Tampa Bay Sports Day

DC United benefits from play at the highest level

While International club friendlies are held primarily for financial reasons, they do present the obvious benefits of variety of opponent and, as in the case this Sunday, of a qualified test against a superior opponent.

The very powerful Real Madrid had only pride as an incentive to play well and that motivation sufficed for them to control and then win the contest 3-0. For DC United, the value of the match lay primarily in the pace and level of skill at which they were forced to perform under more pressure than MLS can provide.

DC United began the game with enough overall pressure to give Real some small discomfort and fairly solid resistance to their preferred wing attacking play. Wide defenders Marc Burch and Dejan Jakovic had sufficient technical, mental, and running speed to at least compete with Real’s flank attacks.

Central defense defaulted to Greg Janicki with the injury to Bryan Namoff, whose wide right position was given to Jakovic. The injury required a further adaptation by United Coach Tom Soehn.

He had tested rookie Chris Pontius in a variety of roles in the past and chose in this game to play him wide and take a similar risk by asking the quick Rodney Wallace, who had previously been used mostly on the flank, to play in a central defensive/holding midfield role in order to cover somewhat for Janicki’s lack of all three speeds.

As long as Wallace focused on defensive duties, Real had a hard time making the slashing runs that Arjen Robben later used to slice up DC.

Clyde Simms, a defensive midfielder coming off a hernia operation, felt that as United’s comfort level increased the game dynamic became more risky as confidence grew. Real read the situation well, “Maybe a little bit of that (overconfidence), maybe a little bit of fatigue also…They kind of invited us to play. They knew that they had the weapons to counter for sure and that hurt us.”

When playing a superior team, the first priority is to take them out of their comfort zone to the extent possible and to establish as much of one’s own comfort as one can after that. For the first 55 minutes the game went as Soehn would want; DC gradually became more comfortable.

Devin McTavish observed that, “Whatever team is in control kind of controls the wing. They kind of forced things into the middle so when we got the ball we didn’t have any width which is how we (try to) play the game, getting the balls out wide and getting crosses in.”

Still, United stifled Real’s attacks with a mighty effort from Josh Wicks in goal and more balanced use of field width than they usually display against MLS sides. Real’s strength inside and preference for wing play in the first half may have forced United to play in this more balanced fashion. Therein lies a major benefit of playing these exhibition games.

As McTavish put it, “They make us uncomfortable. Everyone’s fast, athletic, knows how to defend properly. They’re very organized. It was a difficult task. We can still learn from it.” The best lessons are those reinforced by experience.

Ultimately the team which was experienced at a much higher level solved the puzzle by inserting Robben who split DC’s center with slashing diagonal runs to shed his markers. Simms agreed that just as United pushed slightly more into attack with growing confidence, “His coming on made a big difference also.”

Once the weakness was exposed, it took United too long to adjust and Real ran through the central gaps repeatedly. Top level teams will exploit a seam as long as it remains unclosed.

DC United has always played up to and down to the level of opponents, playing on a lower level with Harrisburg, or LA Firpo, and then almost up to Real Madrid even if only for a while. The very best teams don’t allow that; they impose their level immediately and continually.

The single greatest thing that United can take from this game is the realization that they can and must be the ones to set the level when they are the stronger side. For the remainder of this year DC United should be the team imposing rhythm and control on the game.