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Four things about D.C. United seeing a great night become a nightmare vs. Austin FC

Taxi Fountas and Jackson Hopkins were the feel-good stories, until the bottom fell out for the Black-and-Red

MLS: Austin FC at D.C. United Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

D.C. United had three points in the bag against Austin FC, and it felt like we would be talking about a real turning point kind of game. United looked like United for the first time all season during the first half in what was easily their best 45 minutes of the year, and even after Ola Kamara’s red card, they largely moved through the second half unbothered. Austin couldn’t solve the lower block, everything was heading towards an impressive and needed win.

And then, it wasn’t at all! Legitimately great news in the form of Taxiarchis Fountas and Jackson Hopkins both making their debuts will end up being an afterthought around MLS due to United having a 2-0 lead in the 79th minute only to leave Audi Field with a 3-2 loss. It’s the biggest comeback in the league this year, and you don’t want to be the team on the wrong side of it.

We (this is Jason, I blame the loss on the choice to play “Sweet Caroline” at halftime, and I have Ryan along to help) don’t really want to spend more time thinking about the most brutal loss of the Black-and-Red’s season thus far, but there are some important points to get into.

Don’t lose focus

The biggest issue here isn’t a shirt removal, or United having a problem with a referee opting to call an extremely tight game, possibly out of balance with what was actually taking place. It’s not the subs, it’s not the weather, it’s not Austin.

It’s set piece defending. United has now given up five set piece goals in six regular-season games, and four of those have come in the last three games. The goals include two game winners in the 90th minute or later, and two goals that allowed games United was leading comfortably to suddenly turn on their head. Their set piece play, by a wide margin, is the thing to worry about right now.

We can’t even really point to personnel. You might be tempted to argue that a team playing a 5’8” right-center back and several players who are under 6’ might be gambling, but United brought in Donovan Pines, their tallest player, to adjust to Brad Smith’s absence, and the outcome was the same. United even added some height in the final moments, with Michael Estrada and Drew Skundrich coming in, and they still end up giving up Ruben Gabrielsen’s game-winner in the (lengthy) second phase of an Austin corner.

What’s happening? I wish I could tell you it’s a flaw in the scheme, but the fact is that most of the time it’s just been shoddy man-marking and players switching off. United has been using a pretty common blend of marking assignments and zonal players strung across the six, and what’s gone consistently awry is the man-marking and the ability to stay plugged in even after the initial ball in doesn’t result in a pure clearance or shot.

On Austin’s first goal, Danny Hoesen is one-on-one with Gaoussou Samaké at the back post on the first goal, and simply gets a full head of steam to run around him, powering through Samaké’s attempt to slow him with a grab to finish a corner that was simply allowed to drop on the edge of the six. It’s really that simple, just a United player being unable to get in the way of an opponent.

On the winner, Samaké might take a lot of heat, as he’s the player nearest to Ruben Gabrielsen, but we’re well into the second phase of a corner that United cleared, but never effectively moved up and out of their area on. When Diego Fagundez lines up his in-swinger from the left flank, Austin has a 4v4 inside the box, and I’d argue that both Gabrielsen and Sebastián Driussi running near post are unmarked. Samaké is nearest to Gabrielsen, but what’s really happening is that United has five field players out of nine — Skundrich does try to get out and contest the service — who are actually anywhere near a useful position, and only two (Steven Birnbaum and Brendan Hines-Ike) are actually marked up.

Gabrielsen gets a mismatch in isolation, and even though Bill Hamid should make that save every time, it’s also a shot that doesn’t occur if the group is ready for the obvious recycled ball. This wasn’t a complicated play to deal with, but United were sloppy stepping out after the initial clearance, and then sloppy getting back into the area to defend again. This fits right in with things like being beaten by Michael Bradley at the near post against Toronto, or leaving dead center at the top of the six completely vacant for Marcelino Moreno.

United is flat out not a good enough team to be a bottom five MLS team when it comes to defending set pieces. To maintain a realistic hope of a playoff spot, as currently comprised, they probably need to be top third in both offensive and defensive set piece play. While we did see a much-needed set piece goal on the attacking side — and kudos to the coaching staff on a wonderfully designed corner routine to create Ola Kamara’s second goal — but on the defensive side, United struggled beyond just these two goals conceded.

If you want to know how the Black-and-Red can start putting together wins, the ingredients are to carry on the scintillating first-half performance in open play, and to stay switched on and win some battles in the box. If they can’t do that second part, the whole season could be like what we’ve seen in the last month. — Jason Anderson

Jackson Hopkins, probably a former Loudoun United player

So there were two things that Jackson Hopkins did in the first half that I smiled at for various reasons.

The first was a volleyed interchange of sorts where he received a lob from Andy Najar, and he proceeded to do a half scorpion type thing of his own to send the play further down the field. That was when you could tell, after about 15 minutes, that he felt comfortable in what he was doing at Audi Field. That was what I thought he could do.

