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.

ByMarc Machado

Contributor, The District Press

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Brendan Cartwright

I don’t know if it’s the tactics, or just individual coaching, but United has been getting a lot out of some rejuvenated players. Christian Benteke just looked absolutely past it last year, and didn’t leave me with a ton of hope for this season (to say nothing of next year). But he’s been dominant as a center forward, winning everything in the air and providing a fulcrum for the team to build around. He’s gotten a couple goals on headers as you might expect, but his last two goals (chesting down in the area to then turn and volley, and the bicycle) have been top notch technique goals.

Likewise, Victor Palsson had been pretty disappointing, and this author had openly mused about how the team had brought him in to shore up the middle, but then basically used him everywhere but. He’s found a new lease on life as the right center back in the back three (although I wonder if Derrick Williams will maybe claim that spot).

Donovan Pines looked totally at sea by the end of last year, and even Rooney had seemed to lose faith in him. When all the other center backs were injured, Rooney elected to start 16 year old Matai Akinmboni in the opener rather than Pines. But now Pines has gotten his shot, and has looked far more assured.

Russell Canouse was never really bad, but seems to be enjoying some of the best performances of his career so far. Likewise, Steve Birnbaum has been very solid. And adding Mateusz Klich and Lewis O’Brien to take over the role of Ravel Morrison has been an absolute win.

Last year was a shambles, and nobody really looked good (except for Taxi, and even he had the slur incident against Miami). United has made some good additions (Tyler Miller is the obvious standout, and I’ve mentioned Klich, O’Brien, and Williams. We’ll give some love to Pedro Santos, especially at left wingback.), and has gotten some decent play from its homegrowns. But credit to Rooney and the coaching staff for getting everyone pulling in one direction, and bringing out some vastly improved individual performances throughout the team.

Riky Nary

I’d be cool with Williams dropping into Palsson’s spot if healthy. Palsson is solid defensively when he’s supported, but not a true threat going forward. Typically slowing play down, not working well with Klich, and opting for direct to Benteke a high percent of the time.

Oddly, Williams is left footed, and Pines is right. And I’d very much prefer Pines stay on that left side as we’ve seen his left CB time and it went backwards a lot (and occasionally to the other team). Defensively, Pines Birnbaum Williams would be the strongest as well.

Riky Nary

Thanks for this, glad to have some additional tactical comments on the team. The second half pressing structure should be utilized against any team that utilizes strong build out through a deep laying midfielder(s).

Once we lose a little mojo in our current attack tactic, I’d hope we see a different tactic so they can give Benteke a rest and test an alternative attack in a competitive match.
If anyone went to the open cup game, I’d love to see a tactical breakdown on what DCU tried to do there. I imagine it included a 4321 or a 3421 with a less physical target forward but maintaining the same defensive setup.

Brendan Cartwright

I think Cristian Dajome might bring a different attacking element to the team. Maybe we can also see either Jackson Hopkins or Kristian Fletcher take a step forward.

I think having Andy Najar at right wing back rather than Ruan also makes the team more dangerous. Ruan has better pace, but Najar is better on the dribble, and willing to attack more centrally.


Najar must be really annoying for the opposing team to deal with. They can press the ever living hell out of the entire team but Najar will just kill you for being aggressive, threads the ball right past you. He’s made some really dangerous moments in the final third lately too.

Will Nelson

We are definitely going to miss O’Brien when he goes back across the pond in the summer. From the interviews he’s done he wants to go back and prove himself in the EPL.

Bryan McEachern

At least he’s honest about it. The question will be is he in the sights of any team in EPL, meaning interested teams are all championship-level, or may end up being relegated to that level. Will he want to make the move to championship? That is a bit less clear to me. Premier League invite? He’s gone, and I couldn’t blame him.

Brendan Cartwright

I give him a lot of credit for being honest about his situation, but also saying all the right things about DC in particular and MLS in general. In addition to being excellent on the field, he seems to be a great guy, and a true professional.


