The best coaches understand that there is no one solution to improving a team. There are 22 people on the field and you can only try to control what 11 of them are doing while the other 11 try to foil their efforts. The game of soccer is simple, but those darned humans playing it make it infinitely variable and complex.
This means that it will take time for any new coach to piece together enough elements to understand where his team is and what he needs to do make it all work. A similar learning curve applies to all the players, some teaching, and all learning.
Let’s look first at the success of Chris Pontius. When Coach Ben Olsen made Josh Wolff a player-coach it was probably as much a salary/cost benefit move as anything else, but it also involved an understanding of how a well-versed veteran can help a team in many ways.
Olsen himself had mentored Brian Carroll when they shared holding midfield roles and saw the value Wolff’s presence could bring to several of his youngsters.
Pontius certainly appreciates Wolff’s input, “It’s good, especially for me. I have the ability to work with Josh Wolff who has two World Cups under his belt. Sitting with him during practice and listening to what he’s saying, just trying to find good spots that the defense leaves. ….He’s very knowledgeable in the game. To learn off him as a forward, it’s a blessing for me.”
The very recently converted winger had always had a tendency to drift inside to make direct attacks, but his style combined with that of the other winger, Andy Najar, to congest the middle, allowing opponents to clog the lanes and stifle all of DC United’s efforts.
When injury to Pontius and Honduran National Team duty for Najar forced the use of two still younger wings, Nick DeLeon and Danny Cruz, they played much wider and suddenly Maicon Santos and Dwayne DeRosario had more room inside. The possession game grew easier and the scoring pace improved.
The space provided gave Santos a chance to deploy his three great skills, a devastating long shot, great strength holding the ball, and the experience to find and use space to shoot. The need to double cover both him and DeRosario inevitably made more space for everyone else.
Enter Pontius, in a new role. He could add a third attacker who would demand attention and further confuse defenders. As Olsen put it, “We wanted him to pull them out with runs in behind and runs underneath, and I thought he did a very good job of executing that. He got Maicon some room, and it gave them a bit of trouble.”
Interestingly, Houston, coached by the excellent Dominic Kinnear, presents their opponents with much the same dilemma. Defender Robbie Russell pointed out how difficult they made it for him and his fellows in the back, “You’re looking at all these different looks. That’s their strength, making you look a little confused.”
The loss of Emiliano Dudar added to the difficulty for United’s defense as his cool experience was replaced by rapid adaptation. The game see-sawed as each side sought to confuse and exploit the other, only to be met with resolute resistance.
Russell was particularly proud of his team, “For every single player there was a point at which they had to make a big play, and they did. All over the field, guys were making big plays and that’s what finally got us over the hump.”
The entire team has learned and gelled over the last month. Goalkeeper Joe Willis has increased his command of the box, “The more crosses I see, the more confident I am.” He always had good hands, but has improved in reading crosses. He credits his defenders as well, “We’ve got so many good players on this team, that Emiliano goes out, Robbie slides in, and Perry drops back and I don’t think we really lose anything.”
Still another youngster who has shown rapid development in the holding midfield role is Perry Kitchen. In the last two games he has increasingly taken charge of the midfield, confidently directing traffic and orchestrating movement forward or sideways as the situation demands.
His necessary move to wide defender when Dudar went down may have some beneficial aspects as he gets to learn a different view of play, but it will detract from his development in his expected future role.
He admitted that working in a new role had some small merit, but, “I think it’s better to be in one position and kind of understand that role better.” Having expressed that view, he recognized that, “Sometimes these things happen and I’m gonna play wherever the team needs me and I think I did that tonight.”
The strong willingness to work for the team first and the obvious belief in the coaches’ plans are rooted in the traits that both Olsen and Wolff display. Of Wolff, Pontius says, “He knows how to get across to people, he reads the game very well, and everyone respects him.”
Despite United’s recent success, Pontius believes that the team is not yet satisfied, “We want more, we expect more from ourselves.” He has some ideas on what he needs to do to improve. “I turned over way too many balls tonight, I’ve got to be better, I’ve got to be stronger holding it up”. Seems as if he may have noticed what Santos has been doing so well.
As the squad moves on to play at San Jose and then at Toronto in the next few days, the question of fitness and player rest is on everyone’s mind, even the seemingly tireless Deleon who has gone ninety minutes almost every game.
He believes that, “Its’ about taking care of your body…I’m doing what I can to stay fit. …It’s a lot of wear on the body, but I can handle it so far.” He is focused on conditioning because, “I’ve heard a lot of rookies hit a wall.”
DC United has hardly used some very well regarded weapons during their recent surge and that may well be their best hope to avoid hitting that wall later on. Both Branko Boskovic and Hamdi Salihi have not shown well as the rest of the team improves, but now that the center is less crowded and concurrently more confusing for opponents, they may well become as effective as their billing and salaries would indicate.
Just how and when to integrate them will be Olsen’s next big challenge.