The arrival of Wayne Rooney as head coach last summer seemed to mark a stylistic change for D.C. United, certainly following Hernan Losada’s 16-month reign.
A team that had been among the league’s highest pressing quickly became devoted to keeping the ball, looking to use possession in its defensive third to attract the opponent forward in order to create 4v4’s or even 5v4’s going the other way.
While that sounded great, the reality was more grim, as D.C. United struggled with building from the back, leading to some shocking #WPIOOTBGW candidates. In fairness to Rooney, the team was still largely Losada’s even after the club made several additions, including two Designated Players, last summer. Making it to the offseason, rebooting the roster, and returning refreshed in 2023 became the goal.
The first 45 minutes of the season gave supporters reason to believe that the team could implement Rooney’s ideas at a high level, as D.C. United used the ball to pull Toronto FC’s midfield apart and exploit gaps in the backline. Two weeks later, the first half against Orlando City SC was similarly promising, though the team failed to convert its chances and ended up dropping two points at home.
D.C. United found considerably less joy on the ball in its four ensuing matches. Long balls from Tyler Miller to Christian Benteke became the only source of progression during a spell in which the team went 0-3-1:
Recognizing that things were not working, Rooney scrapped the 4-4-2 ahead of Matchday 8’s trip to Montreal, replacing it with the 3-5-2 he had toyed with in September. In doing so, he embraced some of the directness and intensity that had made the team enjoyable to watch under his predecessor and allowed for a 3-0 victory over Charlotte FC on Saturday night.
While the scoreline suggests a one-sided affair, the reality is that D.C. United was fortunate to head into the break up a goal, particularly after the opening 30 minutes in which it struggled to break free from Charlotte’s grasp. The Crown lined up in a nominal 4-2-3-1 that resembled more of a 4-2-4 during the build-up. By keeping their wingers – Kerwin Vargas on the left and McKinzie Gaines on the right – high and wide, they sought to pin D.C. United’s wingbacks deep, creating a numerical superiority at the back (4+2 against D.C.’s two forwards and three central midfielders).
Taken at the 30-minute mark, observe Charlotte’s passing network from Saturday night. Pay particular attention to the positioning of Gaines (17) on the right and the thickness of the line connecting Nathan Byrne (14) to Gaines, signifying a relatively high number of passes between the two. In the first seven minutes alone, Byrne attempted two balls over the head of D.C.’s left wingback, Pedro Santos, and into the stride of Gaines. The emphasis was clearly on preventing the Black-and-Red from generating width through Santos and his counterpart on the right, Andy Najar, allowing Charlotte to regain possession immediately after losing it:
If you go back and rewatch the first 10 seconds of that clip, you will notice the time on the ball that D.C. United afforded Charlotte’s center backs in the first half of Saturday’s contest. The visitors took advantage of this by using their central midfielders as bounce options; Brandt Bronico and Ashley Westwood’s positioning between D.C.’s midfield and forward lines allowed them to receive the ball from the center backs and play it wide to an open fullback with one touch. In doing so, they bypassed the Black-and-Red’s first line of pressure and forced the nearest central midfielder – be it Mateusz Klich or Lewis O’Brien – to apply pressure wide, opening space centrally for Karol Świderski.
Recognizing this issue, D.C. United adjusted its approach in the second half, giving more rigidity to its pressing structure. Benteke and Taxiarchis Fountas intensified the pressure they applied to Charlotte’s center backs while Klich or O’Brien stepped out of midfield to press the strong-side fullback, typically on traditional pressing triggers such as a negative or square pass. Russell Canouse and the other central midfielder, meanwhile, shifted to mark Charlotte’s central midfielders fairly aggressively, making it difficult for the Crown to build:
In general, there just seemed to be a clearer idea of who should be applying pressure and when. As the game wore on, Charlotte’s wingers, once positioned so high, began dropping lower in an attempt to help in the build-up, freeing Najar and Santos from the shackles that bound them in the opening half hour.
Thus, it is no coincidence that D.C. United ended up tripling its lead in the second half. As Rooney put it: “Even [though] Charlotte had a bit of possession, we were always in control.”
No one will mistake this team for Losada’s, but by embracing a more direct, intense style of play, Rooney is adjusting to his personnel and setting his team up to make some noise in the East.
Amidst a three-match winning streak, D.C. United fans are dreaming, anyway.
Featured image courtesy of D.C. United and Hannah Wagner.