Archive | April, 2012

DC United grows stronger with 3-2 win over Houston

Posted on 29 April 2012 by Steve Long

The best coaches understand that there is no one solution to improving a team. There are 22 people on the field and you can only try to control what 11 of them are doing while the other 11 try to foil their efforts. The game of soccer is simple, but those darned humans playing it make it infinitely variable and complex.

This means that it will take time for any new coach to piece together enough elements to understand where his team is and what he needs to do make it all work. A similar learning curve applies to all the players, some teaching, and all learning.

Let’s look first at the success of Chris Pontius. When Coach Ben Olsen made Josh Wolff a player-coach it was probably as much a salary/cost benefit move as anything else, but it also involved an understanding of how a well-versed veteran can help a team in many ways.

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Olsen himself had mentored Brian Carroll when they shared holding midfield roles and saw the value Wolff’s presence could bring to several of his youngsters.

Pontius certainly appreciates Wolff’s input, “It’s good, especially for me. I have the ability to work with Josh Wolff who has two World Cups under his belt. Sitting with him during practice and listening to what he’s saying, just trying to find good spots that the defense leaves. ….He’s very knowledgeable in the game. To learn off him as a forward, it’s a blessing for me.”

The very recently converted winger had always had a tendency to drift inside to make direct attacks, but his style combined with that of the other winger, Andy Najar, to congest the middle, allowing opponents to clog the lanes and stifle all of DC United’s efforts.

When injury to Pontius and Honduran National Team duty for Najar forced the use of two still younger wings, Nick DeLeon and Danny Cruz, they played much wider and suddenly Maicon Santos and Dwayne DeRosario had more room inside. The possession game grew easier and the scoring pace improved.

The space provided gave Santos a chance to deploy his three great skills, a devastating long shot, great strength holding the ball, and the experience to find and use space to shoot. The need to double cover both him and DeRosario inevitably made more space for everyone else.

Enter Pontius, in a new role. He could add a third attacker who would demand attention and further confuse defenders. As Olsen put it, “We wanted him to pull them out with runs in behind and runs underneath, and I thought he did a very good job of executing that. He got Maicon some room, and it gave them a bit of trouble.”

Interestingly, Houston, coached by the excellent Dominic Kinnear, presents their opponents with much the same dilemma. Defender Robbie Russell pointed out how difficult they made it for him and his fellows in the back, “You’re looking at all these different looks. That’s their strength, making you look a little confused.”

The loss of Emiliano Dudar added to the difficulty for United’s defense as his cool experience was replaced by rapid adaptation. The game see-sawed as each side sought to confuse and exploit the other, only to be met with resolute resistance.

Russell was particularly proud of his team, “For every single player there was a point at which they had to make a big play, and they did. All over the field, guys were making big plays and that’s what finally got us over the hump.”

The entire team has learned and gelled over the last month. Goalkeeper Joe Willis has increased his command of the box, “The more crosses I see, the more confident I am.” He always had good hands, but has improved in reading crosses. He credits his defenders as well, “We’ve got so many good players on this team, that Emiliano goes out, Robbie slides in, and Perry drops back and I don’t think we really lose anything.”

Still another youngster who has shown rapid development in the holding midfield role is Perry Kitchen. In the last two games he has increasingly taken charge of the midfield, confidently directing traffic and orchestrating movement forward or sideways as the situation demands.

His necessary move to wide defender when Dudar went down may have some beneficial aspects as he gets to learn a different view of play, but it will detract from his development in his expected future role.

He admitted that working in a new role had some small merit, but, “I think it’s better to be in one position and kind of understand that role better.” Having expressed that view, he recognized that, “Sometimes these things happen and I’m gonna play wherever the team needs me and I think I did that tonight.”

The strong willingness to work for the team first and the obvious belief in the coaches’ plans are rooted in the traits that both Olsen and Wolff display. Of Wolff, Pontius says, “He knows how to get across to people, he reads the game very well, and everyone respects him.”

Despite United’s recent success, Pontius believes that the team is not yet satisfied, “We want more, we expect more from ourselves.” He has some ideas on what he needs to do to improve. “I turned over way too many balls tonight, I’ve got to be better, I’ve got to be stronger holding it up”. Seems as if he may have noticed what Santos has been doing so well.

