In DC United’s final action of the 2011 season, Josh Wolff headed a ball just off the top of the crossbar following two smart and precise passes nearly tying the conference leaders and saving some face for a side that has watched its season fade into frustrating “might have been” moments. Somehow, it was a fitting conclusion.
Game after game down the stretch, something would go wrong, usually in the last few minutes. Chances to score fell just short of realization or inattention to defensive duties let an opponent pull out a win or a tie. Coach Ben Olsen has an inexperienced squad and is himself still learning.
It showed all season as the team gradually gained better shape and style, only to slide into ineffectiveness toward the end.
The coach took most of the burden on himself, but was sanguine about future prospects, “It was a pretty good performance overall. We know what we need; I know what we need for next year. But it’s not as much as you guys think. I still have a lot of confidence in this group of players.”
The players have always shown the most obvious signs of Olsen’s influence; they play with grit and persistence. Their failures have been not with heart, but with smarts. Experience brings wisdom, and neither the coach nor the players are quite yet where they need to be.
A winter of reflection and study by players and coaches combined with the acquisition of a few key pieces that Olsen has his eye on should justify the coach’s optimism. Olsen has always been more cerebral than he lets on, but his knowledge built up over years will take time to communicate.
This year he has struggled with the actual teaching techniques, when and exactly how to structure practices to create a shape to fit both his team’s and the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses.
We saw a hint of his thinking on Saturday as he sent out an unusual formation as described by Tino Quaranta, “We changed our formation tonight which was encouraging I think for not working on it. Call it 4-3-3 or 4-5-1, whatever you want to call it. I think the guys responded well. We created chances.”
Stephen King, who got to ply his trade in central midfield, liked the idea, “I think it was good. I think it was something worth trying. Maybe going into next season we’ll work on it in preseason and see if that’s the direction we want to go….
“Playing against a team that does clog the middle a little bit and plays with 3 central midfielders we thought that we could counter their formation with what we did….We definitely noticed that there was a lot of space out wide especially when we’d switch the ball quickly to Andy or Austin or Tino early on….It’s something we looked to do.”
Austin Da Luz agreed, “I think with a little more time we can be successful with that formation. We’ll see what happens. At the end of the day it does make for a more exciting game. It opens up a little bit more and it can be a good thing.”
On the flip side of the argument, Kansas City’s coach, Peter Vermes cited the downside if the formation drifts too much in the 4-5-1 direction, “I think it was a little hard for [Dwayne De Rosario] because he was a man on an island tonight playing as one up top.”
In theory, the wide midfielders should alternately either draw coverage from the center or go poorly marked, with advantages flowing from either development. Both responses increase space for an attacking side to exploit.
DC United is one of the shorter and less physical sides in MLS, explaining a major weakness that was on display Saturday when Sporting Kansas City scored the game winner. Set pieces require at least some size to defend and also to attack.
Interestingly, one of United’s most anticipated improvements for next year will feature the slim, gritty, and clever Perry Kitchen. His skills in the defensive midfield position are such that he is expected to be one of the best in the league as he grows into the role. Yet, he indicates that he has no intention of spending the winter putting on pounds of muscle.
He believes that enough international stars at the position are built like him that he is best off going with his natural skill set. He may well be right, and if so, Olsen would do well to look for a large strong central defender to join the also slim Dejan Jakovic in the back line.
KC — Matt Besler 2 (unassisted) 54
Sporting KC — Jimmy Nielsen, Chance Myers, Aurelien Collin, Matt Besler, Seth Sinovic, Kei Kamara, Roger Espinoza (Davy Arnaud 46), Graham Zusi, Julio Cesar, Omar Bravo, Teal Bunbury (C.J. Sapong 68).
Substitutes Not Used: Michael Harrington, Lawrence Olum, Jeferson, Soony Saad, Eric Kronberg.
D.C. United — Bill Hamid, Chris Korb, Ethan White, Brandon McDonald, Daniel Woolard (Marc Burch 46), Andy Najar, Perry Kitchen, Clyde Simms (Austin Da Luz 17), Stephen King (Josh Wolff 75), Dwayne De Rosario, Santino Quaranta.
Substitutes Not Used: Blake Brettschneider, Charlie Davies, Joseph Ngwenya, Joe Willis.
KC — Roger Espinoza (caution; Tactical Foul) 26
DC — Perry Kitchen (caution; Reckless Tackle) 34
Referee: Alex Prus
Referee’s Assistants: -Eric Proctor; Corey Parker
4th Official: Mark Kadlecik
Time of Game: 1:49
Weather: Partly Cloudy-and-56-degrees