Just as DC United has pursued a signature style with varying degrees of success and accommodation to the reality of personnel strength, so has the New England Revolution. United tends to be smaller and more technical in its play while the Revs grew up under Steve Nicol and remain a physical team under Jay Heaps.
DC has always had some bite on the squad and current coach Ben Olsen was a prime practitioner of the art of hounding opponents until something good happened. Since taking over the team, he has slightly increased player size and brought in yet more wing firepower in his mold.
As the 2011 season progressed, wide wing play seemed to improve until Chris Pontius went down injured and the team lapsed again into ineffective narrow play. 2012 began with a bit wider play, but again lapsed into narrowness as Andy Najar and Pontius, played more sparingly during his ongoing recovery of form, soon drifted inside in pursuit of the ball.
When Pontius began his DC United career, he was more attentive to the totality of his duties. As his exceptional talent for direct attack became clearer and the team struggled to score over the past few years, he sought to take the scoring burden on his shoulders, as did Najar who is similarly skilled and disposed.
It will take a strong coach to bring them back to the total wide play that needs to mix with their primary skills to increase overall team effectiveness. Runs into space in the middle are fine if used sparingly, but disastrous for the teams’ other creators if they already occupy the space needed for maneuver. DC United became too predictable.
Enter the new blood. The success of Nick DeLeon and Danny Cruz can be directly attributed to their general adherence to wide play. Against Seattle last Saturday, both tended to drift inside, but it was in response to a deliberate strategy by Sigi Schmidt.
Cruz aptly described the dilemma when I interviewed him for my game commentary, and his explanation that failure to follow the Sounders’ wingers inside might lead to their having too much freedom has some merit.
As United matures this season, they should be able to impose their game on an increasing number of teams. As the central defense continues to inspire confidence and Perry Kitchen continues to learn his defensive midfielder role, the wings will be much freer to stay wide.
The game against the Revs offers a great opportunity to try to impose a wide game. Jay Heaps is much like Nicol in his taste for the physical game. His squad will be without the imposing Shalrie Joseph in central midfield. That could tempt United into too much central play. Instead, it offers a chance to let the gelling defense do its work while the attackers pull New England wide when they have the ball.
It appears that former DC defensive mid, Clyde Simms, will have an important role in Joseph’s absence. He is competent and does a solid job of covering for his teammates’ mispositionings and misplays. Wide attacks will force him to work especially hard in a position that will be without depth.
Olsen seems pleased with his new wings and Najar and Pontius have certainly been battling hard in practice to resume their accustomed places. Given the short turnaround in the next several games, I expect Olsen to rotate the four, but wouldn’t predict in what order.
The physicality of the Revs should lead to a start for the physical Maicon Santos up front alongside Hamdi Salihi, with Dwayne DeRosario listed as a third forward and playing as a libero. Barring injuries, the subs would be two wings and Branko Boskovic, with Salihi or Santos coming out.
Central defense should find Dudar along with Brandon McDonald in order to rest Dejan Jakovic who is nursing a sore groin. He will have his next chance when Montreal comes to DC on Wednesday. The goal might see either Joe Willis or Bill Hamid, but it might be best to give Hamid another few days of ankle strengthening to forestall a possible need to use one of the three valuable substitutions in case he reinjures it.
Olsen seems to have the tools he needs in the quantity and quality desired to get through the next tough stretch. The only weakness is depth in wide defense. Montreal may choose to focus on that area when they come to town.
However, if the wings stay wide on Saturday, the wide defenders can remain at home more often and thereby suffer less fatigue. Olsen has to manage games in groups for this stretch and it will be a fine test of his strategic vision and his success in selling it to his players.