As the squad moves on to play at San Jose and then at Toronto in the next few days, the question of fitness and player rest is on everyone’s mind, even the seemingly tireless Deleon who has gone ninety minutes almost every game.

He believes that, “Its’ about taking care of your body…I’m doing what I can to stay fit. …It’s a lot of wear on the body, but I can handle it so far.” He is focused on conditioning because, “I’ve heard a lot of rookies hit a wall.”

DC United has hardly used some very well regarded weapons during their recent surge and that may well be their best hope to avoid hitting that wall later on. Both Branko Boskovic and Hamdi Salihi have not shown well as the rest of the team improves, but now that the center is less crowded and concurrently more confusing for opponents, they may well become as effective as their billing and salaries would indicate.

Just how and when to integrate them will be Olsen’s next big challenge.

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Galaxy Salvage Point against FC Dallas

Posted on 29 April 2012 by iyeo

Down by one goal heading into stoppage time, another loss filled with missed opportunities and defensive mistakes seemed likely for the Los Angeles Galaxy on Saturday night.

Turns out all they needed was one chance.

In a wild match at the Home Depot Center, it was the battle-tested veteran Pat Noonan that played the role of hero for the Galaxy, as his goal in the 92nd minute helped LA avert what would’ve been another head-scratching loss, and instead, the Galaxy come out of Saturday’s match with FC Dallas with a point courtesy of a 1-1 draw.

“It was a good game,” Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena said. “Both teams played real hard and we getting a goal in extra time can’t be complaining about the point.”

The goal came about when Landon Donovan sent a ball into the FCD penalty area, intended for Adam Cristman, Dallas left back Jair Benitez got his foot on the ball but was unable to clear it out of the 18 and as a result, LA’s Chad Barrett laid a ball back to Noonan, who blasted a point-blank shot from the middle of the 18 that beat FCD keeper Chris Seitz left post for the equalizer which eventually held up.

“I just gave it a shot,” Noonan said of his goal. “Chad laid the ball off perfectly for me and I tried to put it on net.”

Such a outcome seemed unlikely for Los Angeles considering LA was once again plagued by poor finishing, defensive errors that and the absence of starting keeper Josh Saunders, who was out due to personal reasons. Dallas had two opportunities in the first minute alone, but Brek Shea pulled his attempt over the crossbar while Fabian Castillo sent his chance wide right.

Then it was the Galaxy’s turn to create the chances. LA had it’s first chance in the 11th minute, when Robbie Keane played a ball forward, Landon Donovan looked to beat Jair Benitez to the ball, Benitez ended up turning the ball over to Donovan, who raced into the Dallas 18, cirlced Seitz, leaving him with an open net, but instead, Donovan’s attempt hit the near post and went past the endline.

Donovan had another shot in the 43rd minute, but this time, it was Seitz himself that denied him, though rather fortunately. A corner kick by David Beckham was headed into a crowd, the ball stayed alive, Edson Buddle tried to hit it close range but couldn’t get enough on the ball, but fortunately for him, the ball went to Landon Donovan, who quickeld tapped the bal towards goal, but Seitz dove to his left and somehow managed to scoop the ball up just short of the goal line.

“It happens,” David Beckham said of the Galaxy’s inability to finish so far this season. “We’ll get it right. We’ll score goals when we really need to.

A Galaxy goal seemed likely in the 47th minute, as David Beckham played a ball forward to a charging Landon Donovan, who got behind Jair Benitez into the 18, Benitez pushed him down from behind and Salazar signaled to the penalty spot. However, it wasn’t Donovan that stepped up to the penalty spot, but rather Robbie Keane, and while everyone at the HDC had to be surprised at who was a the penalty spot, they were still equally shocked when Keane sent the penalty wide right.

“I just told Robbie I wanted him to take it,” Donovan said of the decision on the penalty. “He (Keane) did everything right, he just mis-hit it a little bit.”

