Tampa Bay Sports Day

DC United, a work in progress

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“It’s a work in progress with some frustrating moments.” Although he was describing the simple change to a 4-4-2 formation against Kansas City on Wednesday, Bryan Namoff also highlighted the entire 2009 MLS season for DC United.

Overall parity in MLS, rooted in the salary cap, forces coaches to constantly adapt with limited resources. Fewer players capable of playing at a high level leave little room to deal with injuries, suspensions, and a heavy international schedule.

More in this season than in most, DC United has struggled to control the flow of play. Strong play down the middle, which could carry the day in past years when an Earnie Stewart or Josh Gros could keep opposing wings honest by skill or sheer energy, is no longer sufficient for success.

Even the struggling Kansas City Wizards severely tested DC on Wednesday night. Namoff noted that, “They were beating us through the run of play, which is not easy to do against us at home.” That applied throughout a first half when only superlative goalkeeping by Josh Wicks and comically bad finishing by the Wizards allowed DC to lead 1-0 at intermission.

The late Jimmy Breslin provided an apt description of the KC efforts calling a set of inept gangsters “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight”. The Wizards created and then squandered numerous chances through exceptionally fine combinations, made easier by United’s depleted defense and its new formation.

Clyde Simms has played a role as defensive midfielder that has required him to read the game and make constant adjustments to keep team shape. Recently, playing in both central defense and midfield, he has coped with a multitude of attacking styles.

The Wizards kept him busy, “Here they had some guys that were interchanging and it was tough.” KC chose to use the whole field and to play at greater speed than United. By the end of the half, it was clear that the 4-4-2 left DC too little midfield control.

Coach Tom Soehn brought in Ben Olsen to address that problem with considerable success. Rod Wallace appreciated the help, “Bringing Benny in there provided more defensive shape centrally.”

Namoff agreed, “With two ball winners coming in in the second half, it locked down that central area. We started to win balls there. I think that was kind of a weak point for us in the first half.”

Despite their rookie status, both Wallace and Chris Pontius have had to adjust to multiple positions on the field, often in the same game. Wallace played at left back until KC’s Chance Myers was ejected, and moved to defensive midfield thereafter. The change in numbers actually encouraged DC to return to the 3-5-2.

Although it might appear that a team with a lead should bunker in, Clyde Simms explained that too much emphasis on deep defense has its hazards against certain forms of attack, “If a team’s playing with just one forward, you don’t want four guys marking one. That creates disadvantages for us in the midfield and up front.”

Each season develops in its own way, but a common theme is the growing wisdom of players and coaches. By now, Simms has a more mature vision and understands the value of each experience. He recognized that for this game, “It was good that I got 90 in (on defense) in Dallas.”

For his part, Wallace picked up on the changing requirements of the game and his own role in adjusting, “You try to open up the field as much as possible. With four in the back, we have more freedom on the inside. It worked to our advantage.”

The now veteran Namoff believes that more width is vital, “I still think we need to get better at it. It’s just because we haven’t played this formation this year. I did generate some space out on the wing.” On several occasions he found himself alone or with excellent space in front to attack down the wing only to go unrecognized by his teammates.

United continues to slowly improve in the creation of space on the wings, but also falls short of exploiting it quickly enough. Opponents have chosen wisely to pin DC wide very quickly. United’s players have tended to work out of this with a controlled and slow swinging of the ball in an arc back through their own center.

By the time the ball gets wide on the other side, the defense has time to pin DC there. A bit more emphasis on slashing central runs to break out might seem to be the answer, but risks DC’s falling into the short central game that tends to clog the center.

Habits persist because they have succeeded in the past. Over time, more and more players on DC United are seeing more of the field and recognizing the need for both long and short vision. Tino Quaranta has increased the number of his long passes. Fred and Namoff have increasingly found space on the wing.

They have too rarely been rewarded with good service. When a critical mass of players reach a common understanding of the value of quick exploitation of their mutual movement, DC United can step up a notch and get some small separation from the rest of MLS.

As Wallace, Simms, and Pontius gain the soccer maturity of players like Olsen and Namoff, United might even compete with some of its CONCACAF Champions League opponents on an even keel. The rest of 2009 is a race between maturation and fatigue, both running up against short deadlines.

On that note, DC United will host the Seattle Sounders this Saturday at 7:30 at RFK for the second time in ten days.

Scoring Summary:
DC — Luciano Emilio 9 (unassisted) 39

Kansas City Wizards — Kevin Hartman, Jonathan Leathers, Matt Besler, Jimmy Conrad, Michael Harrington, Claudio Lopez, Santiago Hirsig (Graham Zusi 78), Jack Jewsbury, Herculez Gomez (Chance Myers 46), Davy Arnaud (Zoltan Hercegfalvi 69), Josh Wolff,

Substitutes Not Used: Aaron Hohlbein, Kurt Morsink, Boris Pardo, Lance Watson

D.C. United — Josh Wicks, Bryan Namoff, Clyde Simms, Julius James (Avery John 62), Santino Quaranta (Fred 85), Christian Gomez (Ben Olsen 46), Devon McTavish, Rodney Wallace, Chris Pontius, Luciano Emilio, Jaime Moreno,

Substitutes Not Used: Andrew Jacobson, Milos Kocic, Tiyiselani Shipalane, Danny Szetela

D.C. United Kansas City Wizards
Total shots: 12 (Luciano Emilio 5) 16 (Davy Arnaud 4)
Shots on goal: 5 (Luciano Emilio 4) 5 (5 tied with 1)
Fouls: 13 (Julius James 3,
Rodney Wallace 3) 15 (Michael Harrington 4)
Offsides: 1 (Santino Quaranta 1) 2 (Michael Harrington 1,
Zoltan Hercegfalvi 1)
Corner kicks: 7 (Jaime Moreno 4) 7 (Claudio Lopez 5)
Saves: 5 (Josh Wicks 5) 4 (Kevin Hartman 4)

Misconduct Summary:
DC — Christian Gomez (caution; Reckless Foul) 27
KC — Michael Harrington (caution; Reckless Foul) 69
KC — Matt Besler (caution; Reckless Foul) 74
KC — Chance Myers (caution; Reckless Tackle) 81
DC — Avery John (caution; Reckless Tackle) 84
KC — Chance Myers (ejection; Second Caution) 86
DC — Josh Wicks (caution; Delaying a Restart) 93+

Referee: Terry Vaughn
Referee’s Assistants: Adam Wienckowski; Cyril Madukanya
4th official: Niko Bratsis
Time of game: 1:51
Attendance: 8,033
Weather: Cloudy -and- 74 degrees