Nine games into the season, D.C. United currently sits in 5th place in the Eastern Conference. Their next opponent, New York City FC, resides just below them on goal differential. The start of the season saw a disappointing series of opportunities wasted in both the MLS regular season and CONCACAF Champions League play. However, a shift in the tides has begun in D.C.’s favor, and the Black and Red are currently building on the momentum they’ve created.
But have they truly figured it out?
To gain a sense of the whole picture, D.C. United must be taken apart and examined to find exactly why the team is suddenly clicking. From the surface, the team’s recent form of 8 points in 5 games seems as if Ben Olsen has found the formula and style fans have been aching to see for the past few years, but certain components within the machine still seem to grind.
The D.C. United offensive has netted nine goals in the last five games. Of those, Luciano Acosta has been involved in four. However, Lucho has only started a match once in that stretch of games, and he has yet to complete an entire 90’ all season. That single start was a result of Chris Rolfe being shuffled into midfield due to Nick Deleon suffering from flu-like symptoms prior to the Chicago Fire match. With the time given to him, Lucho has made the most of it.
To Acosta’s left is Alvaro Saborio. Sabo, in his last 176 minutes, has had three goals and an assist. That’s a contribution rate of 1 goal every 59 minutes (a goal or assist every 44). Unfortunately, those 176 minutes have been spread over four different games rather than just two. 136 of those minutes have been the result of Espindola going down with an injury against New England Revolution near halftime. With Fabian’s recovery time possibly stretching through most of April, Alvaro may see much more time on the pitch in which to cement him into the starting lineup. Besides, his Costa Rican call-up may be dependent on his performances leading up to Copa America this summer.
Lamar Neagle and Patrick Nyarko have involved themselves into the attack recently as well. The two wide midfielders seem to be working in tandem, as both Nyarko’s goals in the past five games have been assisted by Neagle. In addition to Espindola’s absence, Lamar has been taking corners from the right side as well, which have looked threatening lately (though none have connected yet this year). Free kicks can still be debated, as the only truly threatening service came on a wet, windy Chicago field. Both players have the capability of running the flanks at blinding speeds, with the added security of having Kemp and Franklin running overlaps. D.C. United has not seen an offensive wide threat combination like this since Andy Najar and Branko Boskovic in early 2012 before Andy was shifted to the back four. The question remains to be seen if these two new additions can keep it up.
The issue with the front line is what happens when Espindola regains full fitness. Will his return cause a shakeup in chemistry, or will Fabi ultimately concede to a bench presence should this current front line continue to threaten?
The flanks have already been discussed, but it should be mentioned that Miguel Aguilar and Nick Deleon both have experience out wide, in case for whatever reason depth is needed. The real question lies in the middle. First the reintroduction of Rolfe to the midfield after last week’s match against Chicago opened up opportunities up front for Acosta and Saborio, so Olsen has a chance to continue that run, or push Chris back up front with Deleon returning from his illness, benching (again) Lucho. With Chris Rolfe picking up a suspension, the middle will be mixed up again.
#Bennyball is slowly (very slowly) dwindling into the past, but the never-changing 4-4-2 means that there will be a need for a solid ball-winning midfielder to absorb pressure in the middle should too many players clamor for the ball that was hoofed forward. The loss of Perry Kitchen to Hearts in Scotland and Davy Arnaud to early retirement meant the inclusion of Marcelo was a necessary decision. Marcelo brings physicality and positional awareness to the middle, but also brings with him a raw emotion that can be difficult to control. In fact, Marcelo is the fastest player to reach the yellow card accumulation suspension this season (beating Philadelphia Union’s Fabinho by 19 played minutes, though Fabinho’s card came earlier in the day). He currently sits second in the league for fouls committed as well. Eventually, those fouls and cards will change color, and a loss of a player could cause irreparable damage depending on the match.
The backline has been a rock in the past five games. Averaging over 3 blocked shots per game in that time period, the back four of Kemp, Birnbaum, Boswell, and Franklin have been the most consistent figures on the D.C. United lineup. Only Steve Birnbaum has missed a game this year, which happened to be the 0-3 defeat against FC Dallas; Kofi Opare filled in while Steve was absent on international duty. This back four has only allowed three goals in the last five games, and only four since the first match against LA Galaxy. Since that match, the defense has held the opposition to only 23 shots on goal in eight games. Remove Opare’s match and that number dips to 18 in 7. League leaders in both points and shots on goal Colorado Rapids were held to a single shot on net in RFK, which unfortunately found its way in. To say this back line is cohesive is an understatement. They are currently of a single mind.
In goal, filling the shoes of Bill Hamid is never an easy task. Andrew Dykstra was unable to do such a thing, letting leak three run of play goals in one half against LA (not to mention the respectful, but disappointing CCL matches). Since then, Travis Worra has stepped up, and immediately making his presence known. The 23 year old communicates with the backline like a veteran, and has so far collected three clean sheets in his first eight starts. The only caveat to this achievement is that he has not faced many shots. The 23 shots on goal previously mentioned are all he has seen, and 7 of those have found their way into the net. Though a 69.6 save percentage is respectable, Worra is one of the few goalkeepers fortunate enough not to face a penalty kick that could ruin his number.
D.C. United defensively has found a way to minimize shots to allow Worra to build the confidence and leadership needed to be a goalkeeper. Without Hamid, the back line has stepped up to absorb most of the pressure. Not to diminish Worra’s achievements, but much of his numbers have come from the field players not allowing the opposition to test him as a fresh keeper at the top level. Even Giovinco was held to one shot on goal. Should the back four falter even a little before Hamid makes his return, United could see a tumble out of playoff position. Given there are rumors of clubs showing interest in Steve Birnbaum, this very scenario could happen.
The question is whether or not the offense can find the right combination to continue scoring goals at a steady pace without sacrificing the skills each player brings to the table. Will the forwards find a way to swap Saborio, Acosta, and Espindola successfully and before the arrival of Copa America? Will Deleon and Rolfe be forced into sharing time for one position once both are active and healthy? And will Nyarko and Neagle be able to continue their production rate? Two weak New York defenses are paying a visit soon, and now would be a prime opportunity to iron out all the wrinkles.