Tampa Bay Sports Day

Open Cup match will test DC United’s adaptability

Three of DC United’s most common defensive four in 2009 are on the injured list and this year’s stabilizing international acquisition has joined them. Still, Coach Curt Onalfo has just enough talent left available to cobble together a journeyman back four for tonight’s Open Cup game against FC Dallas.

Julius James should be flanked by Rodney Wallace and either Carrey Talley or Devon McTavish, with either joining him in central defense. If that group can hold their focus throughout the game, those in front of them may be able to salvage a win.

The midfield is a bit better off with wings covered by Santino Quaranta and Cristian Castillo. Both are capable of creating and scoring goals. For their central partners, Onalfo has some interesting choices as both Clyde Simms and Brandon Barklage are at least possible participants.

Given their still recovering status and the proximity of the next three games, he would do well to give Simms the extra recovery time and use Barklage as a substitute. Kurt Morsink has covered the holding midfielder position well enough so far to deserve the start there, while Andy Najar showed enough energy and skill to be given a second straight chance to create.

His inexperience will place extra pressure on the defense and require his wing mates to play both ways all game. Overall team shape will be an absolute essential.

Onalfo has four choices up front, two of whom are physical players, one creative, and one speedy. Here, the coach has a dilemma. He can go for the first goal which is so often the key to a win, or he can try to tire Dallas and then bring in either speed or guile to test their legs late.

The prospect of overtime and even penalty kicks should bias his decision toward bringing Jaime Moreno, who is no longer a real 90 minute player, off the bench so that he can work against a slower defense. If United happens to be ahead, his control will help the team to finish the game with greater confidence.

The next choice is which physical player to start, Adam Cristman or Daniel Allsopp. Taking possible penalty kicks into account, Onalfo might want to pair Moreno with the latter to emphasize experience in the final moments of the game.

The concept would be to use the speed of Boyzz Khumalo and the strength of Cristman to set up the