The New York Red Bulls ended D.C. United’s two-game winning streak Saturday, defeating United 2-0 in the first leg of the 2017 Atlantic Cup.
The Atlantic Cup — the trophy awarded to the rivalry team that wins the regular season series between D.C. United and New York — dates back to 2002. United has won 10 of the 15 seasons.
— D.C. United (@dcunited) April 15, 2017
Despite several early chances, United failed to make any threatening finishes in the final third. Substitute Lamar Neagle had the closest opportunity in the 86th minute when he rocketed a shot inside the 18-yard box on target. Goalkeeper Luis Robles slapped away the hard shot.
“Away at Red Bulls Arena you have to finish chances,” United coach Ben Olsen told NewsChannel 8’s Lindsay Simpson after the match.
Red Bull homegrown Alex Muyl scored first for New York in the 46th minute with a quick finish on teammate Sacha Klejestan’s corner. Less than 20 minutes later, Bradley Wright-Phillips confused United’s center backs and nutmegged a shot between the legs of goalkeeper Bill Hamid.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) April 16, 2017
Despite two dramatic comeback-ties in 2016 against New York, United was unable to stage the same heroic comeback in Saturday’s match.
“It was a very good atmosphere,” rookie Ian Harkes told Simpson. “We knew it was going to be tough. Obviously, not the result we wanted.”
United has some time to breathe, recover and grow before the next leg of the 2017 Atlantic Cup. United won’t see the Red Bulls again until Sept. 27.
Three Key Takeaways
The defense is facing serious shifts
In the first game of the season, Olsen shifted typical right back Sean Franklin inside to center back with newly-named captain Steven Birnbaum. Olsen then shifted the versatile Nick DeLeon into the right back position.
Something just wasn’t clicking, and after a 2-0 loss to Columbus Crew, Olsen inserted veteran defender Bobby Boswell at center back next to Birnbaum. The change seemed like a quick and simple fix as United went on a two-game winning streak, But in the match against the Red Bulls Olsen had to once again shift up his backline. Midfielder Patrick Nyarko stayed home from the trip due to a hamstring injury, forcing Olsen to move DeLeon out wide and start wide Franklin next to Boswell.
The recent changes to the defense were noticeable against the Red Bulls with Wright Phillips’ goal coming as a direct result of miscommunication on the backline.
Birnbaum had several shots on goal, but his tough play led to an injury in stoppage time, when the captain came down hard after challenging two Red Bulls players. He was carted off due to an apparent head injury. Birnbaum remained conscious, but was dizzy and confused after the collision. Depending on the severity of his injury, Birnbaum’s absence could cause a major challenge as the backline could be forced to readjust for the third time early this season.
D.C. United definitely miss starting striker Patrick Mullins
On the other side of the field, the absence of forward Patrick Mullins was once again apparent against the New York Red Bulls. Mullins has now missed the last three matches with a hamstring injury he sustained in the game against the Columbus Crew on March 18.
Earlier in the week, Mullins trained on the side of practice but did not participate in full training. Olsen said that his timetable for returning to full strength was “soonish” and could mean as little as two weeks away. Two weeks might be two too many as United face another two tough road matches against the New England Revolution and Atlanta United FC before returning home.
Performance in the final third is something that has plagued United all season. Despite two multi-goal wins prior to the loss at Red Bulls Arena, United has struggled finishing. Midfielder Luciano Acosta is skilled on his feet, but prefers to dish the ball off instead of taking a shot for himself. Mullins’ immediate replacement José Ortiz is still growing into his new role with United. He has already tallied one goal this season.
Positive youth in the midfield
For the second week in a row 26-year-old Jared Jeffrey stepped up as the starter in the defensive midfield position. Last week, Jeffrey took on the starting role while Marcelo Sarvas served a one-game suspension for misconduct. This week, Jeffrey earned his role, as he beat out Sarvas and played all 90 minutes.
“We are constantly having conversations among our staff about who is our best group,” Olsen said. “We try to create competition here. You fill in for the next guy and make my life difficult.”
Jeffrey joins a young core midfield that includes Acosta, 22, and rookie Ian Harkes, 22. This young midfield is promising for United not just in the future but later this season. The energy this core brings can put together strong 90-minute performance late into the longer summer days of the season.
A healthy and youth midfield is not only a strength for United, but something the team can look forward to relying on later this season.
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