DC United has played fifteen games at RFK without a loss, yet the team still seems to be struggling. With few exceptions, their games have been one goal affairs which have proven that the Mythbusters’ demonstration that you can’t dodge a bullet are overstated. They’ve just done it three in a row.
In early MLS going, United Coach Ben Olsen appeared to be bringing his team slowly into better use of width and more coordinated overall team play. They became smarter as a unit while continuing to work hard in the Olsen mold.
Then it all fell apart. Some of it was due to injuries to key players, exposing what seemed to be United’s exceptional depth as a myth itself. As Olsen had to adjust the roles of his players, their comfort in the system in which he was training them disintegrated.
The team had weeks with three games interspersed with big gaps between games. The main constant was that Dwayne De Rosario played all of almost every game. His exceptional skills and vision gave the team a hook to hang their attack on and may have left them with little sense of roles when he suddenly became absent.
On most MLS teams a franchise player has a specific set of skills and a certain predictability. De Ro stood out precisely because the “libero” role that Olsen let him play fit his unique unpredictability. The team came to rely on his fascinating inventions, which grew fewer and fewer as the inevitable fatigue set in.
His loss should benefit the team in the longer run as others must assume the mantle of leadership. In the last few games that task has been shared among several players. Andy Najar returned from the Olympics with an even more fierce determination than usual and took up a role as an overlapping right back.
Chris Pontius has returned from injury to apply his unique energy to the opposite flank, freeing up Chris Korb to occasionally overlap him as he draws defenders inside. The whole team has adapted to the flow of their energy.
Still, there remains a sense of unease. Olsen captured it in his comment at the press conference, “We’ve rode our luck at times too, we could have had ties or losses in all three of these games, they weren’t overwhelmingly dominating. I think that’s the one overwhelming theme with this group right now, they’re grinding and they’re surviving.”
If the team is to make the playoffs and win even a few of those games, it must establish a more certain style of play. The seeds have been planted and show signs of bearing fruit. As the season has progressed, I have spoken often with Josh Wolff as he explained how the width and overlapping of backs was part of “modern soccer.”
I got almost the same quote from defender Dejan Jakovic on Sunday evening, “That’s the way soccer is being played right now. It’s a very attacking game. In Europe, Barcelona does it really well.” It looks like the team has bought into Olsen’s vision, but I’m still a bit leery of the chances of success in this style for a typical MLS team.
On a top European team the wide backs can often send in great balls as proficiently as wide midfielders, but on DC United Chris Korb is not a better crosser than Pontius. With Najar on the right, Olsen has found one suitable overlapper when two may be needed.
Steve Cherundolo has excelled in club and international soccer as just the sort who fits that “modern” role, but he is rare indeed. If DC United obtains a left back who can match Najar’s energy and effectiveness, Olsen’s scheme might devastate opponents. As it is, it presents some problems for them, but also unbalances United.
When the Dutch National Team popularized total soccer, it played on exactly the complete skill set that top teams can hope to have in each player. MLS level competition can’t really get there and must adjust a bit.
In basic total soccer a team maintains its shape by rotating about an imaginary center of mass. The more modern version has players rotating in smaller segments as the wide midfielder, wide back and central holding or attacking midfielders switch positions.
All teams have always done some of this simply to keep triangles and maintain passing options, but the modern game seeks to institutionalize it. If it is to succeed, players must be attentive for the entire game. That’s where fatigue comes in.
Olsen and his staff have clearly come to believe that Branko Boskovic is most effective when opponents are sliding into that fatigued state. They express it as “the game slowing down” while describing mental more than physical fatigue.
OIsen’s original coach, Bruce Arena, emphasized possession which sought to control the game from the very beginning and throughout. The young coach appears to have opted to allow some greater freedom of possession to opponents only to come at them with guile later in the match.
This follows a mid season approach which saw him sending in the speedy Long Tan in late stages to attempt the more traditional speed against tired legs tactic. It is this recognition that he must have a variety of tools in a good scheme that may bring him success late in the season.
The risk of trying a sophisticated style with as many young players as he has is fairly high. By choosing to use his wiser players as substitutes Olsen has perhaps slowed the learning curve which may have been exacerbated by Boskovic’s mid season injury.
As long as the team matures along with their coach, the learning may continue and DC United may go deep into the playoffs.