After another run into the post-season, D.C. United changed scenarios going into the 2020 season. Head coach Ben Olsen finished last season in fifth place in the Eastern Conference and consolidated his team as one of the best defensive sides in the league. But maybe it will not be easier this year after the losses of his two most creative players in Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta.

In this tactical analysis, we will see how D.C. United is preparing for their next campaign in the MLS. Last year they lost in the first round to Toronto FC, but with good additions to the team, Olsen can work with variating tactics and player options. 

Last season by the numbers

D.C. United had a good defensive philosophy that lead them to the second-fewest goals conceded with 38. Even so, their attack was not as brilliant as it could be, with star players Rooney and Acosta loading the offensive numbers. The team finished the season with 42 goals, 17 coming from one of those two. It was basically Rooney who ran the numbers, with 17 goals and assists from 29 games, ranking him 18th in the league.

Ben Olsen at D.C. United 2019 - tactical analysis tactics

Olsen’s side had a variating possession rate, as they were generally good with few touches in transition. It was shown in their 3-0 win against Montreal Impact in the regular season when they finished the game with just 30% of ball possession. They also had a great game against New York FC where they almost won with 33% of the ball in their favour. 

The analysis of data also shows that D.C. can be ferociously voluminous, as happened in their 2-0 win against the MLS champions Seattle Sounders. In that game, D.C. had 16 shots and a 2.79 xG. In the other hand, Olsen can take advantage of the little things in difficult games, like in the 1-0 win against the Portland Timbers, when D.C had only four shots and a mere 0.45 xG.

D.C.’s attacking style

One of the big “good concerns” of Olsen is his tactical flexibility. He has players like Felipe Martins, Ulises Segura and Julio Moreno that can play in multiple positions. Paul Arriola hovered every position from the attacking midfield area and the recent acquisitions like Edinson Flores and Julian Gressel can also play in multiple roles. This way, D.C. can shape differently in its creation phase.

They generally played in a 4-2-3-1 with a talented on-ball midfield pair of Júnior Moreno and Felipe. Their second line of midfield counted with multiple options and creative dribblers, all behind Rooney as the reference.

Ben Olsen at D.C. United 2019 - tactical analysis tactics
Relation of formations used by D.C. United last season [Wyscout]
While building-up, D.C. trusted Felipe to conduct the ball up. The Brazilian likes to orchestrate them from behind. When the team is up on the field, he operates well on through balls.

Ben Olsen at D.C. United 2019 - tactical analysis tactics
Felipe used a lot of his passing skills to find teammates

Rooney’s movement was crucial and paired well with Felipe’s ability. The Englishman did not stick to his position and moved a lot in the last third. This way, he created passing options to the midfielders. Also, Rooney usually drove back to midfield to help the team create, leaving spaces to the front midfielders to attack with their runs.

Ben Olsen at D.C. United 2019 - tactical analysis tactics
Here Rooney drops to the first line of midfield to help building-up

Olsen let his midfielders orchestrate the plays and generally one of the full-backs created a line of three in the middle. This way, the other one tended to overlap and make a second line of midfield, next to the winger, who was dislocated to the middle. This way, the winger could operate inside with his dribbling and creativity. When in full possession, all this movement created them a 2-3-4-1 design. 

Ben Olsen at D.C. United 2019 - tactical analysis tactics
D.C.’s 2-3-4-1 on attack

Arriola and Acosta, depending on their position, went up, getting out from their normal area of positioning. They liked to take advantage of the defence’s preoccupation with Rooney and cut in their backs. It gave the team the opportunity to either run through balls to them or make room for other players to attack from the middle. 

As they were a good transitional team, D.C.’s players formed a constant moving engine. That way, Olsen did not rely strongly on positional attacks. In their 2-1 win against LA Galaxy, they had 20 positional attacks against 41 of the opposition. In their 0-0 draw against New York Red Bull, it was 18 against 36. 

Not being positional could mean that they liked to create wide. Olsen did not choose a preference when attacking, but with talented wing players, it came naturally. They searched for triangulations when creating in wide areas. It was usually a combination of the full-back, the winger and the attacking midfielder. This kind of play created both overlapping and cutting chances as well as focusing the defensive sight in one side. This way, they could take advantage of possible gaps in the middle to attack or on the weak side to trigger another player.

Ben Olsen at D.C. United 2019 - tactical analysis tactics
An example of the triangle used to create chances

Good defence explained

Their success on the defensive end comes from the back. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid was the second in total saves (126) with a great defensive rate in his 168 shots faced in the season. Individually it was not a superb defensive line, but it also had great flexibility. Russell Canouse, for example, could play as a defensive midfielder or in the first line as a centre-back or right-back. In general, Olsen’s tactics on defence were solid.

