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Four thoughts on D.C. United’s devastating loss to the Seattle Sounders

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Oh lord, won’t you buy me a defensive mid?/My friends all control games, I must make amends

D.C. United is back in action less than 30 hours from when this is being published, and yet I still feel like I’m in a fugue state after having a potentially delightful performance against the Seattle Sounders turn into the wrong kind of history. The sequence that gave the second goal keeps looping in my head like a gif in a tab that won’t close. This is a loss we’ll be thinking of for a long time.

Here are four other things on my mind from a defeat that defies belief even days later:

Wanted: Midfield General

We know how Ben Olsen wants this group to play. They’re built around Luciano Acosta’s skill set, and they should be. Acosta’s list of preferred options when he gets on the ball is something like this:

  1. Through ball!
  2. Dribble! (really this is almost 1a)
  3. Are we sure the through ball isn’t on?
  4. OK, start considering a sideways pass while keeping eyes open for a chance to dribble someone or play a through ball

And that’s great! Acosta is fun to watch, and after the past few years seeing a team built to play his brand of soccer can be thrilling...when it works. But there are phases of games where United needs someone else with a different mindset getting most of the touches. Someone who remembers that there’s a brake pedal that needs to be pressed on occasion. Someone who can sense the swings in momentum and rhythm as they’re starting to go against D.C. and squelch them by taking the air out of the ball.

United has lacked that player all year. They lacked that player last year, and one can’t help but wonder if such a steady hand could have been helpful against Montreal in the playoffs, when patience was called for. There’s no one on the team with both the mindset and the ability to slow a game down when it needs to be slowed, and Wednesday night was a stark example of what can happen when a team can only play at one speed.

That player may one day be Ian Harkes, but right now he’s more of a linking midfielder who adds fluency to all that urgency to break forward. He’s a great partner for Acosta in this system. What they need is the third piece, the rug that would really tie the room together. Marcelo couldn’t provide that sort of thing last night, and realistically that hasn’t been his game for a long time. Jared Jeffrey isn’t that kind of player, and neither is Rob Vincent. Chris Durkin may get there, but he’s 17, so let’s be patient with him.

Without a midfield general who can shield the back four effectively, open up the field with his range of passing, and show the soccer IQ to allow United to keep a grip on the controls of a game even when the kitchen sink is being thrown at them, this team is going to keep struggling. As much as the focus has been on the goalscoring total, this position - an upgraded central nervous system for the team, basically - is the one to focus on when you’re demanding a new Designated Player that requires a transfer fee.

When patience isn’t a virtue

Patience on the field would be very valuable for United, but a different kind of patience was a big problem in this one. Olsen didn’t have a sub or a major tactical change ready as a reaction to Brian Schmetzer’s game-changing double substitution in the 54th minute, and he didn’t have one quickly enough in the aftermath of Seattle pulling within 3-2.

There are mitigating factors, of course. Schmetzer’s sub brought two fullbacks into the game and moved the starting fullbacks up as wingers. At 3-0 down, that’s a bit strange, but the personnel made it work. On top of that, Seattle was bringing Kelvin Leerdam - a brand new signing that no one has had a chance to scout in MLS - and Nouhou Tolo, a 20 year old who a) has barely played in MLS and b) was seen as a doubt until his name popped up on the gameday 18 with a shoulder injury.

Nonetheless, the sub had an immediate impact. It was a lucky quick of timing for the Sounders that they got on the board just 3 minutes before the sub happened (the time it takes to ready a change like this means that the move was probably scripted in the locker room for 8-10 minutes into the half). United gave up the goal to Will Bruin, who becomes Cristiano Ronaldo against United for some reason, and like bad teams everywhere, they got nervous. The subs came in just as that fear started to take hold, and the Black-and-Red suddenly looked tentative, replacing all the smart, anticipatory defending from earlier with back-foot reactionary defending.

That set the stage for the goal from Brad Evans, and it was a killer goal that exposed all of United’s hesitancy. This was the moment to reply, and nothing was coming from United’s bench. Yes, Olsen did make his first sub before Seattle got their equalizer, but bringing Lamar Neagle in for Deshorn Brown was a simple fresh legs up top sub when D.C. needed a game-altering change to tamp the game down.

Granted, there were limited resources on the bench. Nick DeLeon - for the same reasons that he was too “safe” to be a #8 last year - would have made a lot of sense if he were sharp right now. However, throwing a player coming off of a long injury layoff into a game that was going 100mph is asking way too much. Maybe as a third sub on the wing for the last 10 minutes, but not in a central role where his job would be to connect safe passes and slow play down.

Plugging Jared Jeffrey in for Acosta, however, was a possibility. Whether Harkes or Marcelo would move up high, or if the midfield triangle would have moved to a bottom point, Jeffrey could have come in and slowed the tempo simply by committing some fouls higher up the field. He would have been an injection of energy and, vitally, a bit of attitude. With United nervous and retreating, seeing someone like Jeffrey getting stuck in and maybe even being a bit provocative may have helped snap the Black-and-Red out of their fear-induced paralysis.