The missed chances eventually came back to haunt the Galaxy. Jair Benitez crossed a ball into the penalty area in the 59th minute, Galaxy Center Back David Junior Lopeswas in position to cut it off, which he did, but rather than clear the ball out of the box, he played it back to keeper Bill Gaudette perhaps unaware that FCD striker Blas Perez was right behind him. Perez alertly made the run, Gaudette tried to get to the ball before Perez could but ended up tripping him and referee Ricardo Salazar whistled for the penalty spot and in the 61st minute, Shea beat Gaudette left post to put Dallas up one.

“I thought we did a fantastic job holding out as long as we did,” FC Dallas coach Schellad Hyndman said.

Saturday’s match was the first appearence between the pipes for Gaudette since 2007, when he was with the Columbus Crew. The veteran keeper had bounced around the USL for years, first with the Brooklyn Knights from 2001 to 2003, then with the Puerto Rico Islanders from 2008-2010. Gaudette spent the 2011 season with the Montreal Impact before signing with the Galaxy in the offseason. Aside from his foul in the box that led to the Brek Shea penalty, Gaudette acquitted himself very well on Saturday night.

“The guys in front of me did a great job tonight battling the whole time,” Gaudette said. “Those guys really killed themselves for 90 minutes.”

Saturday’s match is the start of a busy week for the Galaxy, as they travel to Seattle to face the Sounders at Century Link Field, followed up with a matchup with the New York Red Bulls at home next Saturday.

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DC United steps it up for a 4-1 win

Posted on 23 April 2012 by Steve Long

It takes more than just attitude to take over a game, but combined with team rhythm and smarter tactics, it sure helps. DC United finally put two good halves together to knock off the Red Bulls 4-1 as Chris Pontius charged into the role of instigator and finisher to earn an MLS Player of the Week accolade. He did not do it alone.

The game began with both sides struggling unsuccessfully to create a rhythm. The same lack of flair that cost DC United a win against the Montreal Impact seemed to linger in the damp and chilly air of RFK Stadium. Then Pontius surged past Thierry Henry, fairly charging him off the ball and streaking toward the goal. He found a bit of space for his right foot and slammed home the opening goal.

A few days before, the same sort of move would have encountered several more defenders as the forward would have had more distance to cover. While the Impact had imposed their line of restraint well into United’s turf days before, United learned the lesson and set their own collective resistance well into the Red Bulls’ turf with great good effect.

Nick DeLeon explained, “We can’t afford to have that start (against Montreal). We came out bangin’.“ He went on to point out how at practice the team emphasized total defense up front, “We preached that pretty hard….bring the energy right from the get go.” He clearly enjoyed the approach and wants more of the same against Houston next Saturday, “We gotta keep that going.”

The emergence of DeLeon and Danny Cruz as aggressive players who also maintained their width freed up the entire center of the pitch for the trio of Dwayne DeRosario, Maicon Santos, and Pontius. Yet, it was an attack from the left side by Santos, who refused to give up the ball until he was almost on the goal, which gave Pontius a deflection with which to put United up 2-0.

Attitude combined with variety left a depleted Red Bull side with too many problems to solve. Not to be outdone, Dwayne DeRosario took on a series of players and forced the issue to set up DeLeon who happened to show up in front of the net just in time to make the score 3-0.

Deleon, whose selection by DC United had been panned by some, has proven himself to be a most aggressive and confident rookie. He believes that the main thing he learned from his father, a former professional player himself, was to have confidence and to use, “My attitude of going at defenders without fear. Sometimes you lose it, sometimes you get by them; but you just gotta keep going.” It was this quality that inspired DC’s Coach Ben Olsen to choose him.

The stunning success of both Deleon and Cruz pushed Pontius out of the starting lineup as he continued rounding into form after his broken leg from last season. Andy Najar, a former rookie of the year was also pushed aside as he went off to have a successful tournament for the Honduras National U-23 team.

Both had become too predictable for MLS opponents who knew that both tended to attack too directly into the center, thereby closing off options for their entire team. The switch of Pontius to forward simply played into his natural style.

Najar has been coming off a minor illness after the Olympic qualifying U-23 tournament, but seemed to stay wider in his stint on Wednesday and should continue to push for a starting slot.

Perry Kitchen, who suffered through a horrible spell as a central defender for the US U-23s, has grown rapidly into a leader in his defensive midfield role for DC. He could be seen directing traffic constantly while working smoothly with Emiliano Dudar, whose communication comes mostly from confident body language.

