Analysis: Is Luciano Acosta the next best thing to come out of the MLS?

Luciano Acosta DC United MLS Tactical Analysis
artwork by @chapluana

At just 24 years of age, Luciano Acosta is currently one of the brightest young talents in Major League Soccer. His standout 2018 season for DC United piqued interest from some of Europe’s top clubs, notably PSG, who came extremely close to signing the Argentine for $10 million during the 2019 winter transfer market. But what makes Acosta such an exciting prospect? This tactical analysis will explore the key attributes that make Luciano Acosta an asset to DC United.


Ever since joining DC United for then an undisclosed club record transfer fee, Luciano Acosta has cemented himself as a key player in the United lineup. In 2016 Acosta joined United on loan from his hometown team Boca Juniors, playing 32 MLS games that year.

In that season he scored three goals and recorded 11 assists, an impressive statistic for any 21-year-old. DC United signed Acosta on a full transfer at the end of the season. He played 31 games and recorded five goals and five assists during the 2017 season, making him the clubs top goal scorer that year.

But it was last year during the 2018 MLS Season where Luciano Acosta came to life. In 33 games, Acosta scored 10 goals and recorded 17 assists, earning him a spot in the MLS Best XI alongside teammate Wayne Rooney.

Acosta has started the 2019 MLS Season without missing a beat. In DC’s season opener Acosta registered a goal and an assist in a 2-0 win against defending champions Atlanta United. In two more games versus NYCFC and Real Salt Lake City Acosta hasn’t picked up another goal or assist, but his influence has been vital.

Spatial awareness and game literacy

Perhaps the most important aspect of Acosta’s gameplay is his ability to read the game itself. On numerous occasions Acosta finds himself holding his position or exploding into space depending on what’s happening around him. Both in and out of possession, Acosta utilizes his position to create space from himself and his teammates. Let’s look at a few examples.

Despite not scoring or assisting in DC United’s 5-0 win over Real Salt Lake City, Luciano Acosta was brilliant throughout the game. His influence on the third goal highlights his footballing intelligence. In the following scenario, Acosta dribbles at defenders, running across the face of the goal. Acosta holds the ball, allowing Real Salt Lake City’s defenders to pressure him, creating an underload scenario.

Luciano Acosta DC United MLS Tactical Analysis Statistics
Acosta dribbles into space, pulling in pressure from Real Salt Lake City’s defenders.

This allows his teammate Junior Moreno to run into the space made available by Acosta’s run on the left side of the field. Luciano Acosta then cuts back and plays the ball into Moreno’s path, allowing him to square the ball to Rooney for an easy tap in.

Luciano Acosta DC United MLS Tactical Analysis Statistics
Acosta allows the defenders to close him down, creating space for Junior Moreno to run into.
Luciano Acosta DC United MLS Tactical Analysis Statistics
Acosta cuts back and plays a ball to Junior Moreno who squares the ball for Rooney to score.

This is just one example of Acosta’s ability to create space with the ball at his feet. His speed and technical ability allow him to draw in defenders, creating pockets of space for teammates to occupy. But Acosta utilises space well, even out of possession. This was highlighted in a match analysis of DC United’s 0-0 draw against NYCFC, where Acosta created goalscoring opportunities with his off the ball movements.

Even when his team is out of possession, Acosta reads the game brilliantly. As San Jose midfielder Valeri Qazaishvili winds up to make a pass, Acosta quickly reacts by running at the target player. By anticipating the play, Acosta is able to intercept the pass and begin a counterattack high up the field.

Luciano Acosta DC United MLS Tactical Analysis Statistics
Acosta sees Valeri Qazaishvili wind up to take a pass and Acosta explodes into the path of the pass.
Luciano Acosta DC United MLS Tactical Analysis Statistics
Acosta makes the interception before assisting Darren Mattocks.

After winning the ball Acosta passes to Darren Mattocks who converts the chance. What appeared to be comfortable possession for San Jose turned into a dangerous counter-attack thanks to Acosta’s ability to read the game.

Goal scoring

Many of Acosta’s goals are a direct result of his positioning and ability to anticipate where space will be created, and therefore, where goalscoring opportunities will present themselves. Acosta demonstrated this ability against Atlanta last season, scoring a brilliant goal against the eventual league winners.

In the 76th minutes, Rooney drops into open space between the Atlanta lines to receive a direct first-time pass to his feet. In his current position, Acosta could potentially offer an option for Rooney to lay the ball off.

Luciano Acosta DC United MLS Tactical Analysis Statistics
Rooney checks into the empty space to receive the pass.

But as the pass is being played, Acosta accelerates forward, knowing that the Atlanta defender was stepping to cover Rooney. As the defender steps, Acosta passes him, leaving him 1v1 with Atlanta’s Jeff Larentowicz.

