Set Pieces Make the Difference For D.C. United Once Again In Columbus Win

D.C. United once again won on the road, this time defeating the Columbus Crew 1-0 at MAPFRE Stadium on Wednesday evening. Wayne Rooney smashed in a free kick for his fifth goal of the season and United stood tall defensively to preserve the shutout. The win was the Black-and-Red's first in Columbus since August 2007, ending an 11-game winless streak in the Ohio capital.

The win also gave United their 10th point on the road in 2019. That's three wins and a draw from four games — which matches the total amount of points that D.C. got from 17 road games in 2018. In picking up the win, D.C. also kept their fifth clean sheet of the season, already just one short of matching last year's total.

The performance wasn't easy on the eyes, but United looked much better on Wednesday night than they did on Sunday in the 2-0 loss to New York City FC. Ben Olsen also shuffled his formation once again, with Donovan Pines starting alongside Steven Birnbaum and Frederic Brillant. Pines had a good debut against the Colorado Rapids two weeks ago, but the towering center back was even better on Wednesday, commanding the box against a Columbus team that sent 44 crosses into the box.

United face another quick turnaround with a Sunday game at Minnesota United, but before moving on, let's chat about a couple of things from Wednesday night.

Set Pieces Are A Big Factor For D.C. United in 2019

Last year, the Black-and-Red struggled to take advantage of free kicks and set plays before the summer arrival of Wayne Rooney. Most of the goals that D.C. scored — and there weren't that many during the road trip to begin the season — came from open play. Rooney's arrival changed that a bit, but United still didn't threaten enough, whether that was from corner kicks or free kicks.

That's no longer the case in 2019, as Rooney's free kick goal was the sixth set piece goal for the Black-and-Red this year. That's not counting Rooney's penalty against Real Salt Lake either. United have become so efficient from set pieces, that there's almost an over-reliance on them right now. But on Wednesday, Rooney's free kick, which squeaked through the wall, was all United needed. 

Of course, the common denominator in these set pieces is Rooney. The English striker has scored directly from free kicks twice. He also had the primary assist on Lucas Rodriguez's wonder goal from a corner against RSL, to go along with Birnbaum's header against Orlando City. Rooney also delivered the corner for Paul Arriola's curtain-raiser against Atlanta United, the same with Luciano Acosta's opener against the Rapids.

It pays to have a player of Rooney's caliber, but there also has to be understanding in the box for the service as well. It seems that United is capable of threatening from any set piece within 30 yards of goal, which will help them pick up points throughout the season in games where they aren't at their best.

Where'd This Road Form Come From?

Last year United were abysmal on the road. They made the playoffs despite just picking up one win on the road and 10 points. In fact, in 2017 and 2018, United combined for four road wins in 34 games. The next one they win this year will match that total. 

The question is how has United turned it around on the road? Rooney didn't have to travel much last year, but even when he did, United couldn't manage a win. Not the case this year though, as the Black-and-Red haven't even lost a game in four tries away from Audi Field. 

In all three wins, there has been some element of hanging on in the second half, as United have had the lead at the break in all three contests. Against Orlando and Colorado, second-half goals from the hosts put United under pressure, but that wasn't really the case against Columbus. The Crew had more chances in the second half than their guests, but it wasn't a constant barrage of chances either.

Deep into the game on Wednesday, there was even a bit of clock management, exemplified by Quincy Amarikwa on two occasions after the forward entered the game late for Rooney. That helped United relieve pressure on their own end and burn some time off the clock.

Whatever is working between the lines for United has to be giving them even more confidence on the road, with 13 more games away from Audi Field left this season. Now if they could only replicate that form at Buzzard Point...

Maybe There Is Something To The Three-Man Back Line

Against Colorado, Olsen inserted Pines and Jalen Robinson into the lineup and rolled with a 3-4-2-1 formation out of necessity. Injuries had robbed United of any natural outside backs, limiting Olsen's options. That wasn't the case against the Crew, and United could have certainly found ways to play their usual 4-2-3-1 formation.

But Pines got the nod, and United's three center backs were just about the three best players on the field on Wednesday night. Of course, they were aided by the Crew, whose solution to attacking a three-man back line with three players over six feet tall was to pump cross after cross into the box.

Seriously, the Crew delivered 44 crosses over the course of 90 minutes. None of those resulted in a goal of course, but Columbus never deviated from that plan of attack. And in general, it seemed like United were much more comfortable in the formation than against the Rapids. In that game, United did just enough to eke out a win. Not the case against the Crew.

Just take a look at the expected goals from the night. There were some chances for the hosts, but nothing that was should have been a sure-fire goal. And that's thanks to the trio of Birnbaum, Brillant, and Pines.

When everyone is healthy, the three-man back line might not be as viable, since it takes away a spot for an attacking player. But as United are struggling with injuries, it's a good bet that Olsen rolls with the same look on Sunday against the Loons.

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