United’s strength down the middle left the Red Bulls with some options down the wings, but Daniel Woolard was just strong and wise enough to keep Dane Richards from wreaking havoc down the Red Bulls’ right. Good backup by the rest of the defense and hard work by DC’s wings kept the score sheet clean until Henry curled a classic free kick in to console his teammates.

The win continues the recent alternating win/tie pattern but the margin of victory and obviously improving team cohesion may portend the first successive MLS victories in Olsen’s coaching career when Houston comes to town on Saturday at 7:30.

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DC United seeks more strikes

Posted on 20 April 2012 by Steve Long

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.

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Galaxy Rally to Defeat Timbers

Posted on 15 April 2012 by iyeo

Galaxy head coach/general manager Bruce Arena has been busy throughout the week.

Arena first acquired 6-3 Center Back David Junior Lopes from  Chivas USA in exchange for midfielder Paolo Cardozoback on April 10, then for Saturday night’s game against the Portland Timbers, he replaced striker Edson Buddle with Chad Barrett and welcomed David Beckham back into the starting lineup after the midfielder had missed last week’s game at Sporting Kansas City with a hamstring injury.

While the start of the match threatened to render those moves moot, as LA surrendered another goals while numerous chances went begging, the outcome was more to their liking. An important goal from Landon Donovan in the final minute was then followed by long range goals from Juninho and David Beckham and the Galaxy averted disaster with a 3-1 come-from-behind win over the Timbers at the Home Depot Center.

“Certainly, a game we needed to win,” Arena said. “Overall, I thought it was a good performance over the 90 minutes. Not perfect, but certainly improved from our previous ones in the MLS season.”

The win avoids a three-game losing streak and puts them at 2-3-0 with six points, though they have some catching up to do in the Western Conference. Portland meanwhile slips to 1-4-1 on the season.

“Overall, our performance was 100 percent better than it has been all season,” Beckham said. “We played as a team, attacked and defended as a team and we deserved the win tonight because it was a tough game.”

Tied at one goal apiece well into the second half, a draw seemed likely, but the Galaxy finally took control of the match starting in the 83rd minute. A cross from Landon Donovan was sent out of the penalty area by Mike Chabala, though not out of danger. Juninho then fought off Darlington Nagbe for possession, turned and gathered himself, then sent a 25-yard volley low which beat Troy Perkins near post to put the Galaxy ahead. LA sealed the win in stoppage time, and the goal came off the foot of David Beckham, as he recieved a ball from Landon Donovan, took a heavy first touch, but he chased down the ball and let loose a howler from about 25 yards out which curled and sailed past Perkins into the upper right corner for his first goal of the season and more importantly, three points for the home team.

The start of the match revealed more of the sme problems that had plagued LA throughout the start of the season, namely poor finishing and suspect marking on defense. LA had numerous chances on the offensive end, but were unable to break through, and Portland got a chance in the 23rd minute when Eric Alexander played a ball for Kris Boyd, who may or may not have been offside, but nevertheless, he sprinted for the 18, then amied right and succeeded, beating Josh Saunders far post to put the Timbers ahead.

The Galaxy got one more chance just before halftime, and they made the most of it. Robie Keane evaded Eric Brunner, charged into the penalty area from the left side, played a ball back towards the 18 and Landon Donovan’s volley beat Troy Perkins right post to give LA an important equalizer just before halftime.

“Even when we were one-nil down, I thought we were playing well,” Beckham said.

Saturday’s game also marked the debut of center back David Junior Lopes, who was acquired just four days earlier and was thrust into the lineup alongside rookie Tommy Meyer after AJ DeLaGarza couldn’t go due to injury. Aside from a mistake that led to Boyd’s goal, Lopes held up pretty well throughout the match and actually almost got on the score sheet, as his header off a Beckham corner in the 73rd minute was cleared at the goal line by Franck Songo’o.

“I came here with the mentality of working hard, and getting the starting spot was a consequence of that,” Lopes said.

The Galaxy will now look to build on this win, as they travel to Colorado to face the Rapids at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park next Saturday.

