Archive | Game Commentary

DC players are United in optimism

Posted on 07 November 2012 by Steve Long

The New York (New Jersey) Red Bulls have one of the highest paid rosters in MLS and have an empty trophy case to show for it. They will be motivated tonight at home. Still, they have to realize that their salaries and good fortune on Saturday in DC are no deterrent to Ben Olsen’s United team.

The coach was sanguine about his team’s situation after tying 1-1 at home, “We obviously wanted to win today. I thought we had a good balance of going forward and making sure we didn’t get exposed in the back.

“Again, I thought there was some really good stuff offensively. We created chances. In the first half, we were a little bit rushed at times. We probably should have nicked a goal.”

He was not alone. Commenting on the classic playoff style adopted by both teams, Lewis Neal felt that the deeper restraint line was not really a hindrance to attacking, “We had a lot of decent efforts…We played particularly well in the first half.”

When Andy Najar was ejected leaving United with only ten players, Neal noted that, “We weren’t just hanging on there, (We had) one or two breakaways, one or two half looks…..It just shows the togetherness and the team spirit that we have.”

Perry Kitchen, who has carried the large burden of protecting the defenders while helping transition to attack, believes that DC’s cohesion has matured quite well, – “If we are playing the best, with good pressure, good possession, we can hang with any team. That’s just what we need to do.”

Captain Chris Pontius agreed, “I always felt good about how we matched up against them and tonight just proved it right. Like I said, we have to match their intensity up there and we’ve got to play offensively up there like we did down here.”

This year’s group has grown along with their young coach and appears not only to have bought into his approach, but to understand it well. Their unanimous confidence in each other stands out in every interview.

Possible rookie of the year, Nick DeLeon saw it clearly, “They weren’t doing much with that (the deeper restraint line used by both teams) and we picked our moments very well…We stuck together as a team and it all worked out….It really limited their chances and it’s unfortunate we couldn’t put more in the net.” After going down to ten men, it was, “Sit in tight and go on the counter if we had the opportunity.”

The wisest player on the team, Branko Boskovic put it simply, “Game like this, you must be smart…..Be patient until the last minute.” It is interesting that Olsen has frequently chosen Neal and Boskovic for simple roles that support the middle of the field. They both bring a calmness and understanding that supports and teaches the youngsters around them.

The expected horrible weather conditions tonight will favor the team that holds together best and avoids mistakes. Olsen has emphasized that cohesion as the season has progressed and the loss of Dwayne De Rosario has helped cement a team that adjusted to the loss of offense by be becoming even stingier on defense.

The original DC United followed the Bruce Arena style of pressuring all over the field. Olsen’s squad lends itself more to a withdrawn restraint line, but is otherwise the same in emphasizing maintenance of possession once obtained and a quick attack, but only when it “is on”.

Here’s how Chris Korb saw it, “In the second half after the red card you can’t do much.” That is obvious enough, but he went on to point out, “We still probably had more chances than they did. We’re fine, we’ll be ready for Wednesday.”

His confidence is well placed as he realized that United was already prepared to contain the Red Bulls as they had all game, but the team reserved the right to attack when it was on. The loss of Najar’s services will take away some of DC’s sting in either a slow buildup or a counter, but his talent is best suited to better conditions where skill predominates.

With weather the great leveler, United’s blue collar style should serve them well.

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DC United slowly climbs the learning curve with another 1-0 win

Posted on 24 September 2012 by Steve Long

DC United has played fifteen games at RFK without a loss, yet the team still seems to be struggling. With few exceptions, their games have been one goal affairs which have proven that the Mythbusters’ demonstration that you can’t dodge a bullet are overstated. They’ve just done it three in a row.

In early MLS going, United Coach Ben Olsen appeared to be bringing his team slowly into better use of width and more coordinated overall team play. They became smarter as a unit while continuing to work hard in the Olsen mold.

Then it all fell apart. Some of it was due to injuries to key players, exposing what seemed to be United’s exceptional depth as a myth itself. As Olsen had to adjust the roles of his players, their comfort in the system in which he was training them disintegrated.

The team had weeks with three games interspersed with big gaps between games. The main constant was that Dwayne De Rosario played all of almost every game. His exceptional skills and vision gave the team a hook to hang their attack on and may have left them with little sense of roles when he suddenly became absent.

On most MLS teams a franchise player has a specific set of skills and a certain predictability. De Ro stood out precisely because the “libero” role that Olsen let him play fit his unique unpredictability. The team came to rely on his fascinating inventions, which grew fewer and fewer as the inevitable fatigue set in.

His loss should benefit the team in the longer run as others must assume the mantle of leadership. In the last few games that task has been shared among several players. Andy Najar returned from the Olympics with an even more fierce determination than usual and took up a role as an overlapping right back.

Chris Pontius has returned from injury to apply his unique energy to the opposite flank, freeing up Chris Korb to occasionally overlap him as he draws defenders inside. The whole team has adapted to the flow of their energy.

Still, there remains a sense of unease. Olsen captured it in his comment at the press conference, “We’ve rode our luck at times too, we could have had ties or losses in all three of these games, they weren’t overwhelmingly dominating. I think that’s the one overwhelming theme with this group right now, they’re grinding and they’re surviving.”

If the team is to make the playoffs and win even a few of those games, it must establish a more certain style of play. The seeds have been planted and show signs of bearing fruit. As the season has progressed, I have spoken often with Josh Wolff as he explained how the width and overlapping of backs was part of “modern soccer.”

