COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — D.C. United’s 3-2 victory over the Colorado Rapids on Saturday revealed several truths:
United is adaptable under trying circumstances. Donovan Pines is ready for first-team minutes. Coach Ben Olsen, criticized at times for a stubbornness to play youngsters, can rely on his prospects. Luciano Acosta has rediscovered his mojo amid off-field distractions.
The result against a winless opponent does not absolve United from what became a fretful second half; the Rapids deserved a point after sustaining perpetual pressure.
But as it did two weeks earlier in Orlando, United (4-1-2) persevered and claimed three points on the road — a rarity for a team that, in recent years, has been far more comfortable and productive at RFK Stadium and Audi Field.
We will start with the new-look formation. The Eastern Conference leaders have been steadfast in playing with four defenders, two defensive midfielders, a three-man line of attackers and a striker.
On Saturday, because of an injury crisis on the back line, Olsen started three natural central defenders, including Pines, and used two midfielders as wing backs. Paul Arriola and Ulises Segura flowed up and down the flanks in the first half, then sat back in the second half, creating, in essence, a five-man back line.
Two defensive midfielders, including 19-year-old Chris Durkin, supported Acosta and Lucas Rodriguez, an Argentine duo that sat behind Wayne Rooney.
An early deficit gave way to a three-goal uprising over an eight-minute span late in the first half.
In his MLS debut, Pines received favorable reviews. Four months removed from anchoring Maryland’s NCAA championship team, the United homegrown signing held his own against Kei Kamara, the fifth-highest scorer in league history. At 6-foot-5, he won aerial battles and, in belying his size, was comfortable with the ball at his feet.
United’s plan for Pines, 21, was to allow him to develop at second-division Loudoun United, where he started three matches before receiving a promotion last week. Sooner than expected, he could push Frederic Brillant (34 this summer) for starting time.
Durkin started regularly last year but was the odd man out this spring, yielding to Russell Canouse and Junior Moreno. On Saturday, United’s third game in eight days, Olsen rested Canouse and turned to Durkin, who, in his first start of the year, scored the go-ahead goal with a well-placed blast to the far corner.
Defender Jalen Robinson, like Pines and Durkin a homegrown signing, also made his first start of the season.
“What it allows for now is just that increased depth and guys you know you can rely on,” Olsen said. “It also builds a little team spirit and a little competition, which is always healthy as well.”
Olsen will have to continue making adjustments because both left backs, Joseph Mora and Chris McCann, are sidelined for several weeks with injuries. Right back Leonardo Jara is expected to return soon, perhaps this Sunday against visiting New York City FC, after missing the Colorado trip.
Everyone in the delegation was happy to see Acosta regain his rhythm and pulse after a few lackluster performances. He scored a terrific equalizer and, enjoying greater freedom and space to operate, took on defenders and created opportunities in the decisive first half.
“A lot of teams we’ve played recently have tried to nullify the space and get tighter to him, but today it was difficult to cope with the two of them [Acosta and Rodriguez],” Rooney said. “Lucho had a bit more space, a bit more time on the ball, and if you give him time on the ball, he will produce for you.”
Acosta undoubtedly has a lot on his mind. In preseason, a proposed transfer to French power Paris Saint-Germain collapsed at the 11th hour. An intermediary had told United that PSG was willing to pay $10 million, but in face-to-face meetings at the transfer deadline, PSG wouldn’t go higher than $7 million.
Acosta also got his hopes up last month when the Argentine national team was apparently preparing to invite him to training camp. It didn’t happen.
As for his future, Acosta is in the final year of his MLS contract. Come July 1, he could sign a precontract with a team abroad. (If that were to occur, he would remain with United for the rest of the year and join the new team next winter.)
There is also the possibility a club could offer to buy him this summer. He also could wait until the winter and depart on a free transfer, United’s worst nightmare because it would not receive any compensation.
United and Acosta’s representatives are scheduled to resume talks over a new contract on or around April 25. The team probably will offer a multiyear deal that could quadruple his 2018 base salary of $550,000.
On the field, Acosta’s body language was better Saturday than in the past few matches.
“Lucho still wants to be a great player for this team,” Olsen said. “Showing up [Saturday] was a good start in getting him back to where we know he can be.”