DC United is good now. Let that sink in.
After spending most of the season on the road and in or near the Eastern Conference basement, a run of home games (at a brand new home, no less) and an English legend have revitalized the postseason hopes of the Black and Red. FiveThirtyEight currently gives DC a 54% chance of making the playoffs (the Union are at 85%) with the next closest team, Montreal, at only 27%.
But there is a big positive for the Union as they head down to Audi Field for the first time. United is coming off a rough and tumble matchup at Red Bull Arena in which they started their strongest eleven. Perpetually underrated winger Yamil Asad went down with an ankle knock in that one, meaning Ben Olsen may need to juggle his lineup, potentially inserting Zoltan Stieber or switching to a 4-4-2 that pushes Luciano Acosta wide and brings Darren Mattocks into the side.
The change in shape seems unlikely if only because Olsen’s team has had such success in its current incarnation. DC is a deceptive 5-3-1 with Rooney. Deceptive is not pejorative in this case, but instead refers to the three losses, which have come against New York Red Bulls — by a combined 2-0 scoreline — and Atlanta United. Aside from losing to the best in the league and a 1-1 slip up at Montreal, then, DC has been perfect with their new signing leading the line.
The question is: Why? What has Rooney done to change the fortunes of this team?
There are a few things.
First, and this isn’t very insightful but it’s true, he’s just a very good all-around player. As dangerous as Darren Mattocks can be running behind a defensive line, a player that can consistently create space for himself, draw others out of position, and request/receive the ball in tight spaces is incredibly difficult to defend. David Villa has been starring in this sitcom for years; Rooney isn’t breaking new ground, he’s just showing that he can walk on the same ground as the greats.
Second, Rooney has developed a quick trust with DC’s best players. When the English striker receives the ball, Lucho Acosta, Paul Arriola, Yamil Asad, and even Russell Canouse feel they can get up the pitch because Rooney will find a way to get them the ball, or at least won’t lose it and leave them stranded. This level of trust amongst players is undervalued; it has been a major factor in Borek Dockal’s emergence as a dangerous playmaker as well. At this point in the season, there are few places on the pitch the Union will not feed Dockal the ball, regardless of whether he’s tightly marked or not.
Third, Rooney consistently provides an extra body in the center. The striker reads the game so well that he will pop off of the back line and into space the moment holding midfielders get pulled out of position. This makes it imperative that teams control the passing lanes in to Rooney, but it’s extremely hard to do. Opening up at the right time means moving out of eyesight of the players trying to shadow passing lanes, and Rooney does this like, I dunno, one of the great strikers of his generation might.
Once the striker is on the ball DC sends runners forward, and if Rooney can turn and pick someone out it’s easy to get pinned into your own end.
Without the ball, DC United falls back into a 4-2-3-1 shape that focuses on protecting the center of the pitch. Russell Canouse and Junior Moreno sit in front of the back four, and the spacing between them and Acosta varies considerably throughout the match. At times, this can lead to opportunities, like when Canouse steps forward to close the ball and leaves gaps behind him. In these moments, Moreno has to rotate across to help, but he can be pinned home by an advancing midfielder — say, Ale Bedoya — moving into the far-side channel.
The other way DC United can get exposed is by getting numbers down the flanks when the ball is rotated side to side. United prioritize the center, but this can occur to such an extent that the back four are all within the width of the box, leaving lanes outside for advancing runners. The Union have just such a runner in Keegan Rosenberry, so the timing of Rosenberry’s forward movements will be key on Wednesday.
The final option for attacking DC is to try and pull their center backs out of position. United’s central defenders, Kofi Opare and Steve Birnbaum, are strong in the air, so moving them out of the box is a good way to open space for Cory Burke and CJ Sapong. If DC’s fullbacks step up to challenge the Union’s wingers, this could leave channels through which Dockal can move, looking to get behind the defense and force a central defender to track him.
Even though they are coming off a road loss, DC United is still a very dangerous home opponent. Getting three points at Audi Field would be a great start for the Union’s short road trip leading into the September 8-9 international break.