The mood surrounding D.C. United changed significantly with a 3-0 victory against the Montreal Impact to close the month of August. A three-match winless streak was snapped. The big-money signing netted a pair of goals. And for the first time in what felt like several weeks, the Black-and-Red avoided an early lapse defensively.
So as the international break arrived — which dovetailed nicely with an open date on United’s schedule — there was a newfound wave of optimism washing over coach Ben Olsen’s bunch. They had snapped out of their summer doldrums with a resounding victory and had two weeks to rest, recharge and refresh themselves ahead of Sunday’s showdown with the Portland Timbers.
“Everyone had different rhythms throughout this break,” Olsen said. “Some guys were in, some guys needed more work, some guys needed to just get away from the game, some injured guys. But today (Tuesday) was the first day where everybody is back. I think some guys were a little rusty from a couple days off, but that’s very, very normal stuff. But the energy and the output was great today.
“It’s nice to be in it right now at this stage of the game, and it’s exciting to have four games left. We’re healthy and have a lot of options and we’re looking forward to Sunday.”
Here’s what you need to know before kickoff:
Opponent: Portland Timbers
Record: 13 wins, 11 losses, 4 draws
Standings: Sixth place in the Western Conference, tied with seventh-place FC Dallas on points (43) but leading in total victories, which is the first tiebreaker for playoff positioning.
Last match: Win, 2-1, vs. Sporting Kansas City
Head coach: Giovanni Savarese; second season; overall record of 37 wins, 24 losses and 14 draws
Savarese was appointed following the 2017 season and quickly led the Timbers to an appearance in MLS Cup during his first year, ultimately losing to Atlanta United. He amassed 18 total victories last season, counting playoffs, to emerge from a congested Western Conference in which the top five seeds were separated by just eight points. Savarese arrived in Portland after five seasons as head coach and sporting director of the New York Cosmos in the North American Soccer League. His teams scored more goals (223) than anyone else in the league during that time. He worked previously as the head of youth development for the New York Metro Stars/Red Bulls from 2005-07. Savarese’s playing career spanned nearly 20 years, from 1986 to 2004, and included stops in his native Venezuela, Italy, England and the United States. He also made 30 appearances for the Venezuelan national team.
Tactical analysis: Beware of counter attacks
A hallmark of the Timbers under Savarese has been their willingness to counter attack at every opportunity, striking opponents quickly in the open field. In fact, no team in MLS plays with a more breakneck style than Savarese’s bunch.
Entering this weekend, the Timbers are leading the league in goals on counter attacks with seven, three more than Atlanta United, the team nearest to them in that category. They also have the most total counter attacks with 31 (Atlanta is next at 22) and the most shots from counter attacks with 25 not counting goals (Atlanta is next again at 18). In other words, when the opportunity is there to run, the Timbers are more than willing to oblige.
The primary beneficiary of this strategy is the Argentinian striker Brian Fernandez, who joined Portland as a designated player in May. Fernandez aligns most commonly as the lone striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation and leads the league in all three of the aforementioned categories among individual players: He has 4 goals from fast breaks, 10 total fast breaks and 10 shots excluding goals on fast-break chances this season.
Another player to watch is winger Sebastian Blanco, ranks third in the league with 9 assists from open play. Three of those assists have been put home by Fernandez.
Lineup question: Will Paul Arriola continue in a No. 10 role?
United’s two victories in the month of August had a common theme in regards to Olsen’s team selection. Against both the LA Galaxy and Montreal Impact, Olsen shifted attacking midfielder Luciano Acosta to the bench and trusted Arriola to fill the void behind a lone striker.
The idea of shifting Arriola from the wing, where he has spent the majority of the season, to a roving role in the middle of the field is designed to capitalize on two of his best traits: a tireless approach to defensive pressure and speed to burn when challenging defenders in possession. Those attributes reveal themselves in average distance run per match, a metric in which Arriola leads the team this season.
