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.