Tampa Bay Sports Day

Crunch time arrives for inconsistent DC United

Following the 3-0 CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) victory over Marathon it seemed as if DC United might finally have approached some capability to use their wings in attack. The team then came out against San Jose and executed a classic example of wing attack as Ben Olsen and Chris Pontius worked the left side to feed the slashing Jaime Moreno for United’s first and only goal.

Instead of following that example for the remainder of the game, the players relapsed into the central default mode that has plagued them the entire year. Play swung into the Earthquakes’ favor and DC lost to the MLS’ weakest team.

The season started on a very positive note as rookies Rodney Wallace and Pontius were pressed into service for the injured Santino Quaranta and Fred. Both veterans are interior players by inclination and experience. Their wing replacements brought effective width and United played a more complete game in their absence.

As they returned to service and other injuries depleted other positions, Coach Tom Soehn discovered that his rookies could play a variety of additional roles, Pontius as a forward or defensive midfielder and Wallace as defensive midfielder or left back. While their pleasantly surprising versatility gave the coach some flexibility and expanded the rookies’ capabilities, it led to the loss of effective wide play.

The preferred veteran wings naturally chose the inside route and drove themselves into a congested center. When frustrated, a veteran will tend to redouble his efforts and rely more heavily on his strengths, exactly the wrong response in this case.

In midsummer, Soehn tried to solve the problem. One would see Fred out on the wing almost begging for the ball to reward his disciplined position. He rarely got it. It was as if the others, when they bothered to look, wondered what he was doing out there.

He began to channel Bobby Convey, raising his hand in a plaintive “I’m available” wave. He wasn’t the only one. On a recent occasion, Bryan Namoff overlapped repeatedly and received almost no notice. He too became a hand waver.

In the San Jose game, Ben Olsen joined the semaphore crowd, but the only player who actually got service wide in the second half was Boyzz Khumalo, whose waving cast attracted enough attention to get him a pass.

Flash forward to the game versus San Juan Jabloteh and suddenly United returned to the Marathon game wide play that they had finally developed. Their first and fourth goals, both by Christian Gomez, were textbook examples of how to move the ball and find space by exploiting width.

It remains to be seen whether DC United is indeed progressing fast enough in broadening their game to get results in MLS and the CCL. All four games remaining (three in MLS) are now must wins for United as Toluca went to Marathon and lost 2-0 last night. With the Marathon win, DC must now concentrate on all four games.

If they get past Chivas this Saturday, they will have two weeks to train in the right habits to exploit width fully. Then they will have three games in one final decisive week.

Perhaps Soehn should take a close look at his players’ natural tendencies and place them where they are most comfortable. Use Wallace and Pontius on the wings. Let a resurging Luciano Emilio work up front with Quaranta. Bring in Jaime Moreno to change the flow if needed and Boyzz Khumalo to inject speed.

With Ben Olsen’s good health and the return of Dejan Jacovic, United has the luxury of rotating Clyde Simms with Olsen or Julius James who has come on board to good effect. Lawson Vaughn has covered well for Namoff who might return after a few weeks if needed.

Tom Soehn has the tools and the insight to know how they should work together. His only remaining question is how to train them to work across the entire field. The players have the vision, but the right habits are still forming.