I got almost the same quote from defender Dejan Jakovic on Sunday evening, “That’s the way soccer is being played right now. It’s a very attacking game. In Europe, Barcelona does it really well.” It looks like the team has bought into Olsen’s vision, but I’m still a bit leery of the chances of success in this style for a typical MLS team.

On a top European team the wide backs can often send in great balls as proficiently as wide midfielders, but on DC United Chris Korb is not a better crosser than Pontius. With Najar on the right, Olsen has found one suitable overlapper when two may be needed.

Steve Cherundolo has excelled in club and international soccer as just the sort who fits that “modern” role, but he is rare indeed. If DC United obtains a left back who can match Najar’s energy and effectiveness, Olsen’s scheme might devastate opponents. As it is, it presents some problems for them, but also unbalances United.

When the Dutch National Team popularized total soccer, it played on exactly the complete skill set that top teams can hope to have in each player. MLS level competition can’t really get there and must adjust a bit.

In basic total soccer a team maintains its shape by rotating about an imaginary center of mass. The more modern version has players rotating in smaller segments as the wide midfielder, wide back and central holding or attacking midfielders switch positions.

All teams have always done some of this simply to keep triangles and maintain passing options, but the modern game seeks to institutionalize it. If it is to succeed, players must be attentive for the entire game. That’s where fatigue comes in.

Olsen and his staff have clearly come to believe that Branko Boskovic is most effective when opponents are sliding into that fatigued state. They express it as “the game slowing down” while describing mental more than physical fatigue.

OIsen’s original coach, Bruce Arena, emphasized possession which sought to control the game from the very beginning and throughout. The young coach appears to have opted to allow some greater freedom of possession to opponents only to come at them with guile later in the match.

This follows a mid season approach which saw him sending in the speedy Long Tan in late stages to attempt the more traditional speed against tired legs tactic. It is this recognition that he must have a variety of tools in a good scheme that may bring him success late in the season.

The risk of trying a sophisticated style with as many young players as he has is fairly high. By choosing to use his wiser players as substitutes Olsen has perhaps slowed the learning curve which may have been exacerbated by Boskovic’s mid season injury.

As long as the team matures along with their coach, the learning may continue and DC United may go deep into the playoffs.

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DC United adjusts to the loss of Dwayne De Rosario with 2-1 win

Posted on 17 September 2012 by Steve Long

Coach Ben Olsen was honored on Saturday night with a banner on the DC United Hall of Tradition for his years of excellence as a player. He began his career with United with energy to burn, a fierce desire to beat his man to win games, and the wisdom to constantly learn. He adjusted to the adversity of a severe ankle injury which moved him into a holding central midfield role.

As you might expect, his strategy as a young coach today reflects his playing experiences. Having succeeded with a pairing with Brian Carroll as dual holding midfielders in a 3-5-2 formation, he easily fell back on a variation of the classic 4-4-2 which features what is called the “empty bucket”.

The concept is to play a flat back four which does not normally mean that all four in back are square across the field, but that they rotate around the flow of the game with either wide back finding himself as one of the two central defenders in some cases while the other advances to or even through wide midfield to overlap a pinching wide midfielder.

It has become increasingly common for teams to feature an overlapping/attacking back. Josh
Wolff explains, “The game has changed, that’s the rationale, I think…..You want to get guys in advance of the ball…..You’ve got outside guys who can pinch inside to encourage your backs to go and you get numbers in advance of the ball.”

This strategy can leave defensive holes as the wide midfielder pinches in. Wolff points out that recently, “We’ve had Perry (Kitchen) and ‘Celo (Marcelo Saragosa) in there so when a wide guy goes, there’s your cover.”

With the injury to Dwayne De Rosario, the team needed a bit more creativity and the coaching staff chose to insert Branko Boskovic in place of Saragosa. Thus, Wolff said, “Tonight with Branko in there it was a little bit different. Branko’s a little bit more up the field and doesn’t cover as much ground as ‘Celo.” Until he tired in the second half, Boskovic’s offensive threat was enough to keep the Revolution somewhat withdrawn.

As Boskovic slowed, Andy Najar showed how the overlapping back could add to the attack. “I think when we got Andy forward and Korb forward we were actually better.” “It took a little while for Andy to get forward……But I think quickly in the second half he was a little more aggressive and it paid off with some real attacks”, Wolff noted.

Asked about whether he liked Najar at right back, Wolff waxed enthusiastic, “I think Andy has been a much better soccer player for us as a right back. He’s more comfortable with the ball when he gets in the final third. That’s what you see with Andy, there’s a little bit of a breakdown with the service. There’s a little bit of a breakdown with the ideas.

“Whether he’s shooting whether he’s dribbling, that’s the one thing. He’s only 19 so it’s gonna continue to grow. I don’t think you get enough out of him as a midfielder. When he’s in back he’s putting guys under pressure a bit more, his service from deeper is a little bit better and he’s still capable of going at guys one on one. My own opinion, I think he’s a fantastic right back.”

Coach Ben Olsen backed up Wolff’s point about central midfield, “Well one, Branko’s not 90 minutes fit, so we knew at some point he was going to have to come off. It just looked like he was starting to fade a little bit. It is tough because Branko offensively gives you some real magic and the set pieces he put in today I thought were really good but there was starting to be a cost to that.

“I thought Lewis came in and really changed the game and slowed us down a bit, kept possession, won some tackles and was pretty diligent doing the work next to Perry Kitchen. I thought that helped and then he gets the goal, which is great, and I’m happy for him to get the winner.”

On the night, United barely prevailed in their own home against a team with a significantly weaker record thanks to a great performance by goalie Bill Hamid. Olsen claimed that, “We were rusty. It was not a great game and we were probably a little lucky. It could have gone either way.”

