Categorized | Featured, MLS Match Reports

Unusual strategy, unusual goals give DC United a 3-2 win

Posted on 22 October 2012 by Steve Long

When Dwayne De Rosario went down with a sprained MCL six weeks ago, DC United looked ready to repeat their flop of a year ago when Chris Pontius went out with a broken leg. Instead the team has earned 16 of a possible 18 points and leapt into second place in the MLS East.

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Coach Ben Olsen had only just adopted the empty bucket approach of placing two holding midfielders behind a withdrawn forward and an advanced one in order to reduce the stress on De Rosario and now had to figure out how to make it work in his absence.

The concept proved to be successful because of a fundamental advantage it conferred. The basically defensive lineup carries an unusual sting. If you couple it with Olsen’s emphasis on having wide defenders overlap as wing players slide inside, you find that an opponent must adjust to an internal rotation which replicates the broader overall rotation of modern “total soccer”.

The strategy creates deliberate eddy currents within the overall rotation and presents a controlled but confusing attack to the defense. Over the past month, I have quizzed Josh Wolff on three key elements of this approach. The first two above lead to the success, so far, of the final element, bringing in super subs late in the game to take advantage of tired defenses.

Wolff explains it as he has several times before, “It clearly is most effective. I think all of our subs who have come in the last 5 or 6 games have had a big impact. The idea is to bring them in to change the game.”

He points out, “There’s a physical capacity in these games from start to finish that’s hard to keep pace with and we have a group of guys that we feel can do it and we have a group of guys that can come in when the game slows.”

His observation shows why Olsen is pleased with Lionard Pajoy who wears opponents out with his work rate despite a finishing rate of which Olsen says, “It’s lacking. He’ll (Pajoy) tell you that. But the positives, the running he does for us. He causes fits.

“The final product hasn’t been there the last couple of weeks, but he still gives us another dimension up there with his work rate. For sure we would like him to be a little more clinical, but when you don’t have a good day, when your touch is off, it is important to do all of the other stuff. So, at the end, he didn’t finish, but he did a lot of good for our team.

Pajoy’s primary task is to prepare the way for Hamdi Salihi and Branko Boskovic to use their skills. He’s similar to the picadors whose job it is to tire and frustrate the bull before the matador comes on to work him and finish him off.

It has worked so far, but may not be so effective against superior teams in a playoff environment. Asked if United might change against stronger competition, Wolff replied, “I don’t think we’re changing much at this point. We’ll just have to wait to see what personnel we have available, what team we’re playing against, what the matchups look like in the middle….It’s kind of what the staff feels is necessary to get results.”

Olsen singled out his wide defenders for praise, “Andy (Najar) and (Chris) Korb both, I thought, had great games. The center backs were pretty solid, but I thought in particular, Andy’s movement, his ability to 1 v 1 and get out of situations. And Korb was great all night long, especially defensively.

“ Korb was big. He got around the corners quite a few times. That’s a big deal. And he is growing into that position.” Korb agreed that, “It helps me, because I like doing it but it helps the team because it’s a good way to play out of the back…It gives us another option, another guy in the attack.

“You look at the best teams in the world and all their outside backs get forward…..We’ve had some rough spots where it doesn’t look great, but we’re trying to do the right thing, and the more we play together the more we gel as a group.”

From the other side, Najar’s running mate on the right wing, Nick DeLeon, enjoys the switch, “He’s a special player when it goes to 1 v 1 and that’s the great thing about having him back there. I have no problem dropping back and letting him do his thing and he’s the same way. We interchange and that’s what makes us so dangerous.”

He admitted that the interchange, as it does for Korb, helps him to be a better player, “It definitely does, but at the beginning of the game it’s more forward-back, forward-back, but second half I was losing my energy a bit and that’s when you sit, hold your line and defend as a team. It’s a lot of work, and a lot of work mentally.”

His acknowledgment of his own physical and mental fatigue highlights the weakness in the empty bucket arrangement. For all the advantages it presents, it still leaves the wings with a huge task which falls on Chris Pontius as well as DeLeon.

Opposing teams seem to have chosen to allow Korb more movement, perhaps because they prioritize covering Pontius more and perhaps because they see Korb’s forays as less threatening than those of Najar.

The next test for Olsen’s system comes when DC United travels to Chicago on Saturday (4:00 PM on NBCSN) to end the regular season hoping for a win to secure either the first or second seed in the East.

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