Categorized | Match Preview

DC United continues to seek mojo against Sporting KC

Posted on 11 August 2012 by Steve Long

It’s not easy being Ben. Good coaches have a basic philosophy and try to fit their team into a framework within which it can succeed as a unit. To that end, a new coach will seek players to fit his system and adjust to what he inherits as he builds the new structure. His task is complicated as injuries, trades, losses to international duty, and the unanticipated variables of the game mess with his plans.

DC United’s Ben Olsen took over a team with little theme and some major deficits in talent and focus. With some help from the front office he has assembled a solid set of choices in attack and midfield and a defense that needs just a bit more depth. He can take this team in the direction of possession and control or aggressive athleticism.

The latter is the hallmark of most MLS teams. It is the American style if you will. Watching the US Women’s National Team in London, I noticed that the same is true for them. At the current level of world soccer the athletic style works well for the women, but the world has caught on and Japan, France, and Canada showed where the US will need to go.

Pia Sundhage has emphasized attack and pressure because it has worked. Put to the test of well-disciplined play, it almost didn’t. Sundhage has the tools to improve on the US style since she has players who are technically gifted and comfortable on the ball. To stay on top, the US will have to add the ability to use the whole field all the time.

Olsen and DC United have a similar challenge with fewer players mature and comfortable enough to fully implement a better total game. The concept of critical mass applies, and you can see signs of United’s desire to grow its game control style.

It began with the acquisition of Hamdi Salihi and Lewis Neal and has been reinforced with the latest addition, Raphael Augusto who may be slotted to spell Branko Boskovic as an attacking midfielder. That position requires comfort on the ball and an attitude about control of play. Augusto is young, but comes from a Brasilian style that should suit where Olsen needs to go.

In DC United’s heyday, the team controlled the flow and then attacked quickly and surely when conditions were right. They have not reached that level of competence yet under Olsen, but I believe that he is moving in the right direction.

For two months his team has drifted along toward a period of reckoning that begins Saturday night in Kansas City. With the loss for an indefinite period of the services of left back Daniel Woolard, Olsen acquired Mike Chabala for immediate coverage and future depth.

That should help in the game at hand, but United will be hard pressed to be defensively coherent on that side. The DC defense rotates constantly to adjust to the flow of the game and wide defenders are as often found in attack as in the center in front of goal. Olsen should not use Chabala in that role for at least a few more weeks and that will unbalance his team’s flow somewhat.

The good news is that an away game customarily means a more structured and less fluid approach which will allow the new player to avoid dangerous overlapping runs. Essentially, Chris Pontius will need to make his own space wide rather than drawing defenders inside to allow his own defender to become a creator.

United’s attack will be more classically linear and wide, and should provide a different look from what KC might expect. Width should provide a bit more space for United’s attack to run what should be a tired Sporting team from side to side. To that end, Olsen may choose to start forward Long Tan again, since the youngster has a great work rate and must be marked, even if his finishing is still underdeveloped.

Late in the game, Olsen can then send in either the wily Salihi or the strong Brasilian Maicon Santos. The former will make runs that also require marking and the latter can hold up the ball for others to run onto or shoot from distance. That last feature will force tired KC defenders to stay close to him, a difficult task.

The question about Sporting KC is whether or not they have fully recovered from their US Open Cup victory against Sounders on Wednesday. Sporting seem very determined to maintain their winning ways and keep their new stadium full of fans. Playing for first place in the Eastern Conference, a place they held at the start of the season with a seven match unbeaten streak but relinquished the top of the table after 4 matches without a win, currently they stand at 12-7-4 with 40 points.

A match that goes 120 minutes is obviously physically exhausting and there is a psychological component as well. After coming down from a emotional high it can be difficult to get back up for a match four days later. Sporting probably have the roster depth to overcome the physical exhaustion, we will see if Peter Vermes has them mentally prepared to compete with DC United tonight.

Sporting are a physical, or “athletic,” team, big across the back and up the middle. Kei Kamara is clearly the trigger man, leading MLS in shots (88) taken and shots on goal (36). He’s been a bit unlucky, with only 7 goals from those scoring chances.

Graham Zusi is the other big piece of the Sporting attack, 9 assists is one off the league lead. Sporting are able to control the middle of the pitch quite effectively, due to the size and quality of these players. In addition to their potent offense, goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen has keep his sheet clean 10 times in MLS, that’s the league lead. Nielsen also owns the league’s best Goals Against Average, 0.913 goals per game.

Aurelian Collin is still on the injured list with facial fractures from the MLS All-Star match vs. Chelsea, and should be returning this week or next. Two other defenders Seth Sinovic, ankle sprain against Seattle, and Lawrence Olum are questionable. Sinovic’s ankle injury seemed fairly severe when he was taken off in the final. CJ Sapong’s availability is in question also.

Expect a hard fought well defended match between these two sides as both are acutely aware of what is at stake.

UPDATE: Aurelian Collin has been cleared to play and is in the starting lineup.

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