Like any sport where the object is to put a ball or puck in a net, soccer is all about movement, misdirection, and space, executed with speed, strength, and skill. The more different faces a team can present to their opponents, the more effective a team’s attack.
DC United presents opponents with unique challenges. As Coach Ben Olsen has slowly brought together the talent he sought and helped them buy into his understanding of the game the squad has developed a pair of personalities. The blend varies from a European game of rhythm and space to a classic MLS game of physicality and force.
You see the former in the clearing run that Hamdi Salihi made to set up Dwayne DeRosario’s goal complemented by the vision of Lewis Neal who saw the situation develop and threaded a perfect pass into Derosario’s path. The latter is personified in the tendency of Andy Najar and Chris Pontius to continue a direct attack while only occasionally making the distracting run to set up others.
This is not a criticism of their talent but a reflection of their youth; both will continue to expand their vision, especially as they play with the more experienced set of strikers and wings.
Add to the Pontius/Najar style the strength of Maicon Santos, and you have a classic MLs attack. The common element to both approaches is width of play and the best example of its exploitation is DeRosario. For those who might wonder why Olsen plays an older player as often as possible and as long as necessary, the answer is simple, the Captain connects both styles.
Add to the Salihi/Neal style the vision and control of Branko Boskovic, and you have a classic European attack. In that style you will see DeRosario making quick passes after a very few touches much of the time, relying on movement off the ball by his fellows. He will hold the ball as long as necessary, but rarely need to.
When accompanied by the MLS style players he will fit their scheme and beat a player or two in order to shoot or pass as the situation develops. In either case, a successful attacking scheme will only work if space is available.
That has only recently come about as Olsen’s efforts, begun last season, to spread the game wider seem to have been generally accepted and used by the team.
United’s peculiar success so far has developed out of necessity as well as good coaching. Olsen and the DC brain trust chose wisely and across the style spectrum. The more variable tools one has, the more problems one can present to an opponent, but also the harder it is to have your own team recognize what style will work at any point or in any given game.
The sequence of injuries and international absences (see Pontius’ recovery from last year’s broken leg and Najar’s Honduras stint) forced Olsen to put in rookie Nick DeLeon and youngster Danny Cruz. The pair played in the MLS style and brought width to the game. That was step one, but it didn’t really fit the talents of players like Boskovic and Salihi.
Enter Lewis Neal, an older winger with a good left foot and a fine vision for movement. He had to fight for playing time with four other very skilled individuals. His insertion set up Boskovic and Salihi for success.
As DeLeon and Pontius come off the “injury” list (a blend of out/questionable/probable) Olsen may well chose one style or the other depending on the opponent of the day. I expect that he will put out his players in groups to emphasize one style or the other.
At some point he will have to rest DeRosario and risk losing the glue that has held the team together with either style. The perfect time to do so should be against Toronto this Saturday. Go with the combination that just worked, but put Pontius up front with Salihi and see how well he can adapt to the European style.
After the game, I spoke briefly with Dejan Jakovic who says that he is fully ready to step back into the fray. With the injury to Robbie Russell, it might be wise to use him inside and move Daniel Woolard out wide again. Olsen feels that he owes the defender a rest, “We’ve been grinding Robbie pretty hard, so I thought giving him, last week, a little break, he’d be OK. He looked good; at halftime, he had a little soreness, but he said he could go through it.”
On the other hand he believes that, “Woolard really seems to be liking center back, so now I’ve got to deal with that. It’s a nice problem to have because he’s been really good in there, and Brandon’s been a rock as of late.” Given the imminent return of Emiliano Dudar and Ethan White as well, there will soon be plenty of depth centrally.
As the season progresses, the younger players will review not only their own performances, but those of their competitors. In order to get game time they will have to learn and then step up their own games by integrating the European style. If Olsen can get them to that point, DC United will become a serious challenger for MLS Cup.