Luciano Acosta, D.C. United’s ringleader, missed the March 3 season opener because of suspension and didn’t start Sunday because of fitness concerns. But with the Argentine midfielder getting up to speed and his team needing an inventive element, Acosta is a strong candidate to start Saturday against the Houston Dynamo at Maryland SoccerPlex.
He was behind his teammates after missing 10 days of training camp with a concussion and, combined with the first-game absence for a red card in the 2017 finale, Coach Ben Olsen elected to keep him in reserve for the 3-1 defeat at Atlanta. Acosta entered in the 62nd minute for Zoltan Stieber, who had filled the playmaking role with limited results.
“He’s getting there,” Olsen said of Acosta on Tuesday. “We’ll push him this week, evaluate Houston and see what the best team we can put out there is to get a result.
“Getting him back into the mix won’t be an issue. He’s going to make us a little bit more interesting in the attack. We’ll become a little more vulnerable from a defensive standpoint, but that’s what you live with having that type of quality on the offensive end.”
United has scored once in each of the first two matches, beginning with a draw at Orlando. On Sunday, after a one-sided first half, D.C. kept possession but didn’t do much with it. Darren Mattocks scored a late goal after United had conceded three.
Olsen doesn’t blame Acosta’s limited minutes for United’s attacking shortfall.
“If you are comparing what we put out in Atlanta with or without Lucho, we should’ve been more successful with the team we had on the field,” he said. “This isn’t about comparing him to Stieber or not having enough firepower. This is about a team that has eight or nine new guys on the field together. We’re still working through some of the finer details of who we are, much like a lot of teams.”
The starting lineup was the same in each of the first two matches, albeit with a slight formation adjustment Sunday. The group included seven players who joined the club this winter and two others who arrived late last season. The only long-term holdovers were defenders Nick DeLeon and Steve Birnbaum.
In evaluating his team’s ball control in the Atlanta match, Olsen said:
“There were a lot of lost possessions after we secured the ball that we over-complicated. We were a little antsy and rushed, in particular in the first half, where we could have made them work a little bit more and gotten into situations where we are plus-one in the attack and create more chances. This isn’t about, ‘Oh, we need this unbelievable striker or we need these dynamic wingers.’ The attack starts from the back and continues with the midfield movement and simple passing, moving an opponent into uncomfortable situations. We didn’t do that enough, but the spacing is there. It’s just the decision-making on the ball at times could’ve been a lot better.”
>> Joseph Mora, a Costa Rican left back who signed with United last week, is expected to receive his work visa this week, allowing him to join the game-day roster and perhaps start Saturday, Olsen said.
Fitness is not an issue because Mora has been playing regularly for Costa Rican club Saprissa.
“He should be an option,” Olsen said. “Just a matter of getting him on the same page with us.”
Oniel Fisher, acquired in a trade with Seattle last month, started the first two matches at left back. Taylor Kemp, the incumbent, remains out with complications related to hernia surgery last fall.
The other new addition, forward Dane Kelly, is eligible to play but, unlike Mora, he arrived third on the depth chart. In the first two matches, Mattocks started and Patrick Mullins entered late in the game.
Kelly, the MVP and leading scorer in the second-division United Soccer League last year, is slated to play, at times, for the second-tier Richmond Kickers. At the moment, third-choice goalkeeper Travis Worra and reserve attacker Bruno Miranda are on Richmond assignments ahead of this Sunday’s league opener at Bethlehem Steel.
“We’re a little less familiar with Dane at this point” than with Mora, Olsen said. “He came onto the radar late. He’s a depth piece to push Darren and Patrick. I’m sure he will see some time with Richmond, but we also want to use these 10 days without going down there to evaluate what he’s about” and see if he can earn a place on the game-day squad.
>> Besides Kemp, defensive midfielder Russell Canouse did not practice Tuesday. He has been sidelined since early in training camp with a sprained knee. Neither is expected to be match-ready anytime soon.
With Canouse sidelined, homegrown midfielder Chris Durkin has gained playing time in each of the first two matches: 17 minutes vs. Orlando, 10 vs. Atlanta.
“He’s doing okay,” Olsen said. “He’s young. At times he looks like an 18-year-old but there’s also times where you say, ‘This kid belongs out here.’ With Russell being out, he’s in play. He’s got to take advantage of the moments that he can get onto the field and continue to grow.
“We like a lot about his pathway and his growth since this time last year, both his maturity on the field but also his emotional maturity. With young kids, sometimes that is as crucial as the talent component. That part has taken a big step.”
>> Olsen said his team is “not really happy right now because they think we should have more points than we have.”
However, he added, “It’s important to step back and say, ‘Guys, we’re just starting this thing. We’re just starting this journey.’ There’s a lot of great stuff going on, but we have to strike that balance of being unhappy but also understand this is a process and we’re growing and we have a good group.”
>> With United playing an early-afternoon game at Maryland SoccerPlex on Saturday — the first of two off-site home matches before Audi Field opens — the delegation is likely to stay in a hotel near the Montgomery County facility Friday night. That way, players do not have to scramble in the morning to get to the complex, which is about 30 miles from downtown Washington and in an area unfamiliar to most of them.