Saturday, D.C. United took the field against a team that in a lot of ways should have made for as straightforward a win as can be had in MLS. The Chicago Fire’s road record under Veljko Paunovic involved one win in twenty-two attempts, and they’d just played a home game mid-week. The Fire do not have a deep team, and Paunovic opted to ask his tired starters to give it one more go as a result.
Instead of exploiting the heavy-legged version of the worst road team in MLS over one and a third seasons, though, United were second best throughout and fell 1-0 to Chicago. It could have been worse on the day, but it couldn’t really have been much worse in terms of completing what has to be considered one of the most disappointing runs at home in club history. Coming off of a big win at Atlanta, United looked primed to start piling up points and making a run up the table.
Now, though, they’re heading into the meat grinder part of their schedule on the back of three straight home losses, all to teams that are likely to finish the season clustered on either side of the red line. Each loss came with its own troubling quality; today, we’ll discuss the reality of being made to look helpless by a team that is, while good enough, not exactly a Cup or Shield contender.
This is what being outplayed looks like
Sometimes the graphics folks put out to help flesh out soccer analysis (charts, heat maps, passing matrices, and the like) simply consist as circumstantial evidence. They help make your case, but they don’t do all the work themselves.
Sometimes, though, they can be pretty damning. Cast your eyes on these shot location charts, and despair:
I probably don’t need to tell you, Beleaguered D.C. United Fan, which chart is for which team. United managed just four shots from inside the box against a back four that is flawed at best, and 40% of their shots came from 30 or more yards out. Chicago, meanwhile, took 14 of their 16 shots from inside the box, because they were able to get behind the Black-and-Red’s defense so easily that shooting from distance made no sense. Why settle for a 30 yarder (or, if you’re Joao Meira in that Chicago chart, a shot from somewhere in Lot 8) when you can get a lot closer to goal without much of a problem?
It’s also worth noting that even with the volume of shots heavily favoring Chicago, they ended up with just one shot blocked (that’s the yellow circle, and to be fair it was one hell of a block from Chris Korb). United, despite only carving out 10 shots in a game they a) were at home, b) really needed to show well in just for confidence and perception purposes, and c) trailed for almost 40 minutes, ended up having 2 shots blocked. United didn’t just have fewer shots; they had lower-quality opportunities throughout.
These aren’t charts that happened by some sort of quirk. This isn’t like years past where D.C. would play a shoot first, shoot often team like Kansas City. Chicago was dominant for about 70 minutes of this game, and the other 20 landed somewhere between “the Fire are edging this one” or “both teams are getting looks.” It wasn’t because they hoofed long balls into the box to some giant battering ram, either. The Fire manufactured those shots by drawing United out of a low block, opening up space in behind and gaps between players. They earned their win, and probably should have walked out with a bigger margin of victory.
The particular sting of a 1-0 home loss
There’s something particularly galling for any soccer fan to see someone come to your home and win by a 1-0 scoreline. 1-0 has a special sting to it. For one thing, it’s being on the other side of the classic “good teams find a way to win 1-0 in tough circumstances” truism. If good teams win 1-0, then what are you when you’re losing them? At best, you’re unlucky, cursed by the soccer gods for some transgression or paying some cosmic debt. At worst, you’re just not good.
United has been more the latter than the former in the last three weeks, but perhaps this is all to pay back the good fortune that came in their last two positive results. You probably remember Atlanta stomping a hole in D.C. early on only to fail to bury the capital club, and United caught the Five Stripes with a sucker punch to turn the game around. But don’t forget that 2-2 draw in New England that left both teams feeling like they could have won. That game ended with a miss-of-the-season candidate from Teal Bunbury, who scuffed a shot on an empty net in the late stages. If United had to be fronted some luck in those games, the bill came due quickly, and with heavy interest.
The fact that it only took one goal also hurts. Score twice at home? That’s an extremely common thing across world soccer, at any professional level. Being shut out is one thing; Sporting KC came to RFK and shut United out, but it required committing so much to pressuring the ball that they had little to offer in the attack. Being blown out is another, because there you feel like there just wasn’t a chance for any other outcome. 1-0, though? It feels like a win is within reach, but you just couldn’t do the basic work of extending your hand and taking it.
United has suffered two 1-0 losses in this string of games on East Capitol Street, but they were very different games. Montreal was discouraging because the Impact showed up and played about as well as a non-playoff team rotating half their lineup would be expected to play. United was just so flat they couldn’t take advantage of a team that, on paper and in real life, should have been an easy mark.
This Saturday’s defeat was discouraging from a different angle. Chicago showed anyone that was there what a playoff team looks like. Despite being on short rest, and with no player rotation, the Fire bossed United around at RFK. The Black-and-Red’s best looks in a game in which they were thoroughly outplayed? A loose ball off a long throw-in, and a bad across the top of the box from Chicago. It wasn’t that they were flat on Saturday, but that the other team was simply better, smarter, and faster.
