WASHINGTON — It's still early in the season and two of D.C. United four league games haven't been losses. Still, there are some reasons for alarm at RFK before the calendar even turns to April.
There were shades of United's three-win 2013 season on Saturday evening at RFK Stadium, as the home side fell 3-0 to an FC Dallas side missing seven players to international absences. Though DCU has made the postseason in each of its subsequent two seasons since the disastrous 2013 campaign, the playoffs could be a tall order on this evidence.
Through four games, DCU is 0-2-2 with a league-worst -6 goal differential. It has scored two goals, tied for the worst in the league despite playing a game more than all but three other teams.
On Saturday the problems began from the back. An awful mix-up between Taylor Kemp and Kofi Opare – starting because Steve Birnbaum was away with the U.S. national team – led to a goal for Michael Barrios. For the next two FC Dallas goals, Bobby Boswell was caught out of position, leading to another Barrios tally and a second-half Maxi Urruti goal.
"The goals were very preventable goals and just not good enough," DCU head coach Ben Olsen said in his post-game news conference.
"It’s frustrating," right back Sean Franklin told reporters. "We mess up on two plays in the first half and the chances it creates give them two goals. We have to have a better mentality."
Defensively, United can take some solace from the fact it was missing Birnbaum, and from the projected May return of starting goalkeeper Bill Hamid after offseason knee surgery. Further up the field, though, the problems appear more daunting.
Olsen has been starting Marcelo Sarvas In a holding center midfield role with Nick DeLeon more advanced in the team's 4-4-2 formation. DeLeon, who had been a wide midfielder in his first four MLS seasons, has struggled at times to adjust to the middle.
DeLeon has contributed to DCU with his work-rate and 1v1 skills on the flanks, but has struggled to find the technical quality needed from an advanced central midfielder, as evidenced again by him blasting over a highly preventable chance against FC Dallas.
When asked to evaluate DeLeon's performance in the middle in 2016, Olsen offered a tepid endorsement: "I think he's been fine. I think he could have a goal or two to his name but besides that I think he's not been a real worry of mine."
Much of the team's offense in 2016 was expected to run though Luciano Acosta, the club's marquee offseason signing. The 21-year-old arrived on loan from Boca Juniors, but has thus far failed to make much of an impact aside from some impressive party tricks on the ball.
After starting DCU's opening three games, Acosta found himself on the bench Saturday. Olsen said it was a coach's decision.
At some point however, Olsen will likely have to find a way to incorporate Acosta, Fabian Espindola and Chris Rolfe – three of the club's most dangerous offensive threats – on the field at the same time. The trio have only shared the field for 26 minutes in 2016.
Despite the slow start, Olsen isn't panicking yet.
"I'm not that alarmed," he said. "I believe that we have pieces here that can win games in this league and get us to the playoffs.
"We’re four games into the season so we’re not hitting the panic button yet," Franklin said. "But we have to be getting points. We’ve already given up points at home which we shouldn’t be doing this early in the season.
"For this group we just need to stay positive and realize that it’s a long season. We have to start to put in the work and hopefully get some results."
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