Having slid into the final playoff spot, DC United must take advantage of nominally lesser teams like Philadelphia and Chivas this week in order to assure post-season play. Olsen waxed philosophical about it, “That is going to change, again and again and again. We have six more games so this thing is going to continue to change.

“I hope it changes with us continuing to move forward – that’s our goal. We have a couple of games coming up that we should do well in, but it ‘s going to take a much better performance than this.”

So, it’s on to Philadelphia to shake off more rust.

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DC United outworks FC Dallas for 4-1 win

Posted on 31 March 2012 by Steve Long

DC United opened its season against four of the stronger teams in MLS and the results until Friday night’s were predictable. Two losses followed by a tie showed that the team had some defensive competence, but lacked scoring punch. Then FC Dallas came to town.

With Chris Pontius still a half step short of full effectiveness and Andy Najar still away with Honduras, United Coach Ben Olsen had to rely on two young wingers to make good things happen. Just as Pontius and Rodney Wallace stepped up in their mutual rookie year, the kids came through.

A significant part of their impact came from their comprehensive aggressive play. Danny Cruz, a mixture of Olsen and Josh Gros, was modest about his efforts, “Just trying to contribute. I try to put the defender under as much pressure as I can.

“I feel if he’s back on his heels then he’s not gonna want to be going forward. I try to work as hard as I can and at the end of the day when my number is called and I’m coming off the field, I’m gassed and I gave everything that I have.”

On the other side of midfield, seventh overall draft choice Nick DeLeon was confronted by a winger who puts most of his opponents on their own heels, Brek Shea. He dealt with it calmly, “Once you step on the field, he’s just another man like I am.” Deleon did concede that, “He’s real technical, strong left foot, and long legs. He’s a lot bigger in person.”

After the first game, player-coach Josh Wolff noticed the dearth of wide play and indicated that the staff was working on it. The youngsters performed as asked and trained, and the result was more space for the team’s central operators and strikers.

He explained, “I think you saw it pay dividends tonight. We stressed it during the week and it took a little while for it to open up. That’s how these games typically are and in the second half things tend to slow down a little more and create gaps. We took advantage.”

The duo’s emergence has created a nice dilemma for the coaches, “Absolutely. We have the personnel. Chris and Andy have a different skill set, very aggressive, very good one-on-one dribblers and I think Nick and Danny bring a little more bite to the position, a bit more aggressiveness trying to dig things out in the corner and get in there and get some crosses and certainly get into space behind the backs.”

Wolff agrees wholeheartedly about Cruz’ Olsen and Gros qualities, “He’s certainly got a big engine and that’s something that we lacked in our first game or two. It was clear that a guy like Danny out on the field makes us better. Whereas he might not be as technically sound as some others, he’s got a willingness and a fight that not many possess.”

He summed up the prospects for the season, “At the end of the day, he’s a very dangerous player on the field. Tonight was great; he and Nick were fantastic.” Noting that each opponent provides challenges, he likes the choice of having Najar and Pontius come off the bench or start, “The team has gotten deeper. For a coach to put his stamp on a team, it takes a year or two.

“I think we’ve got a good group now. It’s only one game, but we’ve been saying it for the last couple of weeks that we‘re not panicking here. As the games come, more comraderie, more chemistry comes.”

Both Cruz and DeLeon played together in the Arizona Olympic Development Program (ODP) and that mutual understanding showed perfectly when DeLeon beat a series of Dallas players and looked up to see Cruz rushing to goal and pointing to where he wanted the ball. The finish was poetry and gave Cruz DC’s third goal of the night.

On the other hand, the provider of the opening United score struck it from way out with a great individual effort. Maicon Santos likes to do that, “Every game with DC United I’ve been trying to shoot from long distance; that’s what I do.”

He then struck the teamwork note in describing his header off Dwayne DeRosario’s cross, “We know each other. He knows where I’m gonna be and I know where he’s gonna be.” Yet another example of improving chemistry.

For his part, the always dangerous DeRosario drew his customary close marking which paired with strong play on the wings to draw attention to give others space. He said his runs were meant primarily to free himself up but also had an intended side-effect, “That’s just to be expected and I’ve just got to be smart in terms of making space for other players.”

Wolff sat out the proceedings with a slight groin tweak, noting that with several team injuries already, “It’s a long season. We have 34 games, we have 12 reserve games, we have Open Cup games. My role first is to be a player.” The rest provided a chance to emphasize his coaching mode.

In that role, he would, “Help guys, work with guys. I’ll continue to do that even when I’m playing. Finding the balance is obviously going to be critical. At this point whatever I can do to help guys better themselves or gain a bit more perspective or be different on the field is good.”

Olsen continues to learn, just as his staff and players do. Wolff puts it simply, “There’s a few ways to skin this game and I’m still trying to figure some ways out. If you can learn things here and there from other guys it can help you go a long way.”

DC United still has that long way to go, but with good teamwork and solid training the early steps seem promising.

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Last minute goal sends DC United to a 1-0 opening loss

Posted on 12 March 2012 by Steve Long

It was a classic opening game. The fans came hoping to see signs of a rebirth with new acquisitions and a team style that had finally gelled. They went away disappointed as DC United remained mired in the same ineffective scoring rut that ended the 2011 season.

Kansas City was superior in possession and earned far more good shooting chances. Their own early season rust rendered most of their shots inaccurate, but their possession game was generally sharp and confident. They pressured well and anticipated DC well.

