What Are They All About? DC United
A point accrued is two points dropped. This past weekend the Chicago Fire drew 1-1 against NYCFC at SeatGeek Stadium. The result means that although their undefeated home streak stretches to six matches, when it comes to the playoff picture the Fire are still on the outside looking in. Despite results elsewhere in the Eastern Conference the draw leaves them in eighth place on the “total wins” tie breaker. The front of the pack is starting to pull away and earning maximum points at home is a must. In the short term, an inability to finish chances has plagued Chicago recently— a reality that led Veljko Paunovic to bench Nemanja Nikolic against NYC—while the long-term program taking shape under Nelson Rodriguez also continues to stall.
In their post-match interviews several players discussed the necessity to forge a team identity and to instill a strong mentality in the side. At nearly the half-way point of the project’s fourth season, repetition of such basic contours cannot be the goal for the club. Continued missed opportunities on the field seem to be mirrored by low attendance and a lack of engagement off of it as well. This weekend's draw may be in the rear-view mirror but some of those shortcomings will be vividly on display as the Fire visit DC United this Wednesday (7:00 CT on ESPN+).
The franchise which calls the nation’s capital home had been the laughingstock of the league for years but has had a recent resurgence lead by Jason Levien in the board room and Wayne Rooney on the pitch. A brand new stadium was erected in DC last season to match their newly found ambition and an impressive supporting cast was placed around Rooney to ensure that the revamped side could compete immediately. The result was a return to the playoffs at the end of the 2018 campaign and a further push for improvement this season. DC find themselves atop the East and were it not for an LAFC side taking the league by storm, Ben Olsen and his charges may have had their hat in the ring for the Supporters Shield race. This midweek clash will be quite the juxtaposition of projects. Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
DC Form Guide: D-L-D-W-W
Previous Result: A 1-1 draw away to New England.
Formation: 4-2-3-1; Hamid; Pedroso, Birnbaum, Brillant, Jara; Moreno, Canouse; Rodriguez, Acosta, Segura; Rooney
Strengths: Sitting in pole position despite being winless in three matches, DC fits the definition of luxury. They’ve worked hard to get where they are, their ceiling is arguably higher than it was last year as Rooney hits his stride, and the rest of the conference is seemingly struggling with consistency. Let’s see where they might succeed on Wednesday.
Class is Permanent: Without spending too much time discussing the obvious, Wayne Rooney has turned out to be exactly the signing that DC United had hoped he would be. Increasing attendance levels, expanding marketability, and legitimizing the franchise as a player destination are all bonuses to the tangibles he brings to the field. Even the most cynical doubters and those that continue to label MLS as a “retirement league” cannot question Rooney’s dedication, commitment, and drive when the starting whistle blows. He is one of the best professionals in the sport and onlookers should cherish every moment that he gives them while he plays here. He can turn the match around in an instant while continuing to be humble in a way that is rare in the modern game. It’s almost inevitable that he’ll score on Wednesday.
Solid at the Back: For a side that has Estudiantes and Boca academy products in midfield as well as a Manchester United legend at striker, DC has also been impressive in defense. They currently find themselves in third overall in the “goals against” category, having conceded just fourteen tallies on the season. If you take out the four goals that came in a loss to high flying LAFC, they’ve conceded 0.71 goals per game in their remaining matches. For a club that was setting records for goals conceded not too long ago, this is a massive turnaround. The stability, calmness, and consistency offered by Steve Birnbaum and Frederic Brillant has been a foundation to build on for Olsen as the duo has been at the heart of defense for every match this season.
Additionally, in a league where fullbacks are often treated as secondary wingers, Olsen has reverted to his old organizational ways of setting up in a low block and not asking for overlapping runs from Marquinhos Pedroso and Leonardo Jara. Looking at the heatmaps and passing logs of the outside backs reveals that there is seemingly an invisible barrier blocking them from entering the attacking third of the pitch. This will be especially problematic for a Chicago side that likes to operate in the gaps that present themselves in the wide areas of the pitch as wingbacks push high.
