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Four thoughts on D.C. United’s opening day loss to the Colorado Rapids

The first MLS game on Leap Day wasn’t a good one for the Black-and-Red

MLS: Colorado Rapids at D.C. United Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

D.C. United faced an improved Colorado Rapids in what was the first-ever February regular season game in MLS history. Unfortunately for United, they only really showed sharpness for a 20-minute span in the first half, and even after taking the lead on a Russell Canouse header, they looked out of sorts and tired late. A poor sequence following a half-cleared corner let the Rapids back into the game, and in truth Colorado deserved their last-gasp winner in stoppage time.

It wasn’t good. Let’s talk about what went wrong:

We made it to season 25

Alright, I lied. We’ll get to the issues in a moment, but let’s put the result aside for a second. We just saw the 25th season of MLS kick off this weekend, and that by itself is pretty amazing. This league, at one point, spent possibly two entire days having folded before being brought back to life (at least, if you believe the Hunt family, which in this specific instance I do). For a long time, the standard of play was not great, the stadiums were mostly pretty terrible places to be, and only a few clubs had anything approaching a culture.

But we — and make no mistake, us fans were absolutely critical in the lean years of the early 2000s — made it. Most teams are playing in their own stadium, signing players whose talents were totally out of reach for the league just a few years ago. United isn’t going anywhere, and the structure underpinning MLS is sturdy. You don’t have to wonder if one owner pulling support is going to take the whole thing down any more. Things aren’t perfect, but there’s a pretty strong feeling of permanence. Back in 1996, that level of security seemed like a pipe dream.

Saturday was tough on the field, but let’s keep some perspective: That there’s a league to lose in particularly irritating fashion in is itself a big deal.

Flores-Gressel dynamic

United spent the first 15-20 minutes playing in a fairly rigid 433, but once they started to find some comfort level, we saw a glimpse of what Edison Flores and Julian Gressel are hopefully going to be able to do playing out of this formation. The fluidity that they give United in these roles became apparent, with Flores spending long spells directly underneath Ola Kamara while Flores pushed out a bit wider.

This is where they combined for the goal that wasn’t (unfortunately a good call, and if Flores holds his run for just one more beat, we’re probably talking about a different game), and it was also United’s best spell of the entire 90 minutes.

The idea here is that defensively, United sets up in the 433 as the lineup graphic would say, allowing Flores to be part of that first line of pressure. Once United is in possession, Flores has the freedom to drift inside, which Gressel has to read and then move at least a little wider (be it into the half-space or truly out on wing). He’s proven to be very dangerous in both areas, and it was during this spell of the game that United had their best looks from open play.

On the other hand, this 20-minute span in the first half was the only stretch of the game where we really saw how this idea is supposed to succeed. In the early going, United were simply settling in, and as the game wore on, two things happened: first, United simply stopped being as fluid, and second, the Rapids solved what interchanges there were. I don’t think this is a chicken-and-egg problem. If United had kept after it the way they did in the latter stages of the first half, Colorado doesn’t have easy problems to solve.

On the other hand, this dynamic largely disappeared in the second half, and it’s not clear why. Did Ben Olsen ask his team to be a little less flexible, or did the group simply lose their way at halftime? It’s not entirely why this game went the way it did, and United got much more predictable when Flores was substituted (70 minutes was probably his maximum, given his stop-start preseason).

Some observers were not convinced by any of this, and though there are some good points to be made about Gressel not having a feel for when to play the killer ball (he was forcing it, basically), I don’t think this one game gives us a sound reason to scrap the whole thing. When this usage of United’s two key offseason pick-ups worked, D.C. dominated the game, and in a way that can be replicated.

It doesn’t sound like Olsen is about to give up on it after one game. Responding to a post-game question about this dynamic, Olsen said “You could see how Julian, in the second line now, gets freed up because of Edison’s movement. And what we gotta work with Julian [on] is, you know, making sure he understands the times to playmake, and when it’s time to connect.”

What about the rumored high press?

Throughout the preseason, we heard United talking about becoming more of a high-pressing team. No one was necessarily promising something like the all-out press we saw from Sporting Kansas City sides of a few years ago, but United has gotten faster, changed their formation to have more numbers up the seemed like at home, in bad conditions, with what we’ve heard coming in, that there would be a pretty vigorous attempt to pressure the Rapids.

What United did instead was to draw a fairly high line of confrontation, which is not the same thing. United’s plan was to allow the Rapids defense to string together simple passes, but to deny them the option of a pass into the midfield. There were the standard press triggers of going aggressive once the Rapids passed backward (particularly to Clint Irwin), and the pressure would become more aggressive when the Rapids moved up closer to the center circle, but we weren’t seeing United taking the risk to press more often than in those instances.

The Rapids showed some vulnerability in their preseason finale against a press that kicked in higher up the field, but that comes with a threat. Robin Fraser generally wants his team to get the opponent to over-commit in one direction, then switch play to the other side. It’s a simple recipe, but they’re good at what they do, and to my mind at least, United was unwilling to open up too much as a result.

However, they may have struck the wrong balance, particularly during the spell of the game where they were otherwise taking charge in the first half. More of a willingness to press the Rapids during that spell could have made all the difference. Here’s hoping the idea of being a team that presses more aggressively gets put into practice against Inter Miami next week.

Preseason timing bleeding into the actual season

Flores had a goal called back for offside, obviously, but another great flash of what Flores and Gressel could be capable of came a couple of minutes before that. United’s high line of contention helped force a Rapids turnover in the Colorado half. Once the attack got to the edge of the box, Flores shaped his body as if he were going to play from the right into the middle, only to fool the Rapids by quickly advancing the ball towards the right instead.

Colorado was left scrambling by the fake-out, but Gressel was unfortunately just a step too early. The offside flag disrupted several promising attacks (including a couple where United attackers halted their run because they knew they’d be offside if they made a play on the ball), which is never not frustrating. I don’t have any beef with the calls, but it is a reason to hope that the Black-and-Red are just a little bit of fine-tuning away from better results in the attacking end. There’s no reason to suspect that the ghost of Lionard Pajoy has opted to haunt this group. As we get into the flow of the season, this should improve.