The second was later in the half when he collected a ball just outside the Austin area and played a first touch with his weaker (left) foot for the team to eventually get a shot off. Not to say that it was a club he didn’t have in his bag, but as the game grew he realized that the speed of his decisions (something he showed from time to time in Loudoun) is up to the pro caliber, and his passing abilities are also impressive; note the long ball he sent to Taxi Fountas that Brad Stuver got to midway through the second half.

The point I’m getting at is that at Loudoun, Hopkins showed his smarts, but after his first game at D.C., his agility (with and without the ball at his feet) is really good. His signing with the pro team has been a formality to me (check out a couple of my priors), but his rising to the level with relative ease is encouraging on many levels. — Ryan Keefer

Jackson Hopkins, current D.C. United player

Ryan’s not wrong on the above, but we both wanted to talk Hopkins, so we split this into two segments, and this is mine. Hopkins immediately looked the part for United, bringing the pressing intensity required for MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE but adding some verve on the ball that, frankly, has been lacking for this team. We’ve talked about what they lost when Paul Arriola was traded, and of the players to try to replace that, Hopkins is the one who came the closest (even if they don’t play the same way).

I can’t be the only person who saw the starting lineup as, in part, a shot across the bow for Edison Flores and, to a lesser extent, Michael Estrada. Even if Hopkins had come in and looked out of his depth, this would be a talking point. But Hopkins played a serious role in what was, regardless of the result, United’s best attacking display of the season. The front three of Hopkins, Ola Kamara, and Nigel Robertha were able to flood forward regularly, with Austin unsure who was going where. It felt like the D.C. United we were promised coming into this season, to put it bluntly.

Even after the red card, Hernán Losada trusted Hopkins to be part of a midfield trio, moving into a 531 and asking Hopkins to play the no. 8 on the left side of the triangle. While he was not quite as good here, there was still no good reason to haul him off for someone more experienced. The late substitution seemed more about trying to steal a winner by bringing in a forward than it was about Hopkins needing to come out.

Which brings us back to the rest of the attack. You might be mad at Kamara at the moment, but he scored twice, and has been pretty conclusively more dangerous than Estrada so far. Robertha’s willingness to run at defenders and his speed are elements no one else is bringing, so he’ll remain in the mix for sure.

Can you say that for Flores, though? I’ve remained convinced that there’s a top player lurking somewhere in there, but we haven’t seen it outside of brief flashes in MLS. I’m not sure Flores has 45 minutes this season that can match Hopkins’ first half, even if we go through and cut bits here and there out of all of his play to create a “best of Flores” compilation video complete with EDM for Youtube.

All of which is a way to say that with Taxiarchis Fountas and Hopkins both coming in, the need for a true 9 (whether that’s Kamara or Estrada), and Robertha offering things Flores can’t, it really is now or never for Flores. The minutes have been there for him for a while due to lack of other options, but United clearly doesn’t lack for options now. — JA

Καλώς ήρθες Ταξιάρχη

It’s a very weird situation when the game state means we’re spending over 1,000 words over a surprise starter and only talking briefly about a Designated Player United has been waiting to see for months, but this game was deeply weird.

Taxiarchis Fountas came on in the 58th minute, but playing alone up front in what became a 531 formation, he had a very thankless task: run a ton, try to keep possession with few options, and just make life hard for Austin. These are not the primary reasons why United is paying him more money than anyone else on the team, but those were the circumstances on Saturday night.

But still, we can’t just not talk about a huge signing making his debut, so I’ve scrapped a whole thing about IFAB’s dumb shirt removal = yellow card rule (it’s stupid, and we don’t have to tolerate this level of stupidity!) to make room for Taxi, who was quite busy doing pure grunt work as United tried in vain to see this game out.

Defensively, it was a mixed bag. The effort was there, Fountas helping the cause with four recoveries and lots of hard running, but he also gave away four fouls while winning none. That’s not ideal, but I would say fans should cut him some slack as he learns the vagaries of MLS officiating. This was...let’s be kind and say he was thrown into the deep end on that front.

Where Taxi did quite well was in possession, keeping the ball moving and connecting his passes at a time where United really needed that out of their lone forward. He ended up with one of the higher passing accuracies on the night (84.6, which is 11-for-13). MLSsoccer’s data conflicts a bit here, crediting him with a key pass that doesn’t show up anywhere on their Chalkboard, but put that aside for a second. Half of Fountas’ completed passes were either moving play forward (meaning he successfully held play up long enough to have a runner to pass to) or came in the attacking third. This wasn’t pure conservative passing, which is a very MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE thing to do when 10v11.

We should see much more from Fountas either tomorrow against Flower City (good luck to the NISA side against a United lineup that could well feature two DPs and Ecuador’s first-choice number 9) or against New England next Saturday. Either way, what we got in some really dire circumstances indicates he’s capable of being the player United needs him to be. — JA