D.C. United battled the Chicago Fire and the elements last night, and while you can probably say they escaped the latter clash without taking any losses, the soccer game did in fact end with a 2-0 defeat. The fortune that favored United in their first two games went the other way, with a weird bounce handing the Fire their winner, and in a lot of ways it felt like a kind of game this team played in the first month of the 2021 season.
I drove home from this game thinking that I might have nothing much to say other than to complain about the cold, but instead, here are 2200+ words about this game, and…let’s say something else entirely.
It was cold. It was windy.
In July 1911, the Australasian Antarctic Expedition set sail from Cardiff, Wales (though they were a mostly Australian/New Zealander group, they had to fundraise in the UK, where about half of this era’s attempts to discover the South Pole started from) for Antarctica by way of Macquarie Island, essentially a thin strip of rock that constitutes the only land mass between Tasmania and the icy continent at the southern edge of the world.
As you’d expect out of sea travel 111 years ago, the journey was rough. The expedition stopped in Hobart, Australia in November, hired a steamer to help them get to Macquarie, and took to the seas again in December. The trip south nearly destroyed their ship, the SY Aurora, and after leaving a portion of their crew — some due to expertise, others due to injuries or sickness — to man a radio relay station on Macquarie, they continued on to Antarctica on Christmas Eve.
Despite approaching the continent in the southern hemisphere’s summer, the Aurora couldn’t get close enough to Antarctica to spot a good place to land. The problem was the sea ice, which if not navigated with extreme care can lock a ship in place (“good” outcome) or simply obliterate its hull and consign everyone aboard to a horrific death (bad outcome). Land reported in a previous survey turned out to be completely fictional, and the ship’s captain went days without sleep trying to make sure the Aurora stayed afloat in an environment that seemed to be fervently trying to kill the entire crew. Finally, well into January, they were possibly the first people in history to spot what turned out to be Commonwealth Bay.
They sent small search parties out within the bay to find a good spot to drop anchor and, at long last, begin unloading their ship. One party reported back that they’d found a small cape that seemed like a dream: calm seas, no wind, and temperatures that for Antarctica were pretty good (which is to say, right around 32 degrees). Essentially, they were saying they’d found paradise.
It was decided that they should unload the Aurora at that spot, which expedition leader Douglas Mawson named Cape Denison, after one of the main financial backers of the expedition. The men began unloading the ship and setting up their shelter for what was to be at least a one-year stay. Winds started to kick up as the day wore on, but everyone shrugged it off. It’s Antarctica, of course there’s a little wind here and there. They were still sure they’d found a wonderful place to spend 1912.
Cape Denison is the windiest place on earth, according to both National Geographic and the Guinness Book of World Records. During the AAE’s stay there, their data recorded winds — not gusts, not squalls, just the regular, all-the-time movement of air — averaging around 50 mph. On most days, Cape Denison sees gusts of over 100 mph…in Antarctica, the place where everything is ice.
So anyway, that’s what it was like at Audi Field last night.
How do you go around a ceiling?
Last year, we talked a few times about United having a lower ceiling than most teams, which meant that their margins for error were slimmer, and their collective play had to be nearer to its absolute best than much of the Eastern Conference if they were going to make any postseason noise.
United missed the playoffs by one point, and though some talent was added to the mix, the fact is that the club received two different offers it couldn’t refuse for vital players, and money doesn’t mean the players will be replaced without adjustments. Paul Arriola is in Texas now, and Kevin Paredes is in Germany, and that’s an awful lot to deal with both just in lost quality, but also in losing the type of players these two are.
This is no dig at the players who have taken over their spots in the lineup. Griffin Yow and Adrien Perez have had their moments, Nigel Robertha could take a big step this year now that he’s healthy, and Brad Smith has made an impact. It’s just that United doesn’t have any attackers who bring Arriola’s combination of quickness, off-the-ball movement, and effort level, and without Paredes they’re down to one true threat on the dribble (Andy Najar, who provided most of the sauce on an otherwise ho-hum night for United).
Yow has drawn stylistic comparisons to Arriola, and for good reason, but he’s not a current USMNT regular at this early stage of his career. Perez also has some Arriola-like qualities, but he’s not as elusive and doesn’t get into the positions Arriola tends to get into, so he’s not drawing as much attention from defenses. Smith, meanwhile, never stops running and has the ability to power past his man that Paredes lacked, but he really needs to be able to combine with others to beat defenses. Paredes could be isolated, slowed to a standstill, and boxed in, and yet could still escape due to his audacity and his bag of tricks. If you isolate Smith like that, he’s probably going to make the smart play and pass sideways or backwards, but succeeding in these high-risk moments are also where a lot of United’s goals began in 2021.
Without Arriola occupying defenders, and without Paredes being able to lure opponents in before leaving them in the dust, United’s attack is more predictable. There are more reasons for it than just their departures, and we’re working with a very small sample size, but we’re talking about a team that per FBref finished 8th in MLS on non-penalty kick expected goals (1.37) last year now posting around 1.08 non-penalty xG in 2022 per MLSsoccer’s xG data after three games.
