D.C. United Preview: The Unexpected Goals Cup

Last year the stats liked one of these teams, the storylines loved another. Does any of that matter now?

The District of Columbia is waging a war on data, and not just in the executive branch. Ever since the Roonaissance began last summer, Ben Olsen’s team has been handing out wedgies to the spreadsheet jockeys who insist the real story of their success isn’t hair plugs and slurred Scouse but a schedule backloaded with Audi Field home games. Was the fourteenth-best expected goal differential in the Rooney era really enough to justify D.C. United’s preseason playoff hype? Are the greatest 22 seconds in MLS history a repeatable way to win? Shut up, nerd, and feel emotion.

The greatest 22 seconds in MLS history.

D.C.’s story has been the perfect foil for NYCFC’s under Dome Torrent, where the numbers have been pretty good even as desastre narratives have set in. No game captured the diverging strains of stat-defying weirdness better than the last time these teams met at Yankee Stadium, when the Pigeons played ninety minutes of keepaway, popped off 31 shots to the visitors’ 2, and still had to settle for a draw because Sean Johnson dozed off from sheer boredom and missed a Wayne Rooney freekick.

So which one of these sides is for real? Week one looked ominous, as D.C. cruised past Atlanta at home and NYCFC struggled to a draw at Orlando. The fun part about March is that nobody knows what to make of these results but we’ll be damned if that’ll stop us. Win on Sunday and NYCFC are giant-killers, lose and we’re worse than Cincinna—well, maybe not quite that bad.

Anyway, here’s some stuff to watch for this weekend.

Lucho Acosta is everywhere, man

If Rooney’s the king of this team, Luciano Acosta is the queen: quicker, deadlier, able to attack in any direction. New Argentine starlet Lucas Rodríguez’s tendency to cheat inside from the left wing last weekend gave his enganche even more license to roam, and Acosta created danger all over the field.

If NYCFC reverts to a 4-2-3-1 Sunday, communication will be key as Alex Ring and Ebenezer Ofori switch off on the wandering Acosta. If Dome opts for a more possession-minded 4-3-3 or the diamond midfield he used against D.C. last year, the solitary defensive midfielder will be hurting for help. Still, don’t be shocked if 18-year-old James Sands earns a second straight start: he manhandled Rooney last year and Dome likes his calm on the ball.

The teams may line up in mirrored 4-2-3-1s, with Acosta and Moralez as the focal points.

Their wings don’t work the same way

Rodríguez’s taste for the left halfspace created an interesting asymmetry in the Atlanta game. D.C. laid in crosses from both wings, but service on the right came from winger Paul Arriola while on the left it was fullback Joseph Mora getting forward on the overlap. Was this a tendency we’ll see more of or just a nod to the fact that Brek Shea is less a professional soccer defender than a sentient pair of Zubaz pants?

D.C.’s wing play against Atlanta came from a forward (Arriola, 7) on the right, a fullback (Mora, 28) on the left, and Lucho Acosta (10) everywhere.

The answer matters. If Boca loanee Leonardo Jara stays low at right back, Alexandru Mitriţă won’t be charged with tracking back much, which is good. But any fast counterplay is more likely to go up NYCFC’s right wing, which makes Dome’s choice of starter there critical. After Jonathan Lewis and Jesús Medina disappointed in a counterattacking role last weekend, maybe it’s Ismael Tajouri-Shradi’s turn to get the call.

Set pieces can help break down the defensive block

D.C.’s opponents last season faced little resistance moving the ball through the midfield.

Unlike at Orlando, though, this really shouldn’t be a counterattacking game for NYCFC. Aside from some pressing in the highest quarter of the field, D.C. was happy to hand over the ball last season and retreat all the way to their own box. That’s how NYCFC’s 69% possession, 31-shot game happened in September. If it happens again we’ll need to see more of a plan this go-round than “idk let Villa shoot from wherever lol.”

There are all kinds of ways to jimmy the lock on a parked bus, from Mitri’s defender-dragging dribbles to Ofori’s mighty left boot, but one reliable source of chances is set pieces. The only teams that allowed more expected goals than D.C. from corners and free kicks last year were Minnesota, Orlando, and San Jose, a.k.a. MLS’s shadow relegation zone. For NYCFC, set pieces were an area of preseason emphasis, and it nearly paid off in the first half last weekend when Chanot rounded a Callens screen to find an outswinging Mitri corner for a free header. Who cares if dead balls aren’t NYCFC’s preferred way to win—justice was never going to enter into this karmic car wreck of a matchup anyway. ❧

Image: Albrecht Dürer, Justice