The 1-1 tie on Wednesday showed yet again that it’s parity time in MLS. DC United has barely lost to the extremely hot Kansas City and barely tied expansion Montreal. Even their big win against FC Dallas was not as easy as it looked. Most games this year will be close.
The team that reads its opponent well, devises a good strategy, and then has the discipline to execute it will win more often than not and rise toward the top. DC United is not quite there yet, but has settled into an interesting pattern that resembles a frustrating bowling game, strike, spare, strike, spare, but no real strings that pile up the points.
Still, at that rate, the team will finish the regular season with 64 points and a playoff position. Just as the coaching staff analyzes each opponent, the other side reads DC’s tendencies and plans to exploit them. No side in MLS is sufficiently superior to simply impose its style on the other side.
Josh Wolff points out how the Montreal Impact resemble United and why the game was so often contested in midfield, “They’re an up-tempo, hard working team. They come at you pretty much all over the field. They want to try to force you to play. We didn’t deal with it that great in the beginning.”
That pressure by both sides had a predictable effect, “Obviously, we didn’t have a good bailout as far as going long. They’re physical in the back; Shavar and Ferrari were good for them. Those are tough balls for Pontius and DeRo to hold.
“So at that point we needed to do a better job of switching the field of attack, getting out of pressure, so that we could get some numbers on the weak side. When we did that we were OK, but we just didn’t do it enough.”
This season, DC United has generally played stronger in the second half than in the first. Wolff was one of many to observe, “I don’t think we were particularly solid in the first 25 minutes … the balance of being inside and then getting outside was sort of lacking a bit.
“As the game went on, I thought we did a bit better. The more we had possession, the better we were. It took a half for us to get that.”
It has become clear that other teams choose to pressure United higher than has traditionally been the case in soccer. For example, most away teams will begin serious resistance near midfield or slightly into their own half. The concept is to contain the other side and counter.
Montreal came out and made it immediately clear that they would play as if they were a home side, setting their restraint line ten yards inside United’s half and having their forwards pressure defenders almost constantly. This was a wise exploitation of United’s depleted defense and it forced adjustments.
Wolff explained the appropriate response to higher pressure, “We talked about being a bit more patient, not giving balls away.” As the game progresses, a good team will become more comfortable, “In the second half we did a better job of certainly moving the ball, creating a few more numbers out wide.”
That led to good results, “We got some good service and obviously the introduction of Maicon (Santos) was a big difference. When you have a guy that can hold balls continuously that can just batter their backs, and it provided us with a goal.”
Perry Kitchen had the huge burden of protecting his backs as the pressure game and switches of play forced him to cover both wide and deep. He responded well, “I just try to keep the pressure off the backs. Overall, I think it was decent.
“We weren’t our sharpest in the back. We gave up a goal; you never want to see that. Saying that, I think we showed well in the second half to come back and get it tied up.”
Switching to a bit of an attacking role, Kitchen provided the ball that set up Santos’ tying goal. He was modest about his first assist, rightly crediting the Brasilian’s skill, “When he came in there was an instant change and we started getting more chances, becoming more dangerous.” He went on to state the obvious, “He can do special things with his left foot. When he lets it rip it can create dangerous plays.”
Santos has two skills that combine to give defenders big headaches. Either he holds the ball, which allows his teammates to move and find space, or he is played more aggressively, which means he can beat his man to get enough space to crack a good shot on goal.
DeRosario presents a similar dilemma, but does it with guile and touch while Santos uses more strength. Thus, the Canadian does his best holding work a bit further out with a bit more space. In this particular game, he set an early pattern of quick one-touch flicks which sadly found no one running into the spaces where he sent the ball.
Finding no success, he changed tactics. Wolff was pleased to see the change, “It was good to see him moderate it. The flicks are tough to do. Certainly when they don’t come off you want to limit them a bit. For Pontius and DeRo it was tight up top. It would have been nice just to simplify things; when it comes in you hold, lay it off, and let’s get some guys in.”
With both Andy Najar and Danny Cruz reasonably fresh after limited time on Wednesday and Pontius having played the full ninety, I expect to see those two starting on Sunday while Nick DeLeon comes in later along with Pontius. It would be nice to see what problems Santos gives the Red Bulls’ defense.
He and DeRosario will draw double coverage, giving disciplined wide midfielders some room to maneuver. Najar has shown a greater willingness to keep wide, but Wolff explains why the Honduran is allowed to cut inside as often as he does, “Our wide guys have pretty good instincts, so you kind of want them to find the game as best they can.”
A coaching staff can only lay out the overall strategy, it is up to the players to improvise and the best coaches will let them. DC United has only found a rhythm sporadically, but the tools are there.
Wolff believes that the team is doing well so far and should improve, “You go through years of finding different players, systems, coaches, so I think you’ve got good enough personnel now and we’ve gotta take care of it. You’ve seen when we play properly and move the ball around and are calm on the ball that we can possess it and when we do we have good success.”
Kitchen agrees, “If we can put 90 minutes together, a solid performance, I think we’ll be a tough team to beat.” Yes, it’s a cliché, but accurate nonetheless.
United is not in a bad rut. Averaging 2 points per game (after 2 initial losses) is OK, but that pace can continue only if Olsen can get his charges to start out focused as opponents continue to refine their own countermeasures.