Asad said similar things when he was going back to Argentina. He said his heart was always with Nuevo Chicago or something to that effect. It made sense as his loan to MLS was up and it was clear that he was going back.

I suppose he’d have something else to say now that Nuevo Chicago ended up benching him and returned back to DC United, got released after a coaching change, and re-signed after a better coach came in.

Just the nature of being a pro. I respect him for being a pro with his public comments.

Just as I respect being O’Brian being a pro too. I doubt he’d want to go back to the Championship for a lower salary and lower standard of play. I’m sure he’d want to go back to the Premiership for a higher salary and higher standard of play. Just like any pro would.

In the meantime, I respect both those players for taking advantage of the chance to play good soccer, extend their careers (both O’Brian and Asad were this close to losing their career) and compete for minutes on a major league team. I can only imagine how hard it is to be at 100% after going through the roller coasters AND adjusting to a new country (although Asad has some familiarity with it having lived here before and he probably now knows the language enough to get around).

Bryan McEachern

I don’t think O’Brien was close to losing his career. He was in a jam until the summer window on a technicality, not a performance issue. I can’t make the same claim for Asad, because I simply don’t know what was the deal in Argentina. I will (this is all respectful banter) add that there is plenty of Spanish spoken in the area for Asad to enjoy himself, but I do hope he is getting his English down!

You are so correct, I think it’s great that they “pro’d up” to continue their careers. I am glad that they are both in the black n red.


Good analysis. Love these articles that deal with analytics and/or tactics.


I disagree with a lot of this article. The game really was as lopsided as the score, once DC United broke Charlotte in about the 22nd minute

Charlotte doesn’t have a good attacking center mid. They have only two ways to get the ball into the final third: press and get a high turnover or send it down the flank.

They elected to press to start the game and get an early blow in.

From both my own experience and from watching pro games, a non-press team has to weather an early storm then figure out how to get around a press. Every press either give you space down the flank high or on the flank in the mid then down the middle. It’s up to the possession-oriented team to figure it out in real time, along with the general rhythm of the press and when/where they press. When I first started seeing a press in my rec league in about 2016 or 2017, I was flustered. I am a center back. It took me quite a few games to figure out where the space was when I was getting pressed for the first time in my life.

DC United hadn’t figured out Charlotte’s press until about 22ish minutes in. There was one sequence where they calmly passed it out of the back, then straight up to Klich or Benteke who then dished it to DCU #7. He then held it and recycled it back to Canouse. Press broken. Charlotte now had to move their line of engagement back to within their own half to prevent DC United from getting the ball to Fountas isolated against their center backs with impunity.

The next trip down the field was 3 or 4 passes to Fountas on the left who then cut across the top of the box and hit a shot. He sliced that one off target to the right but it was a clear warning shot to Charlotte. The next possession was where they got the ball to Fountas isolated in the box against the center back. That will usually lead to a goal or a penalty. I’ve been that center back and you just don’t want to be hung out to dry in that situation.

In real time, I said to my friends when #7 recycled it back to Canouse, “They just broke Charlotte.” When Fountas got that ball then cut across the box and mishit that first shot, I said, “3-0 DC United. Charlotte is cooked. They’ll get one late in the first, then something will happen in the second and then Charlotte will all of a sudden feel the fatigue of chasing the game on the road to a possession team.” My friends are on my rec league team and said, “yup, something like that, sounds reasonable enough.”

I’ve been on both sides of that scenario.

It’s just the nature of the press. Hence part of why the Red Bulls and SKC are hitting some serious walls. Every player is now used to breaking a press and knows that they need to weather the storm and then they’ll figure out the press rhythm and where the space is located to exploit.

Charlotte is a below average team. Probably not a bad team but still not inept by any stretch.


I want to add, be very, very careful about using those stats from They don’t accurately describe how a game unfolded in real time or give any sort of clue about how to win a soccer game going forward. They are also misleading in hindsight.

