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The yin and yang of D.C. United ends up haunting them against Orlando City

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The Last Word’s 2018 debut has a lot to work through after seeing two sides to the Black-and-Red

What do we make of D.C. United’s season-opening draw with Orlando City? This was a game that featured very little in the way of middle ground from the Black-and-Red. That’s what happens when you largely have things going your way playing 11v11, and then completely lose the plot when up a man and up a goal. This was, for a wide range of reasons, an unusual game that has left more questions than answers.

Let’s start with a big concern: United turned a gift — a red card involving VAR being used to send off a player whose arm flailed after being bumped — into a mess. PC was sent off in the 41st minute, and the Black-and-Red were somehow the team harmed by Fotis Bazakos opting to eject the Brazilian. That focused, intense edge that saw D.C. carve out numerous early chances and generally stifle the Lions vanished just as Orlando turned their aggrieved frustration into a marked improvement all over the field. Orlando was galvanized; United simply faded.

This is a curious thing to see from a Ben Olsen team. Is it rooted in the fact that the group is simply new together, and hasn’t had time to forge the bonds and understanding that produce a sturdy, resilient mentality? Or perhaps it was simply down to a lack of composure facing a fired-up opponent in a loud venue? What if the new players brought in, for all their good qualities, are not as gritty (that unquestionably positive trait that has somehow become a pejorative when people bring it up with regards to United) as groups we’ve seen in the past?

It’s only week one, so we don’t have firm answers yet on this front. My guess is that the first two questions are more of an issue than the latter, but we don’t know several of the newcomers very well. It’s fair to keep individual mentality as a possible cause for such an underwhelming response to another team lifting themselves emotionally.

Of course, letting a lead turn into an unwanted draw is not entirely rooted in mental strength. There are tactical issues at play here, and there are no prizes for honing in on the problem. United’s attempts to keep the ball and make the ten remaining Orlando players chase it were so abysmal that it looked like they were the team playing 49+ minutes short-handed.

Here’s the best image I’ve seen that can sum it up quickly:

That mention of “structure” is key here, because United did want to possess. Chad Ashton emphasized it in a halftime interview on the local broadcast, and brought it up again at full time. The issue was that United didn’t know how to turn that desire to possess the ball into actual, real-life possession.

This gets at some things that fans assume about their teams. We tend to want to believe that the tactics or strategy are wrong, but oftentimes on gameday, making a substantial change to how your team plays is a lot harder than yelling from the sideline, or even trying to give instructions during the hustle and bustle of a halftime locker room speech. Real life is not like playing FIFA or Football Manager.

United’s issue in this game is not that they weren’t told to take care of the ball. It isn’t a lack of ability, either. It’s the lack of a structure to execute that approach to the game. United’s Plan A is to play transition soccer, with a focus on breaking the lines and getting out on the run whenever possible. That’s the gameplan that left Orlando reeling until the red card, and it’s one that they likely spent their entire preseason working on.

A solid structure allowing them to coherently shift gears for a possession-oriented, more patient Plan B simply hasn’t had time to germinate. United has too many new players and had too much work to do to rebuild from last year to be reasonably expected to also be good at a very different approach. The understanding that good possession teams employ and the patterns of play they rely on — the structure that informs their actions — take months to establish. That’s how you go from “we need to possess” to actually possessing.

Orlando’s remarkable response probably needed a collective response, and with all this turnover United is weeks away from having that in their bag. It is still very disappointing, and it does not excuse struggling so badly to even just make a few passes consecutively, but on some level it’s not entirely shocking. United’s primary interest is in entering the final third at speed and with numbers, so they’ve focused on that. In this game, needing to slow things down, the lack of time spent in that department was glaring.

For better and for worse, this is who United is going to be for a while (possibly even all year long). The same qualities that made them such a pesky opponent in those first 40 minutes — the directness, their eye for a line-breaking pass, their strong emphasis on team speed, the intelligent selective pressure — are things that all lead to high-tempo, track-meet soccer.

