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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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