As the season progresses, the coach of a team sport has to integrate new players into the team’s style. This is especially true in soccer, where there are fewer set plays and many more options.
Even a team with a strong history such as DC United can still upset the unique chemistry that underlies its long term success. This year Coach Tom Soehn has had the difficult task of integrating an unusually large number of talented young players into an aging, but still competent squad.
Under the stress of normal league play, DC United could expect a smooth integration and a successful season featuring steady growth and improvement. However, the addition of many mid-week games has had a triple whammy effect.
Soehn has stated on several occasions that he and his staff are very happy when they have the rare extended period of practice without games in order to better train the team. What he is getting at is the fact that a compressed schedule not only creates fatigue problems which require greater player rotation, but also leaves less time to bring the team together to forge a desired style.
The team can’t get a rhythm if the music of varied opponents keeps changing. This dynamic accounts for the all too common phenomenon of a team’s playing down to the level of an opponent. When a team plays down, it is because it is not as certain as it should be of its own rhythm.
On the other hand, a team can play up to a superior opponent for significant parts of a game because that opponent sets the overall rhythm of play at a high level.
Soehn has struggled in his attempts to find a rhythm because he has yet to find the best way to integrate new players. He had early success when injuries forced United to play two rookies who exceeded expectations. That success may have given him a false sense of confidence in the ability of those youngsters, and others to follow, to fit into the style he wished to see.
The tasks of a winger in any strong team are relatively straightforward and emphasize maintaining width with sufficient variety to keep a defense honest. Chris Pontius and Rodney Wallace stepped into those roles and performed them by the book, with minimal flair and simple competence.
Their example showed the way for the more centrally oriented wingers like Fred and Tino Quaranta to adjust to the basic team rhythm instead of favoring their own skill set. The overall team style was thus reinforced and early success followed.
However, as the busy schedule bore down on the players and staff, Soehn found himself having to make constant adjustments. There is a fine line between being flexible and losing the beat. Jazz is not easily played well.
The emergence of several good young players was a godsend for DC United, but brought new players to the band and ultimately threw off the overall rhythm. In any group effort there is a tipping point where the introduction of new blood stops being a blessing and becomes a destabilizer.
There is no right or wrong in that, it is a simple fact of human interaction, and the best of coaches recognize it before it becomes a problem. The best solution is to always keep a sufficient cadre of those already steeped in the team’s culture on the field, filling in with newcomers a few at a time.
Instead, many coaches play their strongest squad in the games they deem most important and play many reserves in those less favored. The culture is thereby transmitted mostly in practices and only marginally in the few games where reserves are few enough to comfortably adapt.
In summary, DC United chose to win early with starters (with the exception of the pleasant Wallace/Pontius surprise) and lost valuable integration time. The team has lost its rhythm as it alternates between stronger and lesser squads.
This was on display in the second half on Wednesday as direction of play fell significantly to Bryan Namoff who was playing his usual right defender position with frequent overlaps to support the attack. A team with a sense of its own style needs very little verbal and hand gesture direction, especially from the back when on attack.
There is still time to shift to a better balanced mix of players but it comes with real risk. The pressure of needed wins both on Saturday at Chicago and on Wednesday in the Open Cup Final versus Seattle will force Soehn to optimize his roster for two straight closely placed games.
That crisis may force him to use a mix twice in a row and present him a corresponding opportunity to set a pattern of mixed strength which should have been adopted sooner. There is precious little time left to get it right.