United will at some point get Taxi Fountas in, and maybe he solves the Arriola problem, either by just being a similar player or by adding an element that makes up for what is lost. The Paredes situation might be trickier, because there just aren’t a lot of Paredes-style players in MLS, or at an MLS price point.
On this site, in the stands, on Twitter, in team press conferences, and elsewhere, there’s a lot of talk about how United needs to add players. That’s true! This team needs one more ball-winning central midfielder, and they need one more dribbling threat somewhere in the mix (you don’t need a Paredes clone, just someone else somewhere in the team that can draw opponents out of their shape while on the ball). The argument that they need more players is a sound one.
However, they’re also going to have to come up with solutions from within. On some fronts, United showed progress last night, creating a respectable number of chances in the first half and progressing through the middle third with more fluidity than we’ve seen in the regular season. A lot of these moves either lacked the last little touch of class, or broke down a bit further along the chain, but if United can make progress, that’s one way to solve this particular problem.
Hernán Losada tried something fairly unorthodox, too, putting three out-and-out strikers on the field at once for the final minutes of the game. After the match, Losada said that the conditions were a factor, but so too was the length of the grass making it harder to connect on shorter passing (which, to be fair to him, there are plenty of examples from both teams where the ball died before it got to where the player playing the pass intended). Per United, the normal time to cut the grass was instead spent on snow removal, and Losada made a situational choice that makes sense: if you’re not in conditions that allow for the beautiful soccer, filling the mixer with strikers and firing the ball into the box has its merits.
However, ultimately nothing quite worked. Some of that was an organized Chicago side who are so much more tough and gritty under Ezra Hendrickson than they ever were under Raphaël Wicky last year. Maybe this comes back to the lack of one more true technician in the attack, but the Black-and-Red had seven of their 15 shot attempts blocked last night. The crowd of white shirts was tough to find a way through, to be sure, but there were also times where United was trying to shove their way through a stuck door when they really just needed to take a second and jiggle the handle, and ultimately the door never opened.
United is going to have to keep examining these potential solutions, even if they strike a deal to bring Taxi to Buzzard Point this week. The fact is that even if Fountas ends up being one of the top DP signings in MLS, he would cover only one of the two missing ingredients here. The work to be better at breaking teams once they get into their lower block — whether that’s by adding another dribbling threat, or by becoming a team that can work passing patterns more quickly, or something else — is still going to take some doing.
Going back a bit, Losada did in fact pull Edison Flores out of this game, while trailing 1-0 at home. In the past, Orejas has struggled to get involved in games with consistency, but that wasn’t the issue against the Fire. He lead United in shot attempts with four, his defensive involvement was above average, and in general he struck me as more “up” for this game than a lot of other matches he’s had with the club.
Even with that in mind, and with consideration for Losada’s note that the grass and blustery conditions do make sense as a reason to consider removing Flores, here’s a question: how many teams in MLS would do that with their highest-paid attacker? Sometimes teams are too deferential to their DPs, leaving them in games where their skill set is completely not cut out for the game that’s unfolding. It wasn’t too long ago that United occasionally found themselves in a track meet, yet also fielding an attack built around Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta. It’s a weird league, things happen.
But United’s at a point with Flores where they’re willing to remove him while trailing at home for a reason other than injury or fatigue, and that feels like a bit of a milestone of sorts. Even his best showing of the season for United couldn’t overcome the reality that the group needed something different, and so they brought in a very different player in Michael Estrada.
Plenty of fans have no patience for the idea that Flores could still make it work. I get it, but I maintain that there’s a very good player in there. It just requires a different sort of outcome than we’ve perhaps been expecting. Flores’ best season in Mexico saw him function as more of a higher-end 2018 Yamil Asad, balancing goals with assists, rather than being the principle creative hub for what used to be Morelia. Flores isn’t Carles Gil, in other words, and while I do not think Losada is trying to make him play like a more traditional playmaking number 10, United’s squad is such that no one else is taking on that creator-in-chief role. Flores is the technician in the starting lineup, and it feels like the balance of roles is such that he ends up in spots where he has to pretend he’s more like Gil or Djordje Mihailovic.
Someone like Randall Leal, who quietly put up 8 goals and 9 assists last year in Hany Mukhtar’s shadow, is more analogous to Flores in style and potential output. What’s the difference between the two? Mainly, it’s that Flores is trying to do a Leal kind of thing without Mukhtar, and now without Arriola. He drew a defensive crowd in this one, with three of his shot attempts being blocked, and it’s not hard to figure out why teams are crowding him.
Maybe this is another issue that Taxi Fountas solves. Maybe Fountas is a Greek version of Mukhtar, and his presence will open up room for Flores to be more productive. Sounds great to me! But those are some big maybes, and the Black-and-Red could play as many as 14 more matches before Taxi’s arrival. United frankly can’t afford to wait this out; between today and Taxi Time, DCU needs to shake something loose with Flores, or with some other combination of attacking players.
Finding some way to keep Flores this active in the attack while also creating enough of a distraction that he has room to actually succeed remains a challenge that no one has quite solved. Maybe against TFC, who are a little more willing to engage in an open game and take risks with possession, he’ll apply this intensity of engagement to increased space and profit…but we’re still talking about a big maybe.