will want revenge
6/24 - at Philadelphia, who are always tough for United
6/28 - If United wins their first USOC game, they’ll play their Round of 16 match here
7/1 - at Montreal, a team United seems to be troubled by in recent times
7/4 - at FC Dallas, the other potential best team in MLS, and also this is a July game in Texas

That’s at least four (and possibly six!) road games in seven, just as the weather really gets hot, and in two cases against the class of MLS. Of course, it’s entirely possible that United picks up a decent point haul in this stretch - after all, they managed a win at TFC last fall - but it’s going to be very tough.

All of this context means that the next two games are of the utmost importance. We use the expression that “this is a game playoff teams win,” and Philly & Chicago at home are games playoff teams win. The Union may have gotten a huge win last weekend, but they’ve still got one win in 2017, are still deeply flawed, and may be missing multiple starters.

Chicago, meanwhile, have not won in their last ten away games, and to find their previous road win beyond that one you have to go back to July 2014. Yes, the Fire have been re-made, and their Dax McCarty + Juninho defensive midfield pairing makes them significantly more stubborn, but they’ve still got a very fragile defense and a coach in Veljko Paunovic who makes some pretty strange choices.

In other words, for so many reasons, United needs to take six points from these games. I’ll still see this homestand as a disappointment (personally I felt seven was the standard D.C. needed to meet), but missing your goal by a point is not a backbreaker. Dropping any more points, though, and it gets hard to see United coming through the early summer wringer in anything other than a tricky position. If this Impact loss is anything other than a one-off, United is in trouble.