For example, one of the writers at just wrote how he is completely baffled about how the Red Bulls could be in last place when their stats say they “should” be in first. They have the most xG in the East.

xG doesn’t tell you that the other teams have figured out your tired mid-2010’s press scheme and no longer fear it. They are able to get blocks inside the box because they know where the ball is going once they turn it over in the middle third and make the last-second block. xG is incapable of recording that. Why, according to the xG, the Red Bulls should have beaten Coach Olsen’s Houston team 4 or 5 to 1. Yet, it ended up 1-1 off a late Red Bulls set piece lucky goal. Houston played rope-a-dope and blocked lots of chances inside their own box then started to break the Red Bulls press at will in the second half.

Sound familiar? Sound like Charlotte and DC United except DC has more talent than Houston and a better coach (no offense to Coach Olsen as he is an above average coach who is thankfully getting a chance to prove that he can be successful) so they broke the press even earlier?

Also, be very careful about using those passing charts. No pass in a soccer game is ever made between two stationary players, nor is the opposition ever stationary. Also, the context of those passes evolve over a 90 minute game.


I also disagree with using the term “press” for DC United’s line of engagement. At no point, did they send their center backs forward into the middle third to squeeze Charlotte’s mids. At no point did they send two players forward at the transition from the other team’s defending third to the middle third to try to cut them off before they could look up.

DC United did raise its line of engagement but it was with sending one man to apply pressure while the other teammates cut off passing lanes. It was designed to force Charlotte to make a choice they didn’t want to make rather than smother and cause turnovers and high counters. It was designed to prevent Charlotte from getting into the final third, not cause an immediate counter. The psychology was to frustrate Charlotte with their lack of avenues to advance the ball, not to overwhelm and panic (and foul but hope the referee doesn’t call like like SKC/Red Bull/NYC).

Sending the player forward to engage and moving the defensive shape forward as a whole is a variation on Coach Rooney’s style. It was not something you’d see the Red Bulls do.

I’d use the term “higher line of engagement” rather than “press” to describe DC United’s defensive adjustments.

Bryan McEachern

Interesting take. I was either a press or a high line of engagement (I attacked RBs from left wing all the time, usually rendering take always and “trash goals” or assists.) I sure could get gassed by about 70. Speed really helped me, but I think it would be a stretch to say I had Arriola stamina.


I don’t think it’s the nature of soccer for any successful team to be so one-dimensional anymore. RB, SKC, and even Leeds across the pond have sort of been broken by adhering to the one strategy for so many years. The same core which drove their success years ago has given way to either age or just getting broken up over time. Players and coaches move around too much for an organization to put all it’s eggs in one basket, whether it’s possession, pressure or counterattacking football. Or, as you’ve pointed out, teams know the counter tactics to neuter one-trick ponies. So, you’ve got to be able to play all phases of the game for at least some chunk of time. Much more difficult to teach than “this is our way always,” but can make for much more interesting games and more complete teams.


Interestingly, Rooney said at halftime that if the team raised their level of effort by 10% after the half, they would win 2 or 3 to 0.

He also said the team had a poor first 30 minutes and that was true. However, in that 30 minutes, Charlotte failed to score and then seemed to be cooked for the rest of the game.

To DCU’s credit (Coaching adjustment?), they figured out that pressing the back line would tack Charlotte out of their game. That combined with fatigue on the road did them in. So I think it was a combination of fatigue and tactical adjustment that turned around the game. DCU certainly did not look good in the first 30 or 40 minutes of the game.


Great piece, good to see the press analyzed, it definitely had a positve effect in the second half. They managed to press the entire width of the field with basically five guys, that’s a lot of work and commitment. When you see Taxi run his butt off to press, it has to lift everyone.
Charlotte broke the press a couple times but were too slow to take advantage, and the press definitely tired them out more than DC, that’s a credit to team fitness.

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