Except this time, it was a youthful midfield trio of Luciano Acosta, Ian Harkes and Jared Jeffrey who outdueled their seasoned and star-studded opponents, making light of Marcelo Sarvas' absence due to suspension.
“We’re just three young guys who want to keep playing and want to play in every game,” said Acosta through an interpreter, after a match in which he proved more influential than City’s David Villa and Andrea Pirlo.
“We don’t pay attention to the rival, to the experience of who we’re playing,” he continued. “We want to do well and focus on us first.”
While impressive, Acosta’s fine attacking performance was the least surprising element of the trio.
After missing United’s 4-0 away loss to NYCFC on March 12 via injury, Acosta offered D.C.’s most consistent offensive threat in the rematch and was rewarded with a 73rd-minute goal that eventually proved the winner.
It echoed his form from the latter portion of last season, a stretch that helped him finish 2016 as the team’s assists leader.
“He’s a good player, especially if you let him play,” lamented NYCFC coach Patrick Vieira. “He can dictate the game, he can hurt any team. And yes, you can say it’s a different team with Acosta and without Acosta.”
Harkes and in particular Jeffrey were more of a revelation, especially considering the only other time that tandem both made Olsen’s starting 11 was that miserable loss four weeks ago.
“I thought personally it was good for him to get back out there and show that he’s a very, very capable player in this league,” Olsen said of Jeffrey. “And I thought he was great. He covered a bunch of ground, his duel-winning was great, and had good composure in that role.”
As for Harkes, the highly-touted Homegrown rookie?
“Ian is growing before our eyes, and that’s a lot of fun for a coach to watch,” Olsen said. “He still has moments where he needs to get better. The good thing about that is he takes information on very well, and he’ll fix it.”
One of those fixes may be finishing on the next level. After scoring four game-winning goals in his senior collegiate season for Wake Forest, Harkes had a precious chance for his first pro tally in the 90th minute after Acosta turned a turnover into another buzzing run.
Harkes tried to drive it low, but Sean Johnson was able to make a relatively simple save.
“I was pretty tired at that point trying to get up the field,” Harkes said. “I just kind of got the ball in front of my feet a little bit. I was excited to get the chance, but I’ve got to do better.”