WASHINGTON – Audi Field got drenched on Tuesday night as D.C. United hosted the New England Revolution for their first home match in nearly six months, a menacing cluster of thunderstorms dumping a short but ferocious burst of rain on the near-empty stadium and imposing a 45-minute first-half lightning delay.
The Black-and-Red, however, remain mired in a dusty drought.
With the 2-1 loss to the Revs, D.C. are now 1-3-3 in 2020, 12th of 14 in the Eastern Conference standings, and haven’t won since their comeback victory over expansion side Inter Miami in Week 2. Goals have been nearly as elusive as Ws, with seven scored in seven matches, just two of them from the run of play – both conjured off the bench by Federico Higuain during the MLS is Back Tournament, where United went three and out.
Ben Olsen’s side just can’t find top gear at the moment. An attack significantly rebuilt in the wake of Wayne Rooney's and Lucho Acosta’s winter departures has been victimized by injuries, unfamiliarity and the stop-start nature of this strange season, unable to string together the time on the pitch that brings rhythm and understanding. And as odd as it may sound given that they’re still just seven games into their slate, the clock is ticking.
“From a soccer side, from a tactical side, from an identifying-who-we-are standpoint, that’s getting better,” said Olsen postgame on Tuesday. “Every game it’s getting better, but what needs to be enhanced right now is our ability to win.”
The Washington Post’s Steve Goff referred to Olsen’s framing of the situation as “lowering expectations and buying time,” and it’s apt for a team with plenty of talent available but limited chemistry so far, at least in the final third.
Club-record signing Edison Flores has yet to live up to that tag, hampered by injuries and adaptation and searching for his most productive spot on the field. Julian Gressel hasn’t been the assist machine he was in Atlanta, and Yamil Asad has been pedestrian compared to his first two seasons in MLS. Ola Kamara’s track record of 0.58 goals every 90 minutes or so is nowhere to be seen in 2020. Teenage Homegrown Kevin Paredes and 35-year-old newcomer Higuain have been the surprise standouts, which in this case isn’t an altogether promising sign.
The whole simply hasn’t added up to the sum of its parts, much less eclipsed it.
So Olsen and his staff have shuffled and tinkered, setting aside their default 4-2-3-1 formation for a 3-5-2 their past two games. It leans on D.C.’s sturdy defense and seems to be engineered with Gressel in mind, given the German-American’s good past work as a right wingback, and on Tuesday gave Flores the chance to roam more freely with fewer defensive concerns as Kamara’s nominal partner up top. (Black & Red United’s Jason Anderson has penned a far more detailed rundown of the setup that’s useful reading.)
The gambit has been promising thus far, though the fits and starts of a new shape require levels of patience that may be elusive for United right now. And the season’s struggles were epitomized when Flores, just as he was truly finding his feet after halftime, was floored by a clash of heads with Alex Buttner and had to be helped off the pitch.
“Edison, right before he got hit, he was starting to start to cook, and it was nice to see him moving and shaking out there, creating plays and adding in to the attack and setting players up in advanced positions to get service,” lamented Olsen. “So I thought he actually had a pretty, pretty good day and he’s probably not going to be available here for a game or two. But overall a choppy night in that way.”
It’s been a choppy year, in fact, for D.C. United. And though so many of the circumstances that made it that way are out of their control, they’ve got a small and closing window in which to rise above it, and change their story. Daunting visits to Philadelphia and the New York Red Bulls await in the week ahead.