Recap: DC United 2 – 1 New York City FC

April 17th was Hernán Losada’s 106th day in charge of DC United. Between day 1 and day 105, he had been forecasting that it would be a while before we would see real tangible results from the team. He lamented his players’ fitness at the beginning of pre-season, and it takes time to settle in with any new system. Last week, he was asked when we would see what this new system could bring to DC United. He replied, “Saturday” – and he was right.

The Black and Red got off to a rough start. The midfield was entirely overrun, with mistimed passes leading to quick turnovers and opportunities for NYCFC. New York City FC’s forward Valentin Castellanos had plenty of room to find space and generate chances. In the 14th minute, a wide gap opened on the right side of the field which allowed Jesus Medina to find Anton Tinnerholm who slotted the ball across the goal. DC United’s new defender Brendan Hines-Ike got there first and appeared to have been fouled by Castellanos. At the time of writing, Castellanos is credited with the goal, but in watching multiple angles it doesn’t appear that he actually touches the ball and instead hacks down Hines-Ike who then inadvertently plays it into the goal.

There was no VAR review for this goal, and that appeared to be a blessing disguise, as DC United suddenly turned things up to eleven. The team closed down space, made interceptions, and showed off the full press and vertical play style we heard from Losada’s many preseason press conferences.  They conceded possession almost entirely and seemed content to play quick on transition. Russell Canouse had probably his best game at center midfield in two years and seemed to flourish while moving the ball forward and pressing on defense. That pressure paid off in the 39th minute. Erik Sorga did an excellent job holding up the ball, and then found Junior Moreno who muscled his opponent off the ball and laid it off to Brendan Hines-Ike who rocketed a shot from outside the 18 to tie the game.

The next goal came five minutes later from a corner kick. A pinpoint cross from Julian Gressel found a wide open Canouse who slotted the ball wonderfully past NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson for the go ahead goal. In the post-game press conference, Canouse recalled that this was very much intentional, and one of many set plays the team had worked on that week.

Although both goals came from defensive players something that happened a lot in 2020, this felt different. These weren’t one off plays against the run of play. These were chances generated from pressure we were expecting from Losada’s system. Even though the front three of Asad, Flores, and Sorga didn’t directly contribute to the goals, the attacking system itself produced these opportunities.

In the second half there were not many clear cut chances for DC. Losada’s analysis of the team’s fitness was on full display late in the game – players got tired and subs became necessary to stem the pressure. NYCFC found a couple of opportunities and chances, one of which produced an excellent save by goalkeeper Chris Seitz.

However, what we saw from DC United in the closing moments was still remarkably different from the Olsen era of play. Under Ben, DC United would hold on for dear life, concede the field, and slip into a low block. Hernán still had the team conceding possession, while at the same time very clearly disrupting the run of play, and pressuring every time NYCFC had the ball. They pressed the opposition up top and forced quick decisions from an uncomfortable NYCFC.

The sustained pressure definitely had ita intended effect. NYCFC rarely generated clear cut chances as they remained frustrated through much of the second half. DC substitutes Nigel Robertha and Adrian Perez kept the heat turned up on NYC, and a team with 10 players missing from the first team due to injury looked comfortable holding off their opponent.  Perez in particular filled his role nicely keeping pressure off the back line.

While Edison Flores didn’t contribute on the stat sheet, he still put in probably his most well rounded performance of his tenure and showed defensive ability and a few flashes of the flourish that caused DC to spend big on him last year.

We also saw the return of Andy Najar in a DC United uniform. His performance was adequate, and while it is clear he has lost a step or two, he is not here to be a difference maker, he is here to fill a role.

What does all of this mean mean going forward? DC United is still very much a work in progress, and this was far from a clinical performance. But it was an important one as we see Losada enact a tactical strategy that brings interest and excitement. I don’t know if Losada’s full press style and direct play will yield results like this every week, nor do I know if this can hold up for a whole season where travel can add to the wear and tear of a high-energy playstyle. What I do know is that I am excited to watch this team next Saturday in New England, and for now, that will do nicely.

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