When they had the ball, they exploited the full width of the field. Both teams’ wide midfielders remained wide for the first ten minutes and the possession battle that often begins any MLS game was hard fought and fairly equal.

After that time, United’s Chris Pontius and Andy Najar fell into the same trap that they have for the past two years as they drifted inside, seeking to find more of the ball, only to compress the space available for maneuver and thereby denying creative players like Branko Boskovic room to operate effectively.

From that time forward DC United became the gang that couldn’t pass well and were only saved from a multi-goal defeat by the fact that KC was a gang the couldn’t shoot straight. The conference leaders did encounter a DC defense that seems stronger than last year.

The current back four were under pressure for much of the game and generally covered well, accounting in part for the imperfection of Sporting’s shooting efforts. The same midfield compression that stifled United’s creativity also affected their opponents as the KC attackers were usually in somewhat crowded quarters.

In short, Sporting’s buildup benefited from their better exploitation of width, but United’s defenders were strong enough to pressure KC’s shooters into weaker shot selection and accuracy.

For their own part, DC United’s creative crew, Dwayne DeRosario and Hamdi Salihi were well out of sync. One could almost hear them thinking before reacting when attackers must be proactive to be effective. The real rhythm that makes for scoring success was simply not there.

There were bright notes. Holding midfielder Perry Kitchen was heavily involved throughout the game and generally effective in breaking up or deflecting KC’s buildups. On the other hand, his central midfield compatriot Boskovic seemed ineffectual and was barely noticeable. He spent the game seeking space which was not there. He joined DeRosario and Salihi among the frustrated.

Already an insightful veteran and a cagey creator, Josh Wolff has just been appointed as a player/coach. We conversed at some length on what he has observed when I asked about the team’s failure to exploit width. He acknowledged the problem noting that it is just the beginning of the season, “The only way you can get those sort of things sorted out is to rehearse it, not just in practice, but against real opponents.”

He said he will need to review the videos, but, “We emphasize it (midfield width) as well….Our wide guys are good isolated one on one guys, so the discipline to stay wide, to let the game come to you and the spacing to our midfield and defenders needs to continue to grow. Again, we’ve got a few new guys out there so we haven’t had the time or the repetitions to really get it right. Fortunately for us we’ll get the videos out and take a look at it.”

He believes that new striker Hamdi Salihi, “needs service and we’re gonna have to learn how to construct plays for our wide guys where it’s not just a one on one 30 or 40 yards in and they go and beat a guy to whip one in.

“We’ve gotta create opportunities and advantages for those guys to get good clean looks and balls to whip in to guys like DeRo and Salihi. Their job is to get on the end of it. Over the course of their careers they’ve been extremely good at it.”

He summed it up, “So, there’s plenty to work on. I don’t disagree with the fact that you’ve got to use the width better. Salihi’s attributes are what they are and if we can sort out what’s behind that with service, I think it will be good down the road.”

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Final DC United game summarizes season and points to next year

Posted on 23 October 2011 by Steve Long

In DC United’s final action of the 2011 season, Josh Wolff headed a ball just off the top of the crossbar following two smart and precise passes nearly tying the conference leaders and saving some face for a side that has watched its season fade into frustrating “might have been” moments. Somehow, it was a fitting conclusion.

Game after game down the stretch, something would go wrong, usually in the last few minutes. Chances to score fell just short of realization or inattention to defensive duties let an opponent pull out a win or a tie. Coach Ben Olsen has an inexperienced squad and is himself still learning.

It showed all season as the team gradually gained better shape and style, only to slide into ineffectiveness toward the end.

The coach took most of the burden on himself, but was sanguine about future prospects, “It was a pretty good performance overall. We know what we need; I know what we need for next year. But it’s not as much as you guys think. I still have a lot of confidence in this group of players.”

The players have always shown the most obvious signs of Olsen’s influence; they play with grit and persistence. Their failures have been not with heart, but with smarts. Experience brings wisdom, and neither the coach nor the players are quite yet where they need to be.

A winter of reflection and study by players and coaches combined with the acquisition of a few key pieces that Olsen has his eye on should justify the coach’s optimism. Olsen has always been more cerebral than he lets on, but his knowledge built up over years will take time to communicate.

This year he has struggled with the actual teaching techniques, when and exactly how to structure practices to create a shape to fit both his team’s and the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses.

We saw a hint of his thinking on Saturday as he sent out an unusual formation as described by Tino Quaranta, “We changed our formation tonight which was encouraging I think for not working on it. Call it 4-3-3 or 4-5-1, whatever you want to call it. I think the guys responded well. We created chances.”

Stephen King, who got to ply his trade in central midfield, liked the idea, “I think it was good. I think it was something worth trying. Maybe going into next season we’ll work on it in preseason and see if that’s the direction we want to go….

“Playing against a team that does clog the middle a little bit and plays with 3 central midfielders we thought that we could counter their formation with what we did….We definitely noticed that there was a lot of space out wide especially when we’d switch the ball quickly to Andy or Austin or Tino early on….It’s something we looked to do.”

Austin Da Luz agreed, “I think with a little more time we can be successful with that formation. We’ll see what happens. At the end of the day it does make for a more exciting game. It opens up a little bit more and it can be a good thing.”

On the flip side of the argument, Kansas City’s coach, Peter Vermes cited the downside if the formation drifts too much in the 4-5-1 direction, “I think it was a little hard for [Dwayne De Rosario] because he was a man on an island tonight playing as one up top.”

In theory, the wide midfielders should alternately either draw coverage from the center or go poorly marked, with advantages flowing from either development. Both responses increase space for an attacking side to exploit.