Finally, the defensive shape is rounded out by two central midfielders which act as dual “sixes”, Junior Moreno and Russell Canouse. Both are young, quick, mobile, and read the game exceptionally well for their age. They implement a quick press the moment a team crosses into their defensive half, knowing that they have stable cover and the physical attributes to recover if need be. The result of these tactics is that DC’s front four has the freedom to work creatively and expend energy solely on forays forward without necessarily having to work on the other side of the ball. A dangerous freedom indeed.
Weaknesses: Despite a strong start to the season, recent results and performances show that this DC side is certainly not untouchable. Matches in which Rooney has an off day are especially telling of what can at times be described as a uni-dimensional side in the wake of Acosta’s recent troubles. Let’s see where DC might struggle in this one.
Mi Corazon Es Tujo, Paris: One of the most exciting and dynamic attacking duos in recent MLS memory is that of Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta when they are on their game. Last season, “Lucharoo” combined for a total of twenty-two goals and twenty-four assists. Moreover, until Rooney’s midseason arrival, Acosta had scored just once in fourteen matches and assisted just seven tallies as a DP playmaker in that time. The chemistry between the two was electrifying. The partnership provided some of the biggest highlights of the season and lifted the quality, mentality, and expectations of everyone else wearing a DC kit.
Those performances caught the eye of onlookers overseas and Acosta flew to Paris on deadline day to join PSG as the European giants struggled with midseason injuries, suspensions, and a heavy schedule. However, the deal never got across the line as DC haggled over a transfer fee that would make sense amidst MLS’ bizarre structures. Acosta returned to the States devastated and although he vowed to focus on the upcoming season, his numbers reflect that he left a piece of himself in Paris that day. Just three goals and two assists thus far are the statistical expression of the Argentine’s lack of interest and disappearance in matches. Nicknamed “La Joya”, the jewel is shining less brightly as his contract in DC winds down and he hopes that last season’s highlights are enough to move on in June.
What Have You Done for Me Lately?: DC has won just one of its last four matches, a narrow 1-0 home victory over an underwhelming Sporting Kansas City side. It took a Paul Arriola wonder-strike and an outstanding performance from Bill Hamid to earn that result. Since then, a scoreless draw against Toronto, a loss to a largely second-string Houston side, and a draw against ten-man New England have left pundits scratching their heads as the results simply don’t match the team on paper. All sides go through stretches where they aren’t performing to standards, but DC are just a result or two from such a slump costing them heavily in the standings. The longer that Chicago keeps this scoreless, the more doubt will creep into the minds of a DC side struggling for form.
Too Many Chefs: One of the growing pains associated with a turnaround like that of DC is a period of discernment of personnel. There are a lot of league veterans in a side led by one of the steadiest MLS veterans still involved with the league. As such, Olsen is finding a way to balance traditional acquisition mechanisms with the new influx of TAM and the availability of DP funds from ownership. The addition of Lucas Rodriguez, Leonardo Jara, and Ulises Segura supplemented the foundational signings of Rooney and Paul Arriola but have given Olsen somewhat of a selection headache.
He’s played Paul Arriola on both wings, at both fullback positions, and even gave him a run out in a box to box role against Houston. Such tinkering not only resulted in a frustrated Arriola lashing out at Adam Lundkvist and earning a red card against the Dynamo, but it has highlighted some of the questions of identity associated with revamping the side. Limited minutes for Chris McCann and Zoltan Steiber also reiterate Olsen’s preference for putting the biggest names on the pitch even during slumps. There are moments where DC’s play seems forced and they aren’t quite clicking in the way the had earlier this season. If Paunovic can get his players to play mind games on the field they might be checking points at the ticketing counter come Thursday.
Prediction: Chicago have yet to win on the road this season and Audi Field isn’t the place to expect their first road points. However, DC’s slump doesn’t show signs of slowing down. Chicago 2-2 DC. A Wayne Rooney brace for the hosts. Nemanja Nikolic and Brandt Bronico for the visitors.