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Zach Scott Heads Down Rapids

Posted on 14 April 2012 by Kyle Alm

Seattle welcomed Colorado Rapids with an unusually warm sunny spring afternoon. Many fans were ready to roll out the welcome wagon for Brian Mullan, on the condition that Brian Mullan be under the wagon. It is difficult not to think about these two teams without thinking about the horrendous tackle on Steve Zakuani last season, and it is Brian Mullan’s first trip to Seattle since it occurred.

Colorado came out with a 4-3-3 with Omar Cummings, Brian Mullan, and Tony Cascio up front. Conor Casey coincidentally played his last match against Sounders, Colorado commonly played a 4-4-2 when Casey was available. When you start to add these things up and the fact that these two teams are on similar paths to the Western Conference playoffs you get the impression that a rivalry is building.

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Fredy Montero found himself with a close opportunity early in the 5th minute that was saved by Matt Pickens, a recurring theme throughout the match. Another good opportunity came on a Alex Caskey cross in the 13th minute that found a wide open Zach Scott who headed the ball just wide.

Leo Gonzales  32nd minute showed good situational awareness that saved a goal. Mullan was offside when Omar Cummings took his shot that Gspurning dropped right to the clearly advantaged Cascio right in front of the net.

Colorado keep their shape exceptionally well, their defensive line stayed organized and kept Seattle’s best chances at a managable distance. Gspurning does not catch the ball out of the air very frequently, he’s usually punching the ball clear and has let a couple of shots rebound to dangerous areas this season.

Halftime statistics showed that Colorado had an advantage in possession, 60% of possession and 286 passes (76.% completed) to Seattle’s 188 (73.4% completed).

Eddie Johnson was booked in the 46th minute for a strikers challenge after turning the ball over to Larentowicz. Another caution was issued to Zach Scott for tugging the shoulder of a Rapids player who was looking to breakaway after a Sounders corner kick.

Brad Evans appeared quite upset with Eddie Johnson for not getting in front of the net to challenge Pickens for a ball that Evans won in the air on a long ball. Johnson had not made an impact on the game at that point and was not challenging for possession of the ball in the danger area.

in the 62nd minute Zach Scott made up for a near miss on a Caskey set piece. On a corner kick, again from Caskey, Scott, on a near post run, finishes to the far post with his head. His first goal, and Caskey’s first assist of his career.

Montero did manage to play a good ball through for Ochoa. It would have been about a 40 yards to the goal, Ochoa was able to control the ball but not make anything positive out of it. Johnson & Ochoa were competent, but neither made much of an impact on the game in terms of creating an opportunity to score.

Montero almost scored again in the 89th minute on a spectacular half-volley that Pickens was able to push over the bar for a corner. Montero was subbed off in the 90th minute for Roger Levesque. Montero will have to be content to sit below Zach Scott on the scoring chart for another week. Although Montero has yet to score, criticism of him directly may be misplaced. Montero appears to be seeking to create for his teammates more than looking for his shot.

The box score at the end of the match was quite revealing, Colorado maintained a 60/40 advantage in possession, made more passes, but came away with 7 fewer corner kicks & run-of-play crosses each,  and only 4 attempts on goal to Seattle’s 18.

38,360 in attendance.

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Midfield play should decide DC United – Revolution clash

Posted on 12 April 2012 by Steve Long

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.

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Close quarter combat yields 0-0 for DC and Seattle

Posted on 08 April 2012 by Steve Long

Seattle Sounders coach Sigi Schmidt is one of the best in Major League Soccer. He reads his opponents well, prepares a strategy to beat them, and relies on his well trained and motivated troops to execute his plan. He was moderately successful on Saturday, being deprived of a win by an industrious DC United side.

The best teams play compactly front-to-back and maintain width to create space. DC United has struggled to keep that sort of shape and indeed does best when their wings play mostly near the lines. It was reasonable to expect that coming off a nice win with that style, United would continue toplay that way.

After all, in a home game, most coaches will seek to impose their style on the visitor. Away, they counter the home team’s strengths. I think what we saw Saturday was Schmidt’s imposition of a good counter-strategy and United’s determination to prevail despite it.

Both teams played mostly in a voluntarily narrowed half width style. DC’s Danny Cruz described the result, “When we tried to switch the ball, there were so many people in the midfield that we didn’t have time“. He and Nick DeLeon couldn’t maintain as much width as they might like when their Seattle counterparts moved inside.

