The “rookie wall” is a well worn cliché precisely because it is so often encountered. If the rookie in question is lucky enough to break through, he has a good chance to hang around the top level. Last night, rookie Nick DeLeon showed signs of returning to his early season form.
When I asked him in April about the main lesson that he had taken from his father, a former professional player, he noted that it was, “My attitude of going at defenders without fear. Sometimes you lose it, sometimes you get by them; but you just gotta keep going.”
His observation applied then, applied to last night’s wonderful run, and may apply to DC United as well.
He made the most significant game-changing effort I have seen that garnered no assist. That pesky statistic requires a more direct link than he generated; but the goal was almost all his doing with a neat backheel by Long Tan and a simple tap-in by Chris Pontius to finish it off.
Having gone through his own rookie and sophomore phases, Pontius had the correct insight, “It’s tough. You go from having a three-month season to all of a sudden – with preseason – ten plus months. Consistency is the hardest thing as a rookie, but I think he’s found his groove back.
“I just told him the thing that makes him successful is his going at guys, and you saw that tonight, putting defenders on their heels.” The rookie’s early season fearlessness and ability to shed defenders is indeed reminiscent of his mentor’s early years.
Deleon benefited from immediate advice as, “[Chris] Korb played a ball down the line and I just heard the sideline saying ‘go at them, go at them.’ He gave me a little space toward the line and I went at him. Fortunately enough I got through and we got the goal.”
In fast moving situations in a crowded goal area anything can happen, but a quick reflex increases the odds of scoring. As he closed on goal, DeLeon pirouetted around a defender to free up enough space to put in a short cross to Tan.
The play showed his adaptability and cool under pressure, “That was just a bad touch. The defender was coming, so I just improvised. It worked out for the best. We got the goal and we got the win, so I’m happy about that.”
Now let’s consider a DC United team that has been wading through its own midseason morass. It won on the night only because it got a few more breaks than a mediocre opponent. Both teams created few good chances and both nearly scored from in the box bounces. This one could have gone either way.
The team played a bit more narrowly than normal because of the style that the Columbus Crew chose to use. Josh Wolff noted that the Crew wanted United to attack wide so that crossed balls would be more easily rejected by their tall defenders, principally Chad Marshall.
United chose instead to play a quick passing game inside, as both Korb and Daniel Woolard overlapped into the wide channels, while the team maintained overall good shape. The discipline held up well enough to preserve the clean score sheet despite a few scary moments.
As United approaches the most trying several weeks of their season, they will need to show more confidence in attack while retaining good discipline and shape. Saturday’s upcoming game at Sporting Kansas City will provide them a stern test by a quality side.
With the team still looking like a preseason side, Olsen will have to hold very focused practices this week to ingrain proper habits. It takes a superior coach to instill a confident improvising mentality while assuring that shape is well maintained.
Both have to come naturally, with no delays to think it over. The players must all be as adaptable as DeLeon was when he turned his bad touch into a clever move. Olsen has been slowly working out how to do that. His opposite numbers keep redefining the issues he faces.
Just as several of his players are still learning how to get out of a funk, so Is their young coach.