When a team has long lulls in competitive play it becomes difficult to assess and predict, even for the coach. No matter how tightly constructed to simulate game conditions, practices never quite reach the full intensity level of a match with points on the line.
The problem is described as a lack of match fitness and is usually observed in preseason games for teams and in a player’s return to play from injury. Over the last few weeks, visits from top European teams which are in their own preseason presented interesting opportunities for the MLS teams which faced them in more equal contests than normal.
For DC United, their match against Paris Saint Germain was especially helpful. A formidable opponent forces a team to play with good habits centered on proper positioning, tight marking, and quicker play. Although both teams in such exhibitions are testing ideas and personnel, the quality of the PSG play allowed a good simulation of serious MLS contests.
The Columbus Crew comes into RFK as an improving team with an eye on the playoffs. They should feel good about their win at home against United in which they demonstrated great tenacity and discipline. It is Olsen’s task to assure that United’s occasional mental lapses in that contest are on the players’ minds and that they focus better at home.
For the young coach that is already first nature; he is certain to emphasize the need for aggressive play. He has only a few real choices to make about a starting lineup: who starts up front with Dwayne DeRosario, who starts at right midfield, and who starts in central defense.
If he goes with a full aggressive lineup, he will place Maicon Santos up front, Danny Cruz at right mid, and Brandon McDonald in central defense. There is an alternative, put Cruz on for pugnacity, but mix the attack up with Salihi up front to create and exploit space which might then help Emiliano Dudar’s more sophisticated passing out of the back to open up the Crew defense.
Columbus will focus its efforts on closing down both Chris Pontius and DeRosario. They will not neglect Salihi, but his threat is less palpable and more likely to slip under their radar. Cruz will help in that area as he will be in their faces all over the right wing.
Both McDonald and Santos were off form in Ohio and Olsen allowed Dudar to play the entire 90 minutes against PSG and was rewarded with a reasonably composed team. With Salihi’s talents still recognized by the Albanian National Team, Olsen may decide to use him a bit more often before he leaves after the 12 August match for a few days to play on 15 August.
That date is an international friendly date which will also see Dejan Jakovic and DeRosario playing for Canada. All will return at least somewhat fatigued for United’s 19 August game at RFK against the Philadelphia Union which begins a draining two-games-per-week sequence for DC.
For almost two months, DC United has been in a holding pattern while its Eastern Conference competitors have caught up in games played and left them wondering if their early season flair can be recaptured. If the PSG game has provided the insight and motivation hoped for, it needs to show up soon.