Each team wants width on attack, but, as Cruz put it, “It’s more like a puzzle. You want to get wide, but if you’re in the wrong spot and they counter, there’s a lot of thinking involved. We got a little too involved in the middle and maybe didn’t switch the ball enough.”

Inevitably, the center becomes crowded and playmaking becomes either long ball over the top or physical play all night. While Seattle’s choice to play inside neutralized DC’s new-found strength, it played into the tenacity that United coach Ben Olsen favors.

Cruz is in that mold, “We invite that. We’re a pretty physical team ourselves…It’s important that people are afraid to come here.” Deleon, his teammate on the other flank, also noticed how pressure was concentrated, “Their outside backs were staying kind of high on us.”

This leads to why I believe that Schmidt chose to narrow play as he did. DC’s defensive midfielder, Perry Kitchen gave Seattle’s dynamic Osvaldo Alonso a straightforward compliment, “He really controls that midfield. “ Pairing him with the creative Freddy Montero who also chose to stay central most of the game, offered Schmidt a better than even chance that his side would sneak a goal.

They nearly did, especially very late when a header by former DC United left back, Marc Burch bounced off the crossbar to the relief of most of the 15,651 in attendance. The emphasis on defense and a tightly fought game meant that either side could catch or create a break, and United’s Hamdi Salihi had his own ringing of the woodwork earlier in the game.

Statistics slightly favored Seattle and Olsen cited the play of United’s Joe Willis as the reason why he felt he was man of the match. While he needed to make only two saves to his opponent’s four, his positioning and confidence and the hard work of the defenders in front of him earned him a clean sheet.

There was a ten minute period in the second half when both teams tired enough to slacken pressure sufficiently to allow some nice attractive and effective play by both teams as the game opened up a bit. The development illustrates the wisdom of Kitchen’s comment on countering a crowded midfield, “The best way to break down pressure is to keep the ball and keep it moving.”

That’s easier to do when fatigue sets in, but the game soon settled back into tight quarter combat with some over the top attacking until the end as the substitutes brought renewed defensive pressure and a concurrent desire to score the winner.

DC United travels to New England on Saturday for a late afternoon game before returning to RFK to face Montreal on 18 April and The Red Bulls on 22 April. With the return of Jakovic from injury, Brandon McDonald from suspension and Andy Najar from a slight illness, Olsen should have solid depth to use in the busy week around the corner.

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New England defeats Listless Galaxy

Posted on 01 April 2012 by iyeo

Two weeks was suppose to be enough time for the Los Angeles Galaxy.

A two-week break in MLS action was suppose to allow the Galaxy valuable time to rest some weary legs while at the same time, establish chemistry for the recently-assembled squad and correct some mistakes that had plagued LA in its first four games.

However, after a rainy Saturday night tilt against the New England Revolution, the same mistakes, namely poor marking on defense among other issues, were still evident. Two early goals in the first half, both assisted by midfielder and captain Shalrie Joseph, set the tone for the Revolution’s dominant night at the Home Depot Center. The Revs outplayed the Galaxy for most of the night, and the end result was a 3-1 win over LA.

“We were certainly beat tonight from the opening kickoff,” Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena said.

New Enlgand got on the board 10 minutes into the match. Following a quick throw-in, Joseph crossed a ball into the penalty box toKelyn Rowe, who had his initial volley denied by Saunders, but the ball ended up back at his feet and Rowe made the most of the second chance, burying the rebound attempt past Saunders upper net for the first goal of the game. New England wasn’t done yet though. Three minutes after Rowe’s goal, Joseph sprung right back Kevin Alston with a through ball into the 18. Alston’s short cross found the foot of left back Chris Tierney, whose volley beat Saunders near post for a two-goal lead.

“Kelyn Rowe is 5-foot-7, and he’s getting behind our backline on a cross, and the second one, their left back is scoring a goal inside out box. That’s unacceptable,” Galaxy defender AJ DeLaGarza said.

Things apparently were bad enough in the first half that Arena decided that midfielders David Beckham and Marcelo Sarvas would be his first two substitutions during the halftime break.

“If I had 11 substitutions, I would’ve considered that,” Arena said.

