Tampa Bay Sports Day

DC United needs to wing it

When DC United takes on the LA Galaxy on Saturday at RFK, the action will focus on the wings. The Galaxy has two masterful crossers of the ball in David Beckham and Eddie Lewis. United uses a variety of players in wide midfield, two of whom tend to drift inside and focus the team’s play into a crowded center.

Unless Coach Tom Soehn can train his players to use the entire width of the field consistently, his team will continue to lack punch offensively and allow too easy breakouts to opponents who will counter quickly as they win balls in that center area.

Soccer is all about movement away from the ball with a strong sense of overall team shape. I frequently hear references to shape from players, yet, in the flow of the actual game, the group will often ignore a free teammate on the wing. That player soon enough drifts inside and contributes to the congestion and loss of the ball.

Early season injuries to the skillful Fred and Santino Quaranta allowed rookies Chris Pontius and Rodney Wallace to show their elders how to move correctly in flank midfield. They did as they were told and did what was necessary to keep good team shape.

When the heavy hitters returned, they did display greater width in their own games, but soon drifted into old habits. DC United became predictable and thus beatable.

In an MLS that has attained nearly full parity at the player level and a fairly equal understanding of the game at the coaching level, a coaching staff’s ability to train their players so that they will maintain shape consistently is now the great differentiator.

Watching United at Toronto, I was reminded of Casey Stengel’s comment about the early New York Mets, “Can’t anybody here play this game?” Again and again DC players ran directly at, or passed straight into, multiple coverage in the center while wings were neglected.

They slightly improved that pattern in Honduras on Tuesday, only to be done in by a horrible performance by Greg Janicki. The fact that many of the starters were younger players may have benefited team shape.

Only weeks ago, against Real Madrid, a much superior opponent, United’s regulars had maintained shape because Real dictated the form. Both teams played at a higher level and the game was more enjoyable.

The best teams make others play up to their level. More and more MLS teams have begun showing the cohesion that characterizes top clubs and international play. In theory, all squads should now play with good shape, but MLS coaches also know the value of playing to exploit an opponent’s bad habits.

They have decided that the best way to defeat United’s possession game is to collapse defenses into the center, await the inevitable turnover, and counter quickly and with full exploitation of the wings.

DC United once showed the way in MLS as Bruce Arena orchestrated the best collection of talent who moved the ball all over the field and then stuck it in the net. Watching new franchise Seattle and New England play mutually excellent team ball on Thursday night highlighted the quality of coaching that Sigi Schmidt and Steve Nicol have brought to those franchises.

On Saturday, Tom Soehn will face Arena, who is very familiar with United’s tendencies. The Galaxy will allow DC to drift inside and then exploit the wings with Lewis and Beckham. They will find either Landon Donovan or the Galaxy player neglected as DC’s defenders focus on the US Captain. Defensive shape will be a must for DC.

A few years ago, United would assign Josh Gros to run the opposing strong winger into the ground. While the tactic was basically designed to play to his strong engine, it was also fundamentally sound as it supported the greater strategic aim of overall shape. When the threat is widely dispersed, the defense will also be more spread out and less able to resist a rapid strike.

If United is to qualify for the MLS playoffs, win the Open Cup, and advance in the CONCACAF Champions League, they must first use their wings effectively. The talent is available and the vision seems to be held in common by the players. What is lacking is the discipline to make it happen.

When a team loses its rhythm, its stars naturally try to raise their own games to rally the side. In such cases, they tend to fall back on individual strengths. Thus, Jaime Moreno tries to possess, Fred drives inside, Christian Gomez goes at defenders one after another, and all meet in the middle and too often lose the ball.

They need to adopt a sort of Zen approach and come to the attack indirectly. Occasionally both Moreno and Gomez do drift wide to ease pressure on themselves, but they then too quickly revert to the direct attack that was so successful earlier in their careers. Perhaps it is time to put the rookies wide again and play the veteran troops where they are naturally comfortable.

By having Gomez and Fred split the central attacking role by halves, each can give a full effort while keeping something for Toluca on Wednesday. Let Moreno and Emilio Luciano split the attacking role while pairing with Quaranta. Keep the final sub for whatever game flow may dictate.