“We’re going to compete this week and we’re going to pick a group that gives us the best chance to win, just like every other weekend,” Olsen said. “Ola (Kamara), since he’s come, I think he’s been sharp. He’s scoring goals. I think Paul has been really sharp in that 10 spot and allows us to do some different things from a pressing standpoint. But again, whether it’s Lucho or Wayne (Rooney), there’s a lot of tough choices out there to put together a group that we feel can have success in Portland.”
There is data supporting Olsen’s fondness for playing Arriola in the No. 10 role as well. Entering this weekend, the data website American Soccer Analysis credits Arriola with creating 4.3 expected goals (xG) this season, meaning the quality of his chances should have produced 4.3 goals in 2019, a figure that ranks second on the team behind Rooney’s total of 9.9 xG.
More importantly, though, is what percentage of Arriola’s total has originated since Aug. 11, when Olsen deployed him as the No. 10 against the Galaxy, and that’s where his efficacy shines through: Better than 37 percent of his xG for the entire season have come in the last five games alone, the majority of which has coincided with his minutes as an attacking midfielder.
To put it simply, Arriola in the No. 10 role has borne fruit for United.
“I think we have a pretty good idea right now of who we’re going to be for the rest of the year,” Olsen said without divulging his exact plans. “That’s ‘we’ meaning me, the rest of the staff and the players of how we’re going to go about being successful. And it starts with being hard to beat, being defensively sound and hard to play against. And that kind of has to be the foundation if we’re going to have success in the next four games and then beyond.
“We’ve got some talented players, we’ve got some guys that can make plays. But to me, right now, it starts with the defensive effort. We’ve been working quite a bit on that, and I think you saw a good effort with that in Montreal.”
Stat to know: United in good shape to make the playoffs
The victory over Montreal gave United a smidgeon of breathing room in a crowded Eastern Conference, and now Olsen’s squad enters this weekend in fifth place with four matches remaining. The Black-and-Red are five points clear of the Impact, who are one spot outside the playoff picture, and three points clear of the New England Revolution, who would hold the seventh and final position if the postseason began today.
“I mean, of course (watching other games and the standings) is part of it,” Olsen said. “But I try not to at this point. I try to focus on what we have to do to just keep moving forward, both on the field and of course in the table. And that starts with a good week of training, a competitive week of training, picking the right lineup to have success Sunday against a very good team in a great place to play.”
The data and analytics website FiveThirtyEight generates projections for nearly every soccer league in the world based on “a substantially revised version of ESPN’s Soccer Power Index (SPI), a rating system originally devised by FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver in 2009 for rating international soccer teams.”
Their models give United a 93 percent chance of reaching the postseason after defeating the Impact two weeks ago and view the No. 6 seed as the team’s most probable landing spot when the regular season concludes next month. United have four games remaining, but some of the teams around them, like the Revolution and New York Red Bulls, have a game in hand.
Here is how FiveThirtyEight projects United to finish in the Eastern Conference:
Fourth-place finish — 22 percent chance
Fifth-place finish — 26 percent chance
Sixth-place finish — 29 percent chance
Seventh-place finish — 15 percent chance
Eighth-place finish (missing playoffs) — 6 percent chance
Ninth-place finish (missing playoffs) — 1 percent chance
Of course, an argument can be made for United performing better when the odds are stacked against them, when grinding and clawing and hanging on for dear life are the primary objectives. In those moments, the Black-and-Red tend to embody their coach, Olsen, whose grittiness as a player certainly translated to his coaching style on the sideline.
With MLS unveiling a single-elimination for the postseason, simply reaching the playoffs might be more important than where teams stood in the table.
“I don’t feel like we’re under any extra pressure right now,” Olsen said. “We’re in the mix, and that’s probably what it was going to be at the beginning of the season. We have a month to play and we’ve got to win a few of these games to put ourselves in a good position going forward.”