Tampa Bay Sports Day

United still searching for the keys

The keys to DC United’s success in 2009 lie in two places: the central defense and the wide midfield. To assess the quality of the first is almost pure conjecture. The quality of the second will depend on the ability of strong players to adapt to team needs.

On the defensive front, United’s brain trust went through an extensive search during the off season and came up with Dejan Jakovic, a Canadian U-20 international with impressive size at 6’2”. He brings UEFA Cup experience with a solid Red Star Belgrade side and a youth that could cut either way.

DC should hope that he is as strong as advertised, but not quite of Ryan Nelsen quality. If he develops as rapidly as hoped, he could see a fair number of strong years while ducking under the European talent radar, which has taken note of MLS in recent years.

DCU fans hope there won't be too many looks of consternation from Soehn this season

DCU fans hope there won’t be too many looks of consternation from Soehn this season

Any successful team needs a certain calming consistency in defense and United comes into 2009 with only Bryan Namoff as a veteran defensive leader. While he holds down the right side, Marc Burch has only one sketchy year on the left. Thus, central leadership is a must.

Late in 2008, Greg Janicki came on board from the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, bringing with him similar much-needed size in the middle at 6’3”. He also brought a steady level of play that belied his lower division experience. If he has a “Boswell-like” year and combines well with Jakovic, United may stumble into the answer in the back.

DC has far more strength and options in the midfield. Clyde Simms should ably back up Christian Gomez in the center and a foursome of Ben Olsen, Tino Quaranta, Fred, and Devon McTavish should provide the talent for Coach Tom Soehn to make his attacking play work.

Whoever plays wide for United must have the talent and discipline to make the opponent respect DC’s width. Both Fred and Quaranta tend to drift inside and will have to restrain that tendency and retrain their skill set to emphasize wing attacks and accurate crosses.

Olsen has the wisdom to do what the team needs to win and McTavish showed flashes of offensive strength which should allow Soehn to get good value from him as well. The width they all provide is vital to United’s success.

DC has always been a ball control team. In recent years, opponents have countered the strengths of Gomez, Gallardo, and Jaime Moreno as central attackers by close and often very physical marking. The best answer to that defense is rapid switching of the point of attack and strong work fully down the wings.

If threats there are sufficient, service to forwards Moreno and especially Luciano Emilio should enable them to exploit the greater space afforded by wider play. Emilio depends heavily on interaction with teammates to score and Moreno likes to assist. Both need space to operate.

Soehn will also have the services of Francis Doe, who ended 2008 with some strong appearances, Boyzz Khumalo, who showed speed and energy, and a newly signed international Ange N’Silu. All three seem poised to contribute if the older strikers lose an edge.

Sunday’s opener in Los Angeles will tell us a lot about how well DC has adjusted to the league and to its own battery of talent. United will face a Bruce Arena coached Galaxy team. The Bruce well understands the team whose style he built and will probably test Soehn’s flexibility by clogging United’s center, defying them to work the wings.

United alumni Tony Sanneh and Dema Kovalenko have the understanding and physical tools to force the game into Arena’s mold, while Landon Donovan has the speed and guile to exploit any defensive lapses. Look for a battle of wills and minds in midfield with quick counters by both sides.

The team which varies its attack the most is likely to prevail.