DC United is one of the shorter and less physical sides in MLS, explaining a major weakness that was on display Saturday when Sporting Kansas City scored the game winner. Set pieces require at least some size to defend and also to attack.

Interestingly, one of United’s most anticipated improvements for next year will feature the slim, gritty, and clever Perry Kitchen. His skills in the defensive midfield position are such that he is expected to be one of the best in the league as he grows into the role. Yet, he indicates that he has no intention of spending the winter putting on pounds of muscle.

He believes that enough international stars at the position are built like him that he is best off going with his natural skill set. He may well be right, and if so, Olsen would do well to look for a large strong central defender to join the also slim Dejan Jakovic in the back line.

Scoring Summary:

KC — Matt Besler 2 (unassisted) 54

Sporting KC — Jimmy Nielsen, Chance Myers, Aurelien Collin, Matt Besler, Seth Sinovic, Kei Kamara, Roger Espinoza (Davy Arnaud 46), Graham Zusi, Julio Cesar, Omar Bravo, Teal Bunbury (C.J. Sapong 68).
Substitutes Not Used: Michael Harrington, Lawrence Olum, Jeferson, Soony Saad, Eric Kronberg.

D.C. United — Bill Hamid, Chris Korb, Ethan White, Brandon McDonald, Daniel Woolard (Marc Burch 46), Andy Najar, Perry Kitchen, Clyde Simms (Austin Da Luz 17), Stephen King (Josh Wolff 75), Dwayne De Rosario, Santino Quaranta.
Substitutes Not Used: Blake Brettschneider, Charlie Davies, Joseph Ngwenya, Joe Willis.

Misconduct Summary:
KC — Roger Espinoza (caution; Tactical Foul) 26
DC — Perry Kitchen (caution; Reckless Tackle) 34

Referee: Alex Prus
Referee’s Assistants: -Eric Proctor; Corey Parker
4th Official: Mark Kadlecik
Time of Game: 1:49
Weather: Partly Cloudy-and-56-degrees

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Unimaginative play leaves DC United wanting

Posted on 17 October 2011 by Steve Long

There are three reasons why a team may be unworthy of making the playoffs. They are a lack of talent, a lack of effort, and a lack of intelligent play. DC United has the talent, but puts out too much effort in poorly focused play.

In July, there were a couple of games when the team could be described as bereft of ideas. While players usually moved effectively to support teammates on defense, there were too few runs off the ball on attack.

Then things improved as coach Ben Olsen gradually brought his team along to a point in early September where they were making such runs for one another, not only in defense, but also in possession and on attack.

Somehow, that fluidity went away and United’s play and results have suffered greatly.

Perhaps fatigue played a part as United had two spurts of crowded play. Olsen pointed out that, “Flying back from Vancouver after a tough loss, I thought there were some heavy guys out there to push through it. The game plan was to grind it out, and we did it.”

However, the Fire were also tired and thus fatigue combined with mutual decisions to contest midfield aggressively, causing play naturally to become narrowed. Both teams played hard, but both also played unwisely.

Dwayne DeRosario, a hard working and clever player was hard on his teammates, “It’s frustrating because you want to see that commitment, you want to see that passion and desire to win every ball – to do whatever it takes to stop a shot or block a ball to stop a play – but that isn’t the case and I don’t see that right now.”

His viewpoint reflected mostly on Chicago’s exceptional defensive efforts. In a most unusual statistic, DC United took 13 shots of which 8 were deflected by Fire defenders almost immediately. Only the penalty kick was on goal

In contrast, the Fire had no shots deflected. Their errors were normally wide, high, or saved. They were not particularly worthy of the points they obtained either. Only incisive play at the very end redeemed their poor shooting earlier.

Team qualities, fatigue, and coaches’ recognition of both meant it would be a grinding game.

Olsen’s comment reflected that, “I thought they put a lot of numbers in the midfield – it’s a lot of work in there. That’s why we put some of the guys in early, to deal with that. We had to push the game and I thought we put the right guys in to get the game changed. I think everything worked out, except the last couple of minutes.”

The game opened with a few long forays by both sides and then deteriorated into narrow contests over possession. Width of play was lacking for the first twelve minutes. Then the Fire’s Marco Pappa started to exploit the space on Chicago’s right wing. His DC United counterpart, Austin Da Luz’ responded well, also playing wide.

Sadly, the good shape lasted for about another twelve minutes until both teams lapsed into a shortsighted, narrow style again. The emphasis on control distorted intelligent play and worsened the fatigue factor.

The surest way to save energy is to let the ball do the work. Certainly, pressing the ball is necessary and will concentrate players. Still, once one has possession it is far easier to let the ball do the work by making or finding space with wide play and insightful supporting runs into that space.

Late game fatigue leads to lapses in concentration and Olsen is certain to emphasize the need to maintain focus throughout United’s last two games on Wednesday and Saturday. In Vancouver, United gave up a goal in the first minute. At home, they lost focus late. Neither lapse is excusable in a professional team.

While players must accept responsibility for their own efforts and decision making, it is the role of the coaching staff to set them up for success. In the next few days, Olsen and company must somehow return the team to the intelligent play they had so recently displayed.

With two consecutive wins, a novel idea this year, and a Red Bull loss, United may yet see the post-season action they have thus far not merited.

