How D.C. United turned a slog of an MLS season into its liveliest soccer in years

For more than a year, D.C. United had harvested goals like precious minerals excavated from deep in the earth, with backbreaking sweat and toil. One gem, maybe two, but there often was nothing to show for dogged work.

“We used to come in [the locker room] after games and say, ‘Jeez, we were under pressure and somehow got out of there,’ ” General Manager Dave Kasper said this week. “We were tired.”

Despite several additions, United was locked in to the same gritty track this season: good enough to scrape out results but hardly a trophy contender. And certainly not up for any artistic awards.

Over the past three months, however, Coach Ben Olsen’s formation change has taken hold. Two trades have altered the potency of the lineup. A young playmaker has grown up. New roles have been embraced. And a sleepy slog through an eight-month MLS campaign has turned into a fun, stylish ride.

With the playoffs days away, United is playing its most attractive soccer in years. It will enter its regular season finale, Sunday in Orlando, with a four-game winning streak, a six-match unbeaten surge and a 6-1-6 mark since late July.

The swell came too late to contend for a first-round bye in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Instead, United (11-9-13) will finish fourth or fifth and face Montreal or Philadelphia on Wednesday or Thursday at a venue to be determined by this weekend’s results.

Aside from the New York Red Bulls, who haven’t lost since July 3, no one is in better form heading toward the postseason than United. And no team has been scoring at such a torrid rate: 31 goals in 12 matches. In the previous 13 outings, D.C. had recorded 10 goals and was blanked five times.

So what happened?

“There’s no one moment,” captain Bobby Boswell said.

Rather, the revival was the culmination of several. It began to take shape last winter with the acquisition of attackers Lamar Neagle, Patrick Nyarko and Luciano Acosta. They have combined for 16 goals and 25 assists, despite disruptions: Neagle lost his starting job and became a super sub, Nyarko missed seven games with injuries, and Acosta mixed vivacity with inconsistency.

As the year transpired, United could rely on a bonded back line, a blue-collar midfield embodied by veteran newcomer Marcelo Sarvas, and high-end goalkeeping after Bill Hamid’s return from a preseason knee surgery. The attack, though, was slow to evolve, hampered by the loss of Chris Rolfe, the team’s leading scorer in 2015, who suffered a season-ending concussion after nine games.

Regardless of how the season went, United always had planned to make moves when the trade and transfer window opened in the summer. With that in mind, Olsen in late June abandoned his system of four defenders, four midfielders and two forwards.

He switched to three central midfielders, two wings and one striker. The beneficiary was Acosta, 22, a technically blessed player on loan from Buenos Aires titan Boca Juniors.

In the previous alignment, the Argentine dynamo was playing as a withdrawn forward, often with his back to the target. At 5 feet 3, he was getting crushed by central defenders. And with only one player supporting him in the middle of the lineup, he was assigned a heavy defensive load.

“By the time he got the ball, he’s exhausted,” Kasper said. “You don’t want your most creative player doing all that work.”

Acosta’s frustration flared at Philadelphia in May when, upon being replaced in the second half, he and Olsen exchanged words. The immediate issue was resolved, but the broader issue of Acosta’s role remained unsettled.

“How do we get him to be his best and in what formation?” Olsen said of internal discussions. “It’s giving him freedom, letting him find pockets, facing the game and playmaking. More than anything, that has pushed this [formation] change.”

The initial results were encouraging, but United still didn’t have the adequate personnel to thrive in the new system.

The club engaged in talks with two young South American players competing for teams in the Copa America Centenario, the major international tournament held last summer in the United States. One was Peru’s Andy Polo. United declined to identify the other.

“It’s no secret our global scouting isn’t as good as our domestic scouting,” Olsen said, citing beneficial trades and international busts over the years.

“We were very focused on the league,” Kasper said.

As it turned out, United was the only team not to acquire a player from abroad during the summer. It did dump one: Finnish midfielder Markus Halsti, whose playing time didn’t justify his contract. United welcomed the additional salary cap space.

With the focus on MLS, United acquired right winger Lloyd Sam from the Red Bulls for general allocation money. United now had a pure flank player noted for killer crosses and timely goals. And with Nyarko moving full-time to the left side, Olsen employed experienced wingers in his new system.

The formation also left Fabian Espindola expendable. The Argentine had been United’s most influential attacker for two-plus years, but his drifting style didn’t fit into the structured system Olsen now preferred. Besides, his contract was up this winter. D.C. shipped him to Vancouver for general allocation money.

The same day, it acquired the striker it had coveted for more than a year, former University of Maryland star Patrick Mullins. United relinquished allocation money (general and targeted) and an international roster slot to New York City FC.

Mullins had scored 10 goals over his first two MLS seasons but this year got stuck behind superstar David Villa. There was risk involved, giving up on a proven player (Espindola) for a young, largely inactive one. But United was confident in Mullins’s capacity to fill the striker role and, most importantly, score goals.

“You can’t play the system if you don’t have the pieces,” Kasper said. “Ben talked a lot about, ‘I want more structure, less freewheeling.’ With Patrick, you can play the new system.”

Mullins provided structure and a whole lot more. He has recorded eight goals — all at home — in 14 appearances. Besides the scoring touch, Mullins occupies central defenders, wins aerial battles and creates for teammates.

Speaking of Sam and Mullins, Nyarko said, “It’s clear for everyone to see what they’ve meant for this team.”

Others contributed in fresh ways. Jared Jeffrey (three league starts the previous two seasons) provided two-way support for Acosta. With Sarvas recovering from a knee injury, Rob Vincent, a winger who was playing third-division soccer in Pittsburgh last year, filled the defensive midfield.

No longer a full-time starter, Neagle scored six goals in an eight-game stretch. Nick DeLeon, a winger for years and central midfielder this season, replaced injured right back Sean Franklin.

A team that hadn’t won consecutive games since last year ran off three straight in eight days. A team starved for goals most of the year has notched at least two in 11 of 12 matches and averaged more than three at home since Aug. 1.

“Confidence grows, a consistent lineup — things are clicking,” Olsen said. “Thinking for each other, and with each other, can be a fun thing to watch.”

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