As they were a great transitioning team, it is also true on the defensive side. D.C. structured themselves in a 4-4-1-1 when defending and rapidly went back from an unsuccessful attack. In that formation, they made the attacking midfielder go up to make combat when the opponent was building up, and Rooney closed in.

Ben Olsen at D.C. United 2019 - tactical analysis tactics
Here, Arriola and Rooney keep up the field to connect quick counters

D.C. also shifted to a 4-4-2 formation with high marking to inhibit the opposition to build up from the middle. This way, opponents were forced to start their plays on the side, where Olsen’s side could quickly outnumber them. 

Ben Olsen at D.C. United 2019 - tactical analysis tactics
How D.C. players closed the wide areas and force opposition back

When that happened, the players closed the ball carrier to cut passing lanes and steal the ball immediately. When they could not recover the ball, at least they forced the opposition to run back and start building up again. 

With Rooney and Acosta as the las men in the formation, D.C. was not a high pressing team. Even so, they had some pressing moments, especially on the side as mentioned and on throw-ins. With new acquisitions and more lateral movement upfront, Olsen has everything to create a suffocating press – including the desire.

Ben Olsen at D.C. United 2019 - tactical analysis tactics
How they pressed the throw-in to force Toronto to miss

In their transition, D.C. liked to close their lines narrowly, mainly the first two. Generally, their transition to defence was very fluid and, as their first line of midfield was not posted high on the field, they could do it quickly. As positioning goes, Olsen’s players made a five-man first line of defence, with the weak side winger going back. The other winger helped the on-ball full-back, cutting passing options. While doing this, they also liked to overload the box to win eventual crosses.

Ben Olsen at D.C. United 2019 - tactical analysis tactics
Note how Felipe went back to create a numerical advantage in the box

Everything was expected to work on a combined circle defensively. Forcing the opponents to create wide made it easier for D.C. to defend on the flanks while outnumbering in the middle. Even when they were not totally posted as a five-man line, they usually found a way to overload the box with four players.

When in full defensive mode, Olsen tactics were crafted to make a kind of zonal marking with a four-man first line. D.C.’s players closed the ball carrier, making a square with him in the middle. This way the players could corner him and anticipate his passes.

Ben Olsen at D.C. United 2019 - tactical analysis tactics
Here, they closed the player with the ball and tried to cut his passing lane in the middle

Where they were failing

Even so, Olsen could not make from D.C. United an attacking machine. If it was not for their great defensive system, maybe they wouldn’t have made the playoffs. At some games, they found difficulties trying to escape opposing presses. One of Olsen’s strategies was to place his players after the line of press. This way, the field was spaced and it would be more difficult for the opposition to concentrate on a good pressing system. On the other hand, it was risky and lead to mistakes, as players were distant from one another. The man on the ball had to connect passes longer than usual, and against certain teams, it could cost a possession right in front of goal. It happened in the playoff match against Toronto FC.

Ben Olsen at D.C. United 2019 - tactical analysis tactics
D.C.’s players went up and it helped Toronto’s press scheme

The biggest problem for D.C. was their creation process. Sometimes, their transition from defence to offence was slow and ineffective. As players went back to give passing options for the build-up process or even to break the opposing press, when they received the ball there was a huge space up the field unoccupied. That way they could not connect quick counters or fast-passing transitions as they were most known for.

Ben Olsen at D.C. United 2019 - tactical analysis tactics
See the massive space unoccupied for the counter-attack

At the defensive end, at some points, the team got its lines wider than normal. It happened especially when the opposing forward moved a lot to the midfield to create for himself. It gave the opposition much space to work between the lines and to find vertical opportunities.

Ben Olsen at D.C. United 2019 - tactical analysis tactics
Here, Alejandro Pozuelo used the gap between D.C.’s lines to create chances

Sometimes even when cornering the on-ball player on the side, as they were usually great, Olsen’s players could commit the eventual mistake of losing the potential cutter. That way it did not work put four players to close the passer when they would give space without covering to his teammate get into the box free.

Ben Olsen at D.C. United 2019 - tactical analysis tactics
Defenders could leave opposing players cut behind their backs when trying to press the ball man

Conclusion

For the 2020 season, D.C. United lost two of their most important creative players, who lead them individually. Even so, Olsen received some good signings, especially on Flores and Gressel and it could lift up the midfield options. Also, they now can count on Ola Kamara, a proven goalscorer who made just five appearances last year. Kamara had greats seasons with Columbus Crew and LA Galaxy, scoring 51 goals in 95 games in his MLS career.

But this tactical flexibility that is talked about D.C. can have its problems. Olsen has a lot of players that could play in multiple positions, but this way it is difficult to make them specialists in one thing. As well, rotating the XIs delays the consistency needed to make good runs into the post-season. Kamara’s role is known, but almost every other player on the roster still has some doubts upon their production. Let’s just see how Olsen manages it to make a united and progressive D.C. team for this season.

Guilherme Ramos
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