The substitutions apparently didn’t have much effect, as New England got its third goal inthe 65th minute when Ryan Guy crossed a ball into the 18 and Saer Sene headed the ball past Saunders near post to pretty much end matters on the night as far as the Revolution was concerned. The Galaxy did pull one back, as Robbie Keane finished a point-blank attempt in the 78th minute, but it turned out to be mere window dressing on a pretty dreary night for LA.

“The issue in the game was that 11 players from New England soundly outplayed 11 players from the Galaxy,” Arena said.

Things won’t get any easier for Los Angeles, as their next game will be against Sporting Kansas City at Livestrong Sporting Park next Saturday afternoon.

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Shaky Sounders Fall 1-0 to San Jose Earthquakes

Posted on 01 April 2012 by Kyle Alm

Just as the sun began to make an appearance in the gray Spring sky just in time to dip below the Olympic Mountains across Puget Sound, the Seattle Sounders & San Jose Earthquakes were kicking off at CenturyLink Field in front of 38,301 fans.

Seattle looked to be the aggressor early, controlling possession and getting up the flanks. Christian Sivebaek made a memorable long driving run up the right flank punctuated with a heel turn in the box that lost his marker and but his cross could not find a teammate at the other end.

Osvaldo Alonso received a caution in the 6th minute from Referee Mark Kalecik for a reckless tackle on Marvin Chavez that drew nothing but shin. Alonso was a pivotal figure in this match for all of his usual reasons, disrupting play, intercepting passes, challenging for possession, and distribution of the ball unfortunately he drew a lot of attention for his rough play. Servando Carrasco, filling in for Brad Evans, looked a bit lost at times, didn’t contribute a whole lot to the effort and got in the way of Alonso.

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Steven Lenhart & Chris Wondolowski were marked ably by Jhon Kennedy Hurtado & Patrick Ianni in the beginning of the first half, two physical strikers with two physical center backs. Lenhart & Wondolowski have victimized Sounders defenses in the past and were up to their old tricks as the game wore on.

11th minute, Alonso crosses the ball into the box for Montero who was centered in front of the six yard box was unable to keep his header below the bar. Sounders best chance of the night came early.

Lenhart, in the 17th minute, did very well to get a touch on a cross from Steven Beitashour near the far post of the goal. Wondolowski was in the box prepared to pounce on any ball knocked back towards goal. Michael Gspurning was able to beat the San Jose striker to the ball, knock it down and cover it up.

Lenhart, 21st minute, abuses Hurtado, out-muscling him. Hurtado loses sight of the ball, attempts an awkward tackle on Lenhart, who stayed on his feet. To his credit, it would have been a likely penalty had he gone down.

22nd minute, Marc Burch trips Steven Lenhart in the box away from the ball before a corner kick. An completely unnecessary foul, albeit a somewhat weak one, there is always the possibility that the referee was making up for the Hurtado tackle a minute earlier. Coach Sigi Schmid thought that Lenhart had initiated contact, there was rampant speculation (in the press box) that it was a make up call for Hurtado’s awkward tackle earlier.

Wondolowski converted the PK easily to make it 1-0 in the 24th minute. It would prove to be all that San Jose needed.

There were a few changes for both sides at the half: Hurtado sustained a pelvic injury and made way for Jeff Parke; Ramrio Corrales, who suffered a harsh foul earlier in the half, for Jason Hernandez.

Sammy Ochoa was brought on for Sivebaek and shifted Estrada to the right wing at the 62nd  minute, there was no noticeable improvement in the offense. Sivebaek was having a quiet half compared to his first half.

Lenhart was subbed off for Alan Gordon in the 67th minute after his outstanding effort in a tactical shift by Frank Yallop to protect the 1-0 lead on the road.

Lenhart and Wondolowski make a very effective strike tandem, physical and opportunistic. The Quakes can score goals, Wondowlowski has been a top scorer for the last couple of seasons in MLS, their problem has been defending. San Jose is a much improved side from last season. Sounders were able to keep possession, create shots, win duels, and win pretty much every statistical category and still come up short. Certainly credit is due to San Jose for their victory, but we have seen Sounders dominate possession, shots, etc. and not be able to put the ball in the net for long stretches of time.

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