Wayne Rooney, D.C. United vs. Colorado, 7.28.18
Photo by Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Know Your Opponent | The unknown unknowns defining D.C. United's start

When it comes to D.C. United – the Timbers' Wednesday night opponent at Audi Field (5pm PT, ROOT SPORTS) – there is only so much to know, something that makes these traditional Know Your Opponent previews a little difficult. In fact, when you look at the top-level, cursory things that fuel our assumptions about one of MLS’ originals, it turns out there might be a lot to un-know.

That may sound a little Rumsfeldian, but the former Secretary of Defense did, 16 years ago, have a moment of rhetorical inspiration when describing different levels of knowledge. In a Department of Defense briefing, Donald Rumsfeld described information in terms of known knowns (loosely, things we can be certain we are aware of), known unknowns (things we are sure are out there, but don’t know enough about them), and unknown unknowns – “the ones we don't know we don't know,” in the Secretary’s words.

That was all in public, to the press, on the record. It was … a truly absurd moment.

Consider that spectrum when we’re evaluating D.C. United. For example, you can usually tell a lot about a team by where they sit in the standings, and while a 20-game sample should never be taken as gospel, the first 58.8 percent of United’s season paints a bleak picture. After all, they sit at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Yet when you look beyond the team’s 21 points in 20 games – a rate that bests only five teams in MLS – you see reason to refrain from any abrupt judgments: six games at home; 14 on the road.

Is D.C. United’s true quality a known unknown? Maybe. But it’s also possible that their schedule has been so weird, the arc of their season so different, that their true quality is an unknown unknown. We know that their level sits at some, definite point on this theoretical spectrum, but when trying to assess whether United is good or bad, improving or not – dangerous or not, as is the Portland Timbers’ chief concern – United’s potential might as well be an unknown unknown. It may be impossible to conceive of how good (or bad) D.C. United actually are.

We’re in this fog because United’s new home, Audi Field, couldn’t open until midseason, giving the team a backloaded schedule that puts the Timbers’ early vagabond days to shame. The Timbers opened the 2018 season with five games on the road, went 0-3-2, and generally look back at that stretch as its season’s most-trying moment – a crucible of challenges that, perhaps, helped forge what the team is, now.

D.C. United’s crucible was twice the challenge. The team had a few home games this spring, but they were at places like the Maryland SoccerPlex, a facility that could only accommodate 5,128 fans. Would you count a Timbers game at the University of Portland as a true home game? Until Audi Field opened on July 14, United played 12 of its MLS season’s first 14 games away from home, a stretch that would condemn many teams to their conference cellars.

It also leaves us, the bystanders, with an incomplete picture of Ben Olsen’s squad. On raw numbers, they are a middle-of-the-pack defensive team (their 38 goals allowed 10th-fewest in the league) while having trouble scoring goals (only 33, so far). Yet among Eastern Conference clubs alone, teams score 48 percent more goals at home than on the road, and they concede 52 percent fewer. If you see those as conversion rates and apply them to D.C. United’s numbers, all of a sudden you’d have … well, a pretty decent team.

Some people have started doing that. If you spend much time on social media, you may have seen more people do as Tutal Rahman did last night – a very rudimentary exercise where they project teams’ home and road records across the full 34-game season:

Through that lens, D.C. United is not only a playoff-caliber team, but they have room to spare, and while that is merely a lens (not how the season’s destined to play out), that lens is a fairer one than looking at the raw table. D.C. United has only played six home games – only four of which have been at Audi Field – so it’s too early to know how their new venue will influence their season, but it seems safe to say that United is better than the season’s first 14 games depicted.

In former Timbers forward Darron Mattocks and fellow offseason acquisition Yamil Asad, United has a scoring tandem that’s combined for 17 goals, and while that total isn’t headline-worthy in the current, score-happy MLS, it is more than the Timbers’ top two scorers, Diego Valeri and Samuel Armenteros, have mustered (16). Between Luciano Acosta (nine), Paul Arriola and Zoltan Stieber (seven, each), Olsen’s lineup has a creative core that’s combined for 23 assists, this season, while the return of homegrown Bill Hamid from his Danish sojourn gives the team a Best-XI-caliber talent in goal.

And, of course, there’s Wayne Rooney, the high-profile European import United injected as the protagonist of its early, Audi Field lore. A healthy debate that vacillated between admiration and scoffing accompanied Rooney’s arrival, with the truth destined to settle somewhere in between. Through six MLS games, the Everton and Manchester United legend has only scored once, but he has added three assists, including a highlight-caliber helper that showed his all-field value when producing this weekend’s stoppage-time winner for Acosta.

Perhaps that, above – two paragraphs of listing United’s dangerous points – provides a better view of the Timbers’ challenge; at least, given the schedule D.C. was handed, a look at their talents, an assessment of their potential, and a realization that the season’s first 20 games can only say so much seems much better than looking at today’s standings, ignoring their context, and assuming D.C. United is what they were last season. By any reasonable indication, the team is moving forward from that 11th-place result

Now, on short rest, having lost a day’s training to travel, and entering a stadium in which they’ve never played, Portland will find out what United can really offer. D.C.’s reputation says the Timbers should expect success; the reality suggests success would be hard-earned.