Scoring:
DC — Dwayne De Rosario 15 (penalty kick) 90
CHI — Sebastian Grazzini 5 (Gonzalo Segares 4) 92+
CHI — Diego Chaves 5 (Gonzalo Segares 5, Orr Barouch 2) 94+

Lineups:

Chicago Fire — Sean Johnson, Michael Videira (Yamith Cuesta 19), Josip Mikulic, Jalil Anibaba, Gonzalo Segares, Logan Pause, Sebastian Grazzini, Daniel Paladini (Diego Chaves 89), Marco Pappa, Patrick Nyarko, Dominic Oduro (Orr Barouch 73). Substitutes Not Used: Corben Bone, Baggio Husidic, Pari Pantazopoulos, Jon Conway.

D.C. United — Bill Hamid, Chris Korb, Brandon McDonald, Perry Kitchen, Daniel Woolard, Andy Najar, Stephen King (Marc Burch 75), Clyde Simms, Austin Da Luz (Santino Quaranta 57), Dwayne De Rosario, Josh Wolff (Charlie Davies 79). Substitutes Not Used: Blake Brettschneider, Joseph Ngwenya, Ethan White, Joe Willis.

Misconduct:
CHI — Josip Mikulic (caution; Reckless Foul) 46
DC — Andy Najar (caution; Reckless Foul) 76
CHI — Orr Barouch (caution; Dissent) 78

Referee: Jorge Gonzalez
Referee’s Assistants: Greg Barkey, Matthew Kreitzer
4th Official: Terry Vaughn

Attendance: 16,548
Time of Game: 1:52
Weather: Clear and 66 degrees

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Refocused United races away to a 4-1 win

Posted on 25 September 2011 by Steve Long

After losing a 2-0 lead on Wednesday night, Ben Olsen confessed that he didn’t know how to train his players to maintain their focus. On Saturday, it appeared that he had found the way.

Granted, the spectacular hat trick from Dwayne DeRosario, which set a new MLS record at 31 minutes for earliest completion of the feat, was a masterpiece of individual effort, but the real story was how he was set up to succeed.

The Canadian emphasized the contribution of those around him, “I can’t speak more highly about the performance all around from the guys. I think collectively, as a unit, it was first class, from Bill right up to the forwards.”

DC United and Real Salt Lake have a history of playing possession soccer. Often that results in a grinding fight in midfield. In this particular game, both teams came out with the same idea, play compactly to thwart midfield linkups and flip the ball over the top or slip it through openings to get behind the defense.

DeRosario credits the strategy for both Najar’s goal off his finely threaded through ball and his own header off Najar’s perfectly placed lob. “Most importantly, we kept our shape and that’s what Ben wanted us to do.” He later added, “We stuck to the game plan, stayed compact.”

There is an adage in soccer that says, “Front to back, play compact; side to side, keep it wide.” Although most often adhering to the rule, both teams sometimes reverted to half-width play, leaving space down the sides which was almost never exploited by Salt Lake and more often put to use by United.

Veteran and captain, Josh Wolff seconded DeRosario’s praise of the overall team effort, “We’re not a one man show although DeRo takes a lot of the credit tonight…It comes back to the discipline of how we approach things.”

He elaborated on playing a compact style front to back and featuring over the top balls, “It’s indicative of the guys you have out there.”

When a team has players like Najar, Marc Burch, or Santino Quaranta who can place long balls onto attackers’ heads or feet, opponents can more easily be bypassed when front to back distance is shortened. “They (RSL) do a good job of closing space like we talk about in our group, keeping the space between forwards and the backs to 35 yards.”

A shortened midfield negated one of Salt Lake’s most potent weapons, Kyle Beckerman, who never seemed to have enough room to dominate play as he has so often in the past. Conditions were a bit unusual for both teams and, “I think we responded better…Andy’s ball to DeRo was amazing and obviously DeRo’s to Andy was as well”, was how Wolff summed it up.

Former DC United coach, Peter Nowak will surely study the films of this game and it will be interesting to see whether he chooses to play the compact game on Thursday or finds another way to open up play to put extra stress on United’s young back line.

Scoring Summary:

DC — Andy Najar 4 (Dwayne De Rosario 11) 13
DC — Dwayne De Rosario 11 (Andy Najar 6) 22
DC — Dwayne De Rosario 12 (Josh Wolff 6) 27
DC — Dwayne De Rosario 13 (unassisted) 31
RSL — Alvaro Saborio 10 (Paulo Araujo Jr. 4) 86

Real Salt Lake — Nick Rimando, Blake Wagner (Will Johnson 62), Nat Borchers, Rauwshan McKenzie, Chris Wingert, Arturo Alvarez (Luis Gil 62), Kyle Beckerman, Collen Warner, Ned Grabavoy, Paulo Araujo Jr., Jean Alexandre (Alvaro Saborio 75).

Substitutes Not Used: Fabian Espindola, Javier Morales, Chris Schuler, Tim Melia.

D.C. United — Bill Hamid, Perry Kitchen, Ethan White, Brandon McDonald, Marc Burch, Andy Najar (Brandon Barklage 81), Stephen King, Clyde Simms, Austin Da Luz, Josh Wolff (Blake Brettschneider 74), Dwayne De Rosario (Joseph Ngwenya 65).

Substitutes Not Used: Charlie Davies, Santino Quaranta, Daniel Woolard, Joe Willis.

Misconduct Summary:

RSL — Collen Warner (caution; Reckless Tackle) 59

Referee: Edvin Jurisevic
Referee’s Assistants: Chris Strickland; Adam Garner
4th Official: Andrew Chapin

Time of game: 1:49
Weather: Partly Cloudy-and-73-degrees
Attendance: 16,367

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DC United comes of age with 4-0 win

Posted on 14 August 2011 by Steve Long

In their last two home games DC United seems to have finally matured into the complete team that Coach Ben Olsen has sought to build. With the acquisition and integration of Dwayne DeRosario, Olsen now has a broad-based attack which forces opponents to make more choices than most can handle.