Luciano Acosta DC United MLS Tactical Analysis Statistics
As the Atlanta defender steps to cover Rooney, Acosta bursts into the recently vacated space.

Much of this goal comes down to Rooney’s ability to play Acosta through on his first tough, leaving little time for Atlanta to recover. Even as he is 1v1, Acosta checks his shoulder to see whether there is support from his teammates. As soon as he realises he is on his own, he beats the player and scores the goal.

Luciano Acosta DC United MLS Tactical Analysis Statistics
In the 1v1 situation, Acosta checks his shoulder for support.

Another example of Acosta’s spatial awareness was shown against Orlando City SC last season. During the match, DC United possessed the ball on the left side of the field. Instead of dashing into the box, Acosta holds his position just outside the 18 yard box. Even as the ball is played into the penalty area, Acosta remains patient.

Luciano Acosta DC United MLS Tactical Analysis Statistics
DC United possess the ball on the left side of the field.
Luciano Acosta DC United MLS Tactical Analysis Statistics
Space opens up for Acosta as the Orlando defenders drop off, but Acosta holds his position.

As the ball is cleared towards DC United’s Yamil Asad, the Orlando defenders step towards the 18 yard box. As they do, Acosta begins his run, hoping the pass would come from Asad. Asad saw the run and played a brilliant ball into Acosta’s path, who finished the chance first time.

Luciano Acosta DC United MLS Tactical Analysis Statistics
Acosta begins his run as the ball is cleared and the Orlando defenders retreat to the 18 yard box.
Luciano Acosta DC United MLS Tactical Analysis Statistics
Yamil Asad sees Acosta’s run and plays a brilliant ball for Acosta who scores on his first touch.

By holding his run Acosta was able to exploit the movement of Orlando’s defenders, capitalising on their transition of stepping to the 18 yard box.

These examples are just two of the many times Acosta has utilised his positioning and ability to read the game to his advantage. Once the space opens up, his speed allows him to explode into dangerous areas where his teammates can find him with a pass.

Passing and chance creation

Acosta isn’t just a goal scorer. In fact, last season the Argentine finished second for number of assists in the season behind Philadelphia Union’s Borek Dockal. While his technical ability to pass the ball is fantastic, Acosta’s ability to read the game is vital to his chance creation.

In the opening game of the season against Atlanta United, Acosta played Leonardo Jara down the wing. The pass broke Atlanta’s defensive lines leading to a great goal scoring opportunity for DC. As he shows for the ball, Acosta glances over his left shoulder to see Jara in free space down the right side of the field.

Luciano Acosta DC United MLS Tactical Analysis Statistics
Acosta checks his shoulder as he shows for the ball to see Leonardo Jara isolated on the right side of the field.

As he receives the pass Acosta brings the ball across his body, opening up away from the goal, allowing him to play a penetrating ball on his second touch.

Luciano Acosta DC United MLS Tactical Analysis Statistics
Acosta opens up away from the net and plays a penetrating pass that leads to a fantastic goal scoring opportunity.

While the action seems simple, checking his shoulder allows Acosta to determine his next action before he receives the pass. The ability to receive the ball and offload it quickly disrupts the Atlanta defence and opens up space inside the penalty area for a shot.

Acosta can play brilliant long balls to break defensive lines but is also proficient in short range passes. This is another skill he uses to move opposition defenders, as he showcased this season versus Real Salt Lake City.

Acosta checks into open space, allowing him to turn and begin the attack. As he attacks the space, he plays a quick one-two with Wayne Rooney. As the pass comes into Rooney, Real Salt Lake City defender Marcelo Silva steps out of position to cover him.

Luciano Acosta DC United Tactical Analysis Statistics
Acosta checks into the space to receive the pass.
Luciano Acosta DC United Tactical Analysis Statistics
Acosta’s quick combination play with Rooney pulls Marcelo Silva out of position and creates space for Lucas Rodriquez.

Acosta receives the ball back quickly, allowing him to play a ball through to Lucas Rodriquez. Marcelo Silva tracks back and fouls Rodriquez, resulting in a second yellow and sending off. Acosta’s role in this movement of play is vital. His pass to Rooney forces Real Salt Lake City to overload the space, leaving them exposed in other areas.


Anyone who watches Luciano Acosta will understand why he is such a sought-after talent. His technical ability, speed and football intelligence allow him to dictate the game. Although Wayne Rooney was touted as DC United’s main goal scoring threat last season, and highly credited as the reason DC made playoffs, Acosta’s influence cannot go unnoticed.

While a deal with PSG broke down in January, a move to Europe is still very much on the table. The Premier League’s physicality may not suit Acosta but Ligue 1 and La Liga would be perfect for him.

As it stands, Acosta is staying in the MLS, which isn’t a bad thing. The league’s talent is constantly growing. And with players like Wayne Rooney travelling to America, Acosta will only continue to improve.

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