D.C. United’s 3-1 win over the Columbus Crew on Saturday night marked the 11th game of the season for the Black-and-Red — roughly a third of the 34 games on the schedule. United have picked up six wins already in 2019 and currently sit just behind the Philadelphia Union atop the Eastern Conference, tied on points with 20 but second on goal differential.
United got off to a great start in 2019, winning three of their first four games in March and quickly climbing to the top of the Eastern Conference. But then April was a bit strange for the Black-and-Red, starting with the 4-0 loss at home on April 6 to Los Angeles FC. United went winless at Audi during the month, scoring zero goals. On the other hand, D.C. won two of three games away from home, helping them keep pace in the East.
Here’s our question for the week: How well-positioned are United after rounding the third pole this weekend? Which questions linger for United heading into the final two-thirds of the season? Which questions have been answered in the first two months of the year?
Steven: D.C. United didn’t stand completely still heading into the close of the primary transfer window, as they added defender Marquinhos Pedroso last week. Joseph Mora seems to be some way from a return from his broken jaw, so the addition of another left back seemed imperative for the Black-and-Red.
But where the team could have strengthened its depth even more before the opening of the secondary transfer window in July, United seemingly stood pat as 1 AM ET on May 8 came and went. After practice yesterday, head coach Ben Olsen talked about urgency in adding players to the squad. Not necessarily starters, but players who could provide depth, given that United is set to lose two players for international tournaments in the upcoming weeks.
“It’s an urgency you always have to have in this league. You have to look to get better, because that is the way the league is going,” said Olsen. “We’ve been able to manage the season so far, and grab points, but there’s been times we’ve gotten [points] the hard way, and we want to make the team better.”
The question now is this: Can United manage the next nine games without any more additions and keep pace atop the Eastern Conference? The next window opens on July 9, at which point United will have just 14 games left in their season. Olsen has done a great job thus far in managing around injuries and absences. But it’s been a struggle at times to get results, and maybe another attacker or two, to go along with a midfielder, could have helped this team out over the next two months.
Hunter: The word I think about when I think about D.C. United — and these days I find myself thinking about D.C. United quite a bit — is “enigmatic.” But the D.C. enigma is, I contend, in the perfect position to gain some lucidity.
There are plenty of non-enigmatic teams out in the MLS, in either conference: LAFC are very, very good. The LA Galaxy are very good. The Colorado Rapids are not good. But like I said last time, there hasn’t really been a consistent stretch of the year, dating back to the preseason, when the play has looked fluid, when the attack has clicked and the results have followed without a hitch. Some really good things have happened (sitting near the top of the conference standings) and some really not-good things have happened (a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Carlos Vela & Co.).
At this point you have to think Toronto are the favorite in the Eastern Conference. They train D.C. and Philly by four points but have three games in hand; they’ve got the best games-to-points ratio and are tied with the most goals scored (21) despite the 270 minutes of game time they’re trailing thanks to the supremely wonky MLS schedule.
Here’s my actual answer to the question: I think if and when Toronto climb to the top of the standings, United will be in a perfect position to iron out their faults. Assuming the Black-and-Red don’t do any worse, they’ll neither have the pressure of trying to make the playoffs (this side has too much talent for that kind of slide) nor the pressure of being the prohibitive favorite. They can hum along, get to work without relative distraction, and focus on getting better.
Wesley: There’s no question D.C. United should and will likely be a playoff team, which is always an achievement one year to the next in this league. Their chances of finishing at or near the top of the table are helped considerably by the fact that the Eastern Conference appears to be a bit down this year.
I think Ben Olsen’s men have done extremely well dealing with injuries and a formation change, all the while securing points and remaining at the top of the East. A significant concern has been Luciano Acosta’s lack of production, but he returned to the scoresheet on Saturday and looked much more like his 2018 self in a standout performance. I wouldn’t be surprised to see that really jumpstart this offense after a sluggish start to the campaign.
The biggest question I have will likely be answered in the coming weeks. You can only beat who’s on your schedule, and D.C. have largely done that, but other than the pair of wins against Columbus, they have won just once in six tries against teams that would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. In other words, there’s still a lot to learn about this side when they’re up against some of the more complete teams in the league.
We’re going to find out a lot more about what they’re made of sooner rather than later. Consecutive away matches against Houston and Toronto will provide stiff tests for the back line, which will be without Donovan Pines for the next month or so. The defensive unit has performed quite well and Pines has excelled since coming into the fray, but Houston’s blistering pace and Alejandro Pozuelo’s playmaking ability for Toronto will present unique challenges.