DC United travel to Music City on Wednesday night to take on Nashville SC. To get a better look at Nashville’s next opponent, we checked in with Jason Anderson, managing editor of Black and Red United, who cover all things DC Soccer. Make sure to check out their coverage of DC United at www.blackandredunited.com.
Ben Wright: DC United are currently in 13th place in the East. What’s gone wrong for them so far? Has anything gone well? How much pressure is there on Ben Olsen to turn things around?
Jason Anderson: After seeing most of their offense depart for various reasons, 2020 was going to be a transition year for United no matter what happened this year. Ben Olsen said, not for the first time, that he wanted to shift to a more exciting style of play, but back in March, a fluid 4-3-3 system was mostly discombobulated, and two home games against modest opposition only brought in 3 (rather fortunate) points. There was much work to be done, but instead of getting to do that work, D.C. had to cope with the beginning of the pandemic like everyone else.
With little time to prepare for MLS is Back, Olsen opted for a familiar, if unwanted, gameplan: defending out of a low block and trying to scrape goals via opportunism and set pieces. It wasn’t fun, but they got into the group finale with a chance to advance. Unfortunately, they biffed it, losing 1-0 to Montreal, meaning that the tournament represents both a lost opportunity in terms of working on that new style and a disappointment in terms of results.
Since then, they’ve been all over the place. There have been games, particularly at home, where United has come out to play, only to shoot themselves in the foot. They’ve picked up some points with ultra-defensive performances, and they’ve had some games that fall in between that have largely not seen that little bit of good fortune turn draws into wins. This weekend is a good example: United did pretty well against a superior Toronto FC side, but conceded two really poor goals, and needed a late goal from Griffin Yow to get anything from the match. Olsen has deployed eight different formations to start games, and has toggled between at least four markedly different approaches to games.
On top of the tactical inconsistency, injuries have been a huge problem. One DP (Paul Arriola) tore his ACL just before the season started, and the other (Edison Flores) required facial surgery after a clash of heads early this month. United will probably be missing about 25% of their roster tomorrow night. Right now, though, it doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of pressure on Olsen to turn this group into a winner in 2020. It feels right now like there are broader questions at play: Can United play a brand of soccer the fanbase wants without bleeding goals every single time? Is Olsen willing to pick a tactical blueprint that involves some level of risk and stick with it long enough for it to actually take hold? There’s reason to have doubts on both fronts at the moment.
What has gone well? Not a lot if we’re being honest, but one bright spot is the emergence of United’s young homegrown players. Kevin Paredes (17) has become a regular starter, and it appears that Yow (also 17) is about to push for more regular usage off the bench. Moses Nyeman (16) is the most highly-touted of the group, and with a new injury to Mohammed Abu, he seems almost certain to play some part in Nashville as well.
BW: It seems from the outside that DC have plenty of attacking talent, with guys like Julian Gressel, Edison Flores, Ola Kamara all on the squad. How have some of these newer signings adapted so far? Does it seem like they’ve been on the same page, or is it still a work in progress?
JA: In years past, the problem when United has been bad has been the roster, full stop. Their bad seasons have come when the roster is also among the bottom five across the league. This year, though, there is plenty of talent, but you could argue it was assembled without a clear thought process. United started the year by playing Gressel (a Best XI candidate as a right wingback in Atlanta) on the right of a midfield trio, and Flores (an attacking midfielder/second forward in Liga MX who plays wide left for Peru) playing on the right side of a front three. There was an idea behind this — Gressel was supposed to drift wide in attacking moments, while Flores would pinch in narrow — but the group didn’t get enough time to strike the balance before Covid-19 took off, and then the plan was scrapped entirely.
It’s still very much a work in progress. Kamara finally scored an open play goal on the weekend, which appeared to boost his confidence quite a bit, so that’s one step in the right direction. Gressel’s versatility has perhaps kept him from building a strong rapport with the forwards, as he keeps having to bounce around in different formations. Flores is probably not back for this one (Editor’s note: Flores has since been listed as out on the injury report for tomorrow’s match), and when he does return it’s unclear whether Olsen would want to play him as a second forward, as a number 10, or return to the 4-3-3 that United used to start the season. This team is very much in the “figuring things out” stage right now.
BW: What has to go right for DC to get a result in Nashville tomorrow? Conversely, how can Nashville cause problems for them?
First and foremost, United has to find the balance between being able to defend inside the box with consistency for 90 minutes without having to park the bus. For whatever reason this year, when United has tried to play some soccer, it always comes with a side of huge, unforced defensive errors inside the 18. Obviously Nashville hasn’t been putting a ton of goals on the board, but the mistakes United has been making would cure any team’s scoring woes. Going ultra-defensive has actually worked once this month on the road, but it didn’t feel like a plan that could be replicated repeatedly, and it doesn’t really suit the group now that they’re down to their last two healthy central midfielders either.
Believe it or not, United does have the ability to trouble Nashville’s stout defense, but if the exchange requires coughing up two or three sitters at the other end, it won’t matter much.
Nashville should probably focus on set pieces and getting service in from the endline. United was previously a reliable team when it came to set piece defending, but lately they’ve been losing marks and paying the price. Service from the endline has also been an issue, with obvious targets having an easy time drifting between the center backs or the midfield not helping back fast enough to avoid the defense being outnumbered in the box. Lately United has been their own worst enemy, so to some extent simply offering up an attack and having some patience has been enough for other teams to get their goals.
BW: Do you have a lineup/score prediction?
JA: Formations are tricky right now, since Olsen keeps changing things, but I think he was happy with most of what they did playing out of a midfield diamond. There are about five different possible formations he could opt for, but my suspicion is that it’ll be something like this (right to left):
Bill Hamid; Oniel Fisher, Frederic Brillant, Donovan Pines, Joseph Mora; Julian Gressel, Junior Moreno, Moses Nyeman; Kevin Paredes; Gelmin Rivas, Ola Kamara
As for a scoreline, despite discussing so many of the things that have gone wrong, I find myself very modestly optimistic. Let’s go with 1-1, with Kamara and Dom Badji scoring the goals.
Thanks to Jason for his insight into DC United. Make sure to follow him on Twitter @JasonDCsoccer.