In any case, it never happened, and while Seattle’s third goal will probably be one of the more difficult finishes on a corner kick seen league-wide in 2017, the conditions that lead up to 3-2 becoming 4-3 could have been altered. From afar at least, it looks like that inaction contributed to the loss.

Context rears its ugly head once again

Coming into this game, a one-goal loss with United scoring was our most popular prediction. In writing and talking about this game, the only people that I saw giving United a chance were Sounder at Heart’s Jeremiah Oshan (who mostly just felt like we were playing possum on Filibuster) and our former writer touchline, who appeared to be operating on a hunch more than anything else. Everyone else - fans, neutrals, pundits - had Seattle taking this one.

From that angle, scoring some goals and outplaying the Sounders for 50 minutes means United overachieved. No other team has scored three goals at Seattle this year, and United’s attack is finally - finally, after a run of 3 goals in 10 games! - starting to show some bite.

Those things would be nice, but there’s no papering over letting a 3-0 lead become a loss. This would be unacceptable for a team that went up 3-0 by the 5th minute of a game, and then had a player sent off. This would be unacceptable if United had two people sent off in the moments between Lloyd Sam’s goal and Bruin pulling one back.

The “focus on the positives” talk from Olsen is not just coach speak. There are positives to focus on. This performance was a lot better than just going out and being helpless for 90 minutes while the opposition barely has to break a sweat. But it’s the hope that kills you, right? The hope and expectations of a 3-0 lead being dashed cause a much more acute pain than the hopelessness of knowing you’re outclassed from the opening whistle. That’s why folks are angrier after this game than after, say, Chicago coming to RFK and making United chase shadows for 90 minutes.

Looking towards 2018

We’ll get into the grim playoff picture for United in the near future, but it’s obvious that the very idea of making the playoffs seems far-fetched. We’re not at the point yet where United should purely be focused on evaluating players for 2018, but we’re close enough to that point that I can’t help but start thinking about players who are going to be a part of the 2018 core.

Brown is one such player, and while we’re certainly dealing with a small sample size, his 2 goals in 248 minutes since signing with United puts him well ahead of the old guideline that holds that one goal per two games played means you have a good striker. That he’s done that without even having honed much of an understanding with Acosta - at one point Wednesday, they nearly ran into each other during a break forward - means that there’s plenty of room for growth.

I remain confident that Patrick Mullins will shake out of his poor form once his injuries clear up. He was getting into good enough spots that, under normal circumstances, he’d have bagged 2-3 goals even in the limited amount of time he’s had. That will eventually leave Olsen with a very good problem to have. Neither of them is going to compete with Nemanja Nikolic or David Villa, of course, but having two strikers who appear capable of getting over 10 goals over a full season has been a rare thing at this club for a long, long time.

It’s also nice to have the possibility of changing how United attacks by rotating forwards. Mullins and Brown play the #9 role very differently, with Brown focused on running in behind and having more of an individualist’s mentality, whereas Mullins is more likely to bring his teammates into play, grab some assists, and provide an aerial threat. Having a diverse portfolio up front should make United less predictable and less dependent on a certain gameplan working.

Harkes also deserves some recognition, even as this game did underline the fact that he has growing to do in terms of reading and controlling play. He’s finding ways to be a regular threat on offense, and after numerous near-misses he suddenly has 3 goals since finally breaking his duck against Christos FC (making this a 3 goals in 8 overall appearances run for him).

We all knew that Harkes will be an important piece of the puzzle in 2018, but now we’re getting a more specific look at what he’s going to bring to the table. Those late runs into the box, and that tendency to be a significant part of dangerous build-ups (even if he doesn’t end up getting many assists) will be a big part of what the Black-and-Red do going forward.

On the other side of the ball, his ability to get physical and win 50/50 balls is starting to become more of a factor. I don’t think this is as much him getting stronger as much as it is him developing an understanding of the mental resolve the professional game requires to win those battles.

All of which is to say that he’s proving he can be the player his college potential pointed towards, and that he should be garnering Rookie of the Year talk. The field isn’t actually very daunting. Jack Elliott has been a solid center back for the Philadelphia Union, but he hasn’t quite played at the level of past ROTY center backs. Julian Gressel is a player that I’m a big fan of, but he’s a successful accent piece in Atlanta rather than a key cog. You get the sense that ATL wouldn’t be too bothered if he missed a game due to suspension, whereas with Harkes, him missing a match would be a cause for worry.

All that said, Harkes is approaching the ROTY race at a disadvantage. United is a last place team, and fan enthusiasm right now makes it unlikely that DCU supporters are going to badger national pundits into paying much more attention than they are right now. Gressel has the benefit of playing for a team people are fawning over, while Elliott’s story (4th round afterthought becomes the guy keeping Josh Yaro off the field) is remarkable. If Harkes is going to make a run at that kind of recognition, he’s going to have to do it the hard way.