By Siobhan Nolan, Contributing Writer
Jim Curtin stepped out way out of his comfort zone against DC United, straying away from his usual midfield diamond to employ a 4-3-2-1 formation that proved to be unsuccessful in a 3-1 loss on the road, keeping them from leapfrogging Orlando City SC for second place in the Eastern Conference.
Daniel Gazdag and Jamiro Monteiro were tasked with supporting Kacper Przybyłko, who sat up top as the lone striker for the Union. The positions were very obviously unfamiliar to both Gazdag and Monteiro, as they gave away tons of space to DC on the wings in order to get comfortable in their new positions.
This vulnerability forced Andre Blake to make some truly spectacular saves, punching away shots from the likes of Andy Najar, Julian Gressel, and Ola Kamara. The home team was working so hard for a goal that they eventually did score one—but it was into their own net.
Kai Wagner pinpointed a cross to Przybylko, which was recovered by DC defender Junior Moreno. Monteiro ran interference to put the ball back into the Union’s possession, giving it back to Przybylko, who then passed it off to Alejandro Bedoya. Bedoya softly hit it towards DC defender Steve Birnbaum, who tried to control the ball off of his chest, but ended up sending it past his own goalie.
DC soon answered when they were awarded a penalty. VAR ruled that Alvas Powell’s slide tackle was unacceptable, despite the minimal contact, and Kamara was able to net the penalty shot.
The home side would strike again early in the second half, thanks to a hard-hit rebound shot from Jordy Reyna.
In an attempt to revamp the attack, Quinn Sullivan and Cory Burke entered the fray for the visitors. This created a formation where the Union were able to expand and cover more ground, effectively wearing down DC and increasing the chances of a defensive mistake due to tired legs. Powell argued for a penalty after Tony Alfaro made contact in the box, but the referee didn’t make the official call.
Paxten Aaronson and Olivier Mbaizo were introduced, shifting the formation once more so that Sullivan could take over as second striker, while Aaronson stepped into a more creative attacking midfielder role, and Mbaizo returned to his usual position controlling the right flank.
Despite the fresh legs, DC were able to drive home a third goal in extra time, sealing the 3-1 defeat at Audi Field.
The Main Takeaway: Maybe experimenting with new pairings and positionings doesn’t work as well as originally thought. As disappointing as that is, it’s better to find out now, and understand that Curtin’s usual favorite 4-4-2 formation is what works best for the Union. It’s what they know, it’s what they’re good at, and at this point in the season, it’s best to not fix what isn’t broken.