Categorized | MLS, MLS Match Reports

Return to basics yields 4-2 victory for United

Posted on 24 August 2012 by Steve Long

Throughout the season DC United has pursued a team identity with limited success. Through some extraordinary individual efforts and occasional combination play by a few players at a time, United won a good share of points, but never quite seemed as solid as they could be. A certain confidence was lacking.

The players had heart and commitment to one another, so much so that they may have tried too hard. Coach Ben Olsen was blessed with a deep pool of talent, but couldn’t find the right combination of personnel and the right style of play to get comfortable. For Wednesday night’s game vs the Chicago Fire, he returned to basics and may have found the key.

After Sunday’s tie with Philadelphia, assistant coach Josh Wolff acknowledged that midfield transition had been poor as too many players were flat across the front, “At the end of the day you’ve got to have some kind of movement that makes them adjust and move and when we’re on the ball we have to be cleaner.”

With the insertion of a second defensive/holding midfielder, Marcelo Saragosa, Olsen provided the first requirement of midfield control, enough central players to retain flexibility. To that baseline, he added an emphasis on triangles, as the wide midfielders varied their positioning to keep triangles and abandoned the tendency to flood the front line.

When the wide mids did slide into the center, the wide defenders could overlap into the space created. It’s all about reading your teammates and playing as a unit. The simplest of principles, keeping shape on attack as well as defense, works. It provides the base from which attacks may be launched.

However, there is a paradox in maintaining shape, you become predictable and easy to defend. Success will only come from violations of a strict application of discipline. In short, fortune favors the bold player, but only if he has good judgment.

A game has a certain rhythm, but the winner knows how to change that rhythm to surprise and defeat his opponent. When Chris Pontius took a shot at the far post, he followed an ancient principle. Three results are sought, beat the keeper near or far post or find a teammate with an accidental cross.

Sean Johnson, the Fire’s keeper, read the ball as a far post miss and let it slide by, but Dwayne De Rosario saw it as a pass and tapped it home for his 99th MLS goal. With the insertion of Saragosa, DeRo had been freed from central midfield control duties and allowed to play to his strength, creating and finishing chances.

The success from this particular pairing in central midfield does not mean that it should be continued. As Branko Boskovic comes off suspension, he should replace Saragosa. He tends to hang back more than most creative midfielders, and should provide sufficient deterrence against oppponents’ central attack.

He also adds a certain sophistication to the team which will require opponents to track him rather than think of their own creative efforts. Add to this a De Rosario relieved of midfield control responsibilities and you have the proper degree of unpredictability to succeed on attack.

It was noteworthy that United had four different goal scorers and a variety of strong assists. This speaks directly to excellent team play as the Fire had too many variables to shut down.

Nick Deleon noted that the two days of practice after the Philadelphia game had focused on triangles, “Big time. We emphasize not being flat up top, having our outside mids come in and having our forwards check back. When we all do that as a team and we’re together like that, that’s the kind of result we can get.”

Olsen will take his act to Montreal on Saturday and then back to DC on Wednesday. As the toll on players of a compressed schedule takes effect, the stability and durability of the new-found understanding and discipline will be tested.

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