No Lucho No Party
Luciano Acosta’s retaliatory tackle against Philadelphia doomed United to defeat against the Union, but it also kind of doomed them to this loss as well. Steve Birnbaum ended up having the most key passes on the day for the Black-and-Red, and he had just two. That ended up being 40% of the team total, which is news that makes me want to crawl into bed and stay there for a long, long time.
It’s not inherently problematic that United has an attacker who keys the whole team. If you take David Accam - who was superb on Saturday - away from the Fire, they’re far less dangerous. The same could be said about Diego Valeri in Portland, or Ignacio Piatti in Montreal, or several other players and teams around MLS.
What is inherently problematic that United seems hopeless without Lucho, especially when Patrick Nyarko is also not around. Without those two on the field, United simply doesn’t have enough in terms of being able to dribble past defenses, and it makes them a far more simple team to defend. Lloyd Sam and Lamar Neagle can both beat someone on the dribble, but it’s not Sam’s main quality, and Neagle’s approach in that department almost always requires a running start and tons of space in behind.
Teams slow United down, and the job is pretty much done. D.C. ends up having to be extremely precise as a passing team - which they rarely are - to generate openings, or they need to exploit small defensive mistakes with an elite level of ruthlessness. It’s not that they can’t do these things, but that these things are too hard to do regularly for anyone in MLS.
United needs to figure out how to make the game easier on themselves, particularly since Acosta has what Ben Olsen colorfully described as a “moody ankle” in talking to Steve Goff on Tuesday. On Saturday, United is playing on artificial turf on the other side of the continent. It wouldn’t come as a surprise if Acosta is rested for that game, particularly with a conference match against Orlando coming up Wednesday.
If Lucho’s ankle is going to need rest all year long as Olsen indicates, United’s season will be far more difficult than it already is. Avoiding the use of a 442 that features one out-and-out technician (that’d be Sam) is one step, but United does not really have an Acosta replacement. Julian Buescher can step into that role, but his game is founded on a more pass-heavy approach. Even when he does beat someone on the dribble, it’s more about opening passing lanes than it is actually going past his marker. And let’s not forget that Buescher is dealing with an IT band problem that probably left him less than 60 minutes fit Saturday.
The only answer I have for this problem is to emulate Dominic Kinnear’s old Houston Dynamo teams until both Acosta and Nyarko can be on the field. Without real penetration on the dribble, United may have to make do being a team that grinds games to a pulp and wins on set pieces. Even that solution is going to take some major work, because United’s set piece play this year has been a major disappointment. They’ve got just one goal from a dead ball, and even that was Jared Jeffrey’s follow-up to a partially cleared corner in New England.
Is there hope there? Sure. Patrick Mullins will not be in this finishing rut forever, and Ian Harkes (side note: Harkes absolutely should have started this game) could have 3 goals this year with just a little more luck on set pieces. Birnbaum is elite in this area. This isn’t a pretty recipe for success, but until changes are made, United has to find some way to get goals when Acosta and Nyarko can’t break lines from open play.
It’s not too early to start worrying about the playoffs
United is 11 games into their 2017 schedule, which means we’re about 1⁄3 of the way through the season. Over the last five MLS seasons, getting a playoff spot has required an average of 49.6 points, and if you cut things down to the Eastern Conference only, it drops a bit to 48.4.
United has 11 points right now, and obviously they need to do a lot better over the remaining 23 games. How much better? If the standard of 49-50 points to get into the postseason holds, United will need to pick up 1.65-1.70 points per game for the rest of the season. That’s the kind of pace that, over 34 games, would see them get to 56-58 points by the end of the regular season. Not quite a Supporters Shield pace, but pretty close.
So that’s pretty terrible news, if we’re being honest. However, there are three notes that might improve your outlook. First of all, last year, it took only 42 points to make the playoffs in the East, and 46 in the West. That’s not enough to constitute a trend (in 2015, it was 49 and 51), but it’s something.
There’s also the case of the 2012 Vancouver Whitecaps, who finished with 43 points but made the playoffs anyway. The Whitecaps finished a whopping ten points behind the ninth best playoff team that year, and got in because there just so happened to be nine good teams and a bunch of average or worse teams that year.
Finally, the fact is that even now, sitting at the bottom of the East, United is 6 points out of a playoff spot, but have two games in hand on the 6th place New York Red Bulls. As dark as things seem right now, United is just a couple of wins from being right in the thick of things. Such is life in MLS for all but the very worst teams.
That’s why it’s important to look at the major differences that can come with just a few results turning your way. If United goes 8W-8D-7L - a hair better than .500, basically - they’d end up with 43 points on the year. Most likely, it’s going to take either a) an unusually low red line or b) United winning 11 of 23 to get into the postseason.
In other words, while we’re still at a “crawl before you can walk” sort of moment in time, United also needs to get walking, and then running. The margins are already getting pretty thin.