WASHINGTON — Of all Luciano Acosta’s quality moments during D.C. United’s 2-0 win over the New England Revolution on Sunday night, the most telling may have come early, before even his 13th-minute goal gave D.C. the lead.
The Revs had a rare spell of early possession and were sending a long diagonal ball down the left flank, where Acosta was making a ferocious recovery run.
With one silky touch, he brought down the probing ball and snuffed out the danger. And with another, played a pass that helped D.C. win a free kick and ease the pressure. As the sequence ended, Wayne Rooney walked over and offered a congratulatory pat on the shoulder.
While Acosta would eventually go on to score his fifth goal and complete a sizzling offensive three-match homestand, it's the more subtle moments, like his early takeaway, that show the biggest area of growth from United’s 24-year-old Argentine.
Acosta was once considered a defensive liability who came off early when D.C. tried to kill matches, but now coach Ben Olsen is clearly riding his No. 10 as long as he can no matter the score, playing him in 258 of 270 possible minutes over D.C.’s three-match, eight-day stretch. And after United’s latest win, he even used the M-word to describe the former Boca Juniors prospect man.
“He’s playing really mature,” Olsen said. “It’s the discipline defensively, it’s the decision making, when to pull out the tricks and when to connect the pass. It’s the composure in front of the goal now, which is new to his game as well.”
With five goals and 10 assists, Acosta has already ensured his most productive offensive campaign. And as D.C. continue their attempt at a late climb up the Eastern Conference table, it’s also becoming his most complete.
But just where did this more evolved version of Acosta come from? Olsen points to Rooney’s influence, but he's also quick to note there’s more to it than that. Even before the former Manchester United and England superstar arrived on Potomac Avenue this summer, Acosta was beginning to earn more trust in all ranges of situations.
With 13 matches left in the season, Acosta is likely to easily surpass his career-high of 2,419 minutes from last season if he remains healthy. (He currently sits at 1,686).
“It’s been a slow burn on it, but even this year, when he was temperamental and up and down, it was still better than last year,” Olsen said. “This stuff takes time, and I’m glad he’s taking a big step forward. And the message to him, and to everybody, is don’t get caught up in it and just keep rolling. That’s the standard.”
Where Rooney has perhaps provided the biggest influence is in shifting Acosta’s thoughts about being the target of other teams’ physical play. Countless times over the last month, Acosta has played through challenges that, earlier in his career, would’ve sent him to the turf.
“Myself and Wayne, we got hit quite a bit,” Acosta said of Sunday’s match, through an interpreter. “But that gives the freedom for other players, some space to find the ball more.”
There’s also a slight formation tweak over the last four matches from a 4-1-4-1 to a 4-2-3-1, beginning with a 1-1 draw at the Montreal Impact two weeks ago. That has sent Paul Arriola out wide from a No. 8 role, and perhaps given Acosta a more defined sense of his defensive responsibilities.
“With me and Lucho in the middle, it’s easy to get lost in there defensively, right?” Arriola said. “Now when we have two No. 6s like Junior [Moreno] and Russell [Canouse], his job is very specific. And he and Wayne do a great job controlling the defensive midfield parts of opposite teams, and especially this week.
“Defensively, we don’t want a team to play through the middle. We want them to go out wide where we can press them and squeeze them. And it starts with them.”