D.C. United are a couple months removed from their loss to the Columbus Crew in the MLS Cup knockout round. It was a wild game, with two extra-time goals and a penalty shootout. The loss terminated DCU’s hopes of riding the midseason Wayne Rooney wave to playoff glory.
It shouldn’t, however, end D.C.’s window to win big with Rooney. They’re in a position to go for trophies in 2019 if they can conjure that September-October form again, when they went 10 straight unbeaten with five straight wins in the middle. The rumored acquisition of highly-touted Argentinian attacker Lucas Rodriguez will prompt further DCU optimism.
One of the biggest variables for next season will be coach Ben Olsen — and whether his attacking style of play will carry over. Olsen has sometimes struggled to maintain tactical consistency; after the club saw success at the end of 2016, they failed to build upon it the following season.
At their 2018 best, D.C. played on the front foot and freed their skillful attackers. Luciano Acosta performed skill moves and showcased his dribbling creativity at every opportunity, breaking through gaps and setting up teammates. Yamil Asad found the ball on the wing and dictated D.C.’s attack with clever passing. Rooney did smart, world-class things on the ball and scored a lot of goals. With Russell Canouse locking down defensive midfield — he was fantastic for stretches in 2018 — DCU avoided breakdowns on the end.
Olsen has to not only keep all this going, but he has to adjust as needed. D.C.’s backline could still revert to game-losing leakiness. Prior to their first game at Audi Field on July 14, they were last place in the Eastern Conference and giving up over two goals per game. They rebounded, giving up 21 goals over their last 20 games, but the roots of the early struggles were still there.
The uncertainty of the fullback position remains concerning. Oniel Fisher and Joseph Mora don’t provide the overlapping talent D.C. might want. The Black and Red could be on the lookout for upgrades on the flanks.
Paul Arriola, the winger who moved full-time to fullback late in the year, should help in that area. But the pitfalls of relying on such a high-octane, attacking-based system tend to revolve around defense, particularly when the personnel is already questionable.
Adjusting without overcompensating is crucial. Olsen can’t revert to regressive soccer the second defensive weakness appears.
The biggest test for D.C.’s squad of young attackers will be when Rooney doesn’t play — or if he goes on a slump at any point. Acosta’s production is considerably worse without Rooney. In over 1,000 minutes prior to the Englishman’s arrival, he generated 0.30 xG+xA per 96.
He managed 0.57 xG+xA per 96 after Rooney’s debut on July 14, according to American Soccer Analysis.
Last year, Acosta produced 0.40 xG+xA. He excels as a secondary creator, with the calming, refined presence of Rooney propping him up. But he may not have the attack-driving talent to dominate by himself. How Olsen will set D.C. up when Rooney doesn’t play — which will happen, given Rooney’s age — will be intriguing.
Darren Mattocks was a capable backup last year. He worked hard defensively and scored a handful of goals, keeping the attack stable without Rooney and adding a nice attacking presence off the bench. But FC Cincinnati chose him in the expansion draft, leaving the position of second-string forward essentially vacant.
Even when Rooney does play, his high mileage could become a problem given D.C.’s pressing. As the Galaxy saw last year with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Montreal saw with Didier Drogba in 2016, defending from the front is important. Rooney may struggle to maintain the impressive work rate he managed last season.
If that becomes a legitimate concern at some point, Olsen could have to tone down the aggressiveness at the top of his 4-2-3-1 formation to compensate.
Big games against elite teams — and, by extension, the postseason — will be important for Olsen, who has to prove he can hang with the league’s top managers in chess matches. He’s much more pragmatic than coaches like Chris Armas, who will adjust their teams and styles when the situation calls for it.
Plenty of difficult situations loom for a club trying to prove it can sustain last season’s emphatic success. Olsen is at the center of how D.C. ultimately overcome those situations.
Harrison Hamm is a sportswriter who covers American soccer and MLS for FloFC. He also covers sports for FanSided and The Comeback, and has freelanced for the Washington Post.