That’s great when you’re going after a lead against a team that wants to slow the pace of play down like a Jason Kreis, possession-first Orlando side does. It’s less desirable when the score is 1-0 and you’d be far better off if the game settled into an uneventful rut. If you’re always breaking lines and always charging ahead on the attack, you’re going to leave spaces for the other team to do the same thing to you. Aesop could write a fable about this strength becoming a weakness.

We talk about the back half of the 2016 season a lot, and it’s not just because it was the most fun three or four months United has produced this decade. It also appears to be Olsen’s ideal in terms of how his teams play when they have the talent to open games up and still win. Those teams produced a slew of chances, but they were also hardly the type to grind out 1-0 wins. We all enjoyed seeing the Black-and-Red score 35 goals in 14 games from the start of August 2016 onward, but they also posted just two shutouts during that run, and gave up 2+ goals eight different times. United’s goal difference in that span, despite being one of the hottest goalscoring teams in MLS history and multiple blowout victories, was only +10.

Here’s what I’m getting at: this team will not ease their way through many games this year. Whether it works or it doesn’t, this team appears to want to play a brand of soccer that will be stressful to watch. It’ll be thrilling when it pans out, and infuriating when it doesn’t. This weekend, we saw the downside of that. I can’t shake the suspicion that we’ll also see this team launch a few unlikely comebacks to win or draw when the shoe is on the other foot.

That brings me to Darren Mattocks, the man everyone is talking about. Mattocks had an unquestionably busy day, but the Jamaican’s day individually mirrors United’s overall performance collectively. There was plenty of good, believe it or not, but also a saved penalty kick, a wasted breakaway, and two more blocked shots.

Mattocks showed the speed and anticipation that torments defenses numerous times, and in fact his big pair of misses are all chances that never exist without his positive qualities. The penalty kick started with Mattocks reading the game and seeing the possibility of a quick free kick just as fast as Yamil Asad did. Mattocks was already taking his first strides before Asad had even placed the ball down, maximizing his advantage in terms of pace.

The result? An innocuous free kick at midfield became Mattocks squaring up one-on-one with Amro Tarek, who was scrambling just to be on the spot in time. Mattocks then used his underrated dribbling ability to leave Tarek in the dust before trying the cross that became, after some VAR help, a penalty kick. There is no other player on United’s roster that could reliably produce the same outcome from the same initial situation.

It’s the same with the breakaway. With OCSC crowding the United box for a free kick, the ball popped loose to Ulises Segura, who had no real challenge on him and Mattocks an easy option to send in behind. Segura’s pass to Mattocks was to feet though, the kind of pass that can turn a potential breakaway into mere possession.

A less speedy player probably has to accept that the breakaway isn’t going to happen, but Mattocks is fast enough that he could slow down to receive the ball, push it forward, and get back up to a good pace. It ended up not being fast enough thanks to a wonderful recovery from Mohamed El-Munir, but the last time United had a player who could turn a pass to feet into a breakaway like this was Roy Lassiter.

None of this is to say that you should be satisfied with the outcomes of these plays. Yes, he was robbed twice by exceptional defensive plays, but his execution in both instances left something to be desired. His penalty kick was about 4 feet from the post, and at the height that goalkeepers prefer when facing PKs. He also could have either shot earlier or tried to round Bendik on the breakaway, both of which would have kept El-Munir from making a difference.

It’s just important to remember that it’s better to have a striker who can manufacture big chances for himself or others like Mattocks does than to have someone who can only thrive on service. Any team on the planet would want a better chance to win more penalties or have more breakaway chances. Mattocks may not have a clinical track record, but on a team that wants to stretch their opponent, a player like him leading the line makes it far easier to succeed.

Like United as a group, we’re just going to have to endure some ups and downs with Mattocks. There will be games where he’s a decisive player, but there will also be games where fans find themselves calling for Patrick Mullins to start instead.

The yin and yang of Mattocks echoes United’s own interrelated strengths and weaknesses. It seems like we need to prepare ourselves for an emotionally demanding season, because the early signs point to 2018 being a roller coaster for this team.