Whether playing as an attacking midfielder or a forward, DeRosario has the freedom to attack from any angle he wishes. Teams must cover him at all times, usually with a primary cover and close backup.

Since he varies his runs across the entire field, defenders are forced to choose to follow or pass him on. If he operated as a sole threat, that would be very achievable. With the speed and still growing strength of Charlie Davies to complement him, he gets a bit of breathing room.

Add the continued maturing of Andy Najar and Chris Pontius on the wings, and the poor defenders require even more support from their midfielders. Either player is more than happy to take on several at a time, sometimes cutting directly inside and sometimes choosing a wider route.

More classical soccer teams have a few large central players to reward the down-to-the-line cross. United, one of the smaller teams in MLS, does not. Instead, Najar and DeRosario seem to take special delight in dancing along the line to fire a short pass or surprising shot from close range.

Najar’s shocking goal against the Whitecaps was a classic example of just that aggressive mentality. Pontius’ style is a bit more subtle. His movement looks deceptively smooth until he suddenly swings around his marker to strike.

He still tends to drift inside to find the ball, but an examination of both his goals reveals that it was his holding back from closing in until the right moment that gained him the momentum and space to score.

On his first goal he paused, saw DeRosario beat his men and only then went sharply at goal. That reflects a mature and dangerous vision. On his second goal, he held his width as he saw two teammates already inside and thus owned the wider space which allowed him to shoot cleanly.

Tino Quaranta’s recovery from concussion came just in time for him to step into a creative midfield role with which he has struggled before. DeRosario’s success as a forward, and his willingness and that of Davies to withdraw to receive and work the ball, has allowed Quaranta just enough additional space for him to pick out long range targets to bring out some of the confidence of his first few years.

Quaranta’s blast from 35 yards nearly beat the Whitecaps’ keeper Jay Nolly and another similarly hard shot rocked the ‘Caps wall. Defenses now know that they must guard him more closely and the keeper will have yet another movement to track.

The aggressive attitude has now permeated the team. Left back Daniel Woolard barely missed his own 25 yard rocket. Marc Burch came on late to spell Pontius at left midfield and added his own attacking movement, nearly setting up yet another United goal.

Finally, Stephen King wrote his own short horror story for Vancouver as he came on for Santino Quaranta and got the goal that Quaranta had tried so hard all game to obtain. King was cool and smooth as he cut smartly around his marker and sharply slotted the ball past Nolly.

He has shown well in cameo appearances and reserve games and gives the hard working Clyde Simms an occasional chance to rest.

In his own younger days, Simms would pair with Olsen in a holding midfield role and either player would occasionally crack low and hard drives at goal. Saturday saw him do just that as he began again looking for such long-range chances.

Olsen has successfully encouraged a team that has a sad history of trying to dribble the ball into goal to try whatever works from whatever distance and to do it with a menacing attitude.

DC’s defense, which helped Joe Willis keep a clean sheet in Bill Hamid’s absence, seems to have settled in nicely as the strength of Brandon McDonald and speed of Dejan Jakovic have combined with the growth of Perry Kitchen and Daniel Woolard to somewhat lighten the load on Simms and King who previously had too much space to cover.

Balance is a vital component of good soccer, and Olsen seems finally to have the tools in place to achieve it. As more players come off the injured list, he has the depth to use reliable contributors like Burch, Ethan White, and Josh Wolff.

This team is within striking distance of first place in the Eastern Conference and is about to enter a testing pair of tightly spaced away games which make up their very valuable games in hand to close on the leaders. Depth is of the essence, and DC United has it.

Scoring Summary:
DC — Chris Pontius 6 (Dwayne De Rosario 7) 47+
DC — Andy Najar 3 (Santino Quaranta 2) 48
DC — Chris Pontius 7 (unassisted) 70
DC — Stephen King 1 (Dwayne De Rosario 8) 81

Vancouver Whitecaps — Jay Nolly, Jonathan Leathers, Michael Boxall, Jay DeMerit (Davide Chiumiento 62), Jordan Harvey, John Thorrington (Jeb Brovsky 70), Gershon Koffie, Peter Vagenas (Mustapha Jarju 71), Shea Salinas, Eric Hassli, Camilo.

Substitutes Not Used: Bilal Duckett, Michael Nanchoff, Long Tan, Joe Cannon.

TOTAL SHOTS: 9 (Camilo 3, Eric Hassli 3); SHOTS ON GOAL: 7 (Camilo 3); FOULS: 8 (John Thorrington 2); OFFSIDES: 1 (Camilo 1); CORNER KICKS: 2 (Camilo 1, Shea Salinas 1); SAVES: 4 (Jay Nolly 4)

D.C. United — Joe Willis, Perry Kitchen, Brandon McDonald, Dejan Jakovic, Daniel Woolard, Santino Quaranta (Stephen King 63), Clyde Simms, Andy Najar (Austin Da Luz 74), Chris Pontius (Marc Burch 77), Dwayne De Rosario, Charlie Davies.

Substitutes Not Used: Blake Brettschneider, Ethan White, Josh Wolff, Steve Cronin.

TOTAL SHOTS: 19 (Dwayne De Rosario 6); SHOTS ON GOAL: 8 (3 tied with 2); FOULS: 13 (Dejan Jakovic 3, Andy Najar 3); OFFSIDES: 2 (Dwayne De Rosario 2); CORNER KICKS: 3 (Andy Najar 2); SAVES: 6 (Joe Willis 6)

Misconduct Summary:
VAN — Camilo (caution; Reckless Foul) 15
DC — Brandon McDonald (caution; Dissent) 39
VAN — Michael Boxall (caution; Reckless Tackle) 46+
DC — Charlie Davies (caution; Dissent) 60

Referee: Hilario Grajeda
Referee’s Assistants: -George Gansner; Paul Scott
4th Official: Mark Declouet
Attendance: 11,738
Time of Game: 1:48
Weather: Cloudy-and-77-degrees

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Strong second half secures DC United a 1-1 tie

Posted on 15 May 2011 by Steve Long

Saturday’s 1-1 tie against the reigning MLS Cup Champions demonstrated how far along Coach Ben Olsen has come in molding a young team into a pattern which served him so well as he developed as a player with DC United. They are working smarter and harder as they learn more with each game.

The team has tended for several years to play narrowly, with wide midfielders choosing very often to drive into a congested center where they lose possession. When Olsen took over last year, he continued a pattern of wider attacking that the team was already beginning to use.

The good pattern continued this year, but one still too often observed the half-width midfield and the congested central attacking lanes that cause an offense to wither. The width now often comes from overlapping wide defenders. It turns out that this is intended, at least some of the time.

Daniel Woolard who has stepped in very nicely for the injured Marc Burch, describes the rationale for Chris Pontius’ attacking inside and his assuming the wide attacking role down the left, “We do that in training. When he goes inside it’s my responsibility to get around him. It opens up the inside for him if the outside mid or the outside back comes out toward me that makes more space in the middle.”

There is some merit in that argument in that it presents the opponent with more choices he has to make, but it also places the erstwhile defender in a specifically attacking role for which only a few are well prepared.

Perry Kitchen served several good balls from the right when he got forward on Saturday, and he seems ready to be effective in an attacking role similar to the one that Bryan Namoff grew into. If Burch returns to action in the left back slot, he might provide a similar threat down that side.

It’s not quite that simple. The flaw in this strategy derives from the fundamental nature of DC United from its earliest days. A team which plays possession ball will trend heavily to a slower buildup and thereby allow opponents to clog the central attacking channels.

When wide midfielders choose the inside route too often they make the congestion worse. For years DC’s opponents have favored the quick counterattack from a semi-bunker. When congestion leads to a turnover and the wide defenders have come too far forward, an outlet pass down the wing will avoid the defenders and the goalkeeper and place the defense on its heels.

When both Charlie Davies and Josh Wolff went down with injuries in the first half against Colorado, their misfortunes may have worked to show another alternative to the congested middle. For years, Tino Quaranta has learned about the withdrawn forward position from Jaime Moreno, but rarely had a chance to play there.

On Saturday, he got that chance. Although the withdrawn forward role which favors his skills might seem to add to the problem, Quaranta’s effectiveness actually served to deter Pontius and Andy Najar from too much central play.

Quaranta’s forward pressure in defense and holding and distributing in attack allowed the wide mids to feel comfortable striking down the wings more often. Quaranta described the problem, “In the first half we were playing a 4-4-2. It looked like we were playing four guys in a flat row and they were too high.”

He went on to describe the solution, “Somebody had to drop underneath a little bit, give another option and give our team the ability to play wide and get our outside backs involved. By doing that it causes the defense a lot of problems.”

His description of the role seemed almost to describe a previous United forward, Alecko Eskandarian, “The most important thing in that position is to run, chasing defenders down, making it hard to clear balls, winning balls higher. It makes it easier for the guys behind us.”

The concept that everyone plays defense and everyone attacks is classic Bruce Arena ball; pressure, then possess, then attack, but only when it is clearly on and then very quickly with everyone involved. That is the historic United way.

With Davies resting his hamstring and Wolff happy to strengthen his groin, Quaranta may get a chance in a friendly against Dutch powerhouse Ajax next Sunday to develop some comfort in the role that for so long has seemed his best fit for DC.

Given Wolff’s age and the natural styles of other forwards, Davies, Joseph Ngwenya, and Blake Brettschneider, Olsen may have found a more deadly attacking approach.

Scoring Summary:

COL — Drew Moor 1 (unassisted) 23
DC — Chris Pontius 3 (unassisted) 62

Misconduct Summary:

COL — Drew Moor (caution; Tactical Foul) 46+
COL — Matt Pickens (caution; Delaying a Restart) 92+

Lineups:

Colorado Rapids — Matt Pickens, Marvell Wynne, Tyrone Marshall, Drew Moor, Kosuke Kimura, Jamie Smith, Jeff Larentowicz, Pablo Mastroeni, Wells Thompson (Ross LaBauex 89), Andre Akpan (Sanna Nyassi 75), Quincy Amarikwa (Conor Casey 67).
Substitutes Not Used: Danny Earls, Joseph Nane, Scott Palguta, Steward Ceus.

D.C. United — Bill Hamid, Perry Kitchen, Ethan White, Dejan Jakovic, Daniel Woolard, Andy Najar, Dax McCarty, Clyde Simms (Fred 80), Chris Pontius, Josh Wolff (Joseph Ngwenya 44), Charlie Davies (Santino Quaranta 34).
Substitutes Not Used: Blake Brettschneider, Marc Burch, Chris Korb, Steve Cronin.

Referee: Terry Vaughn
Referee’s Assistants: Steven Taylor; Jason Cullum
4th Official: Daniel Fitzgerald
Time of Game: 1:52
Attendance: 12,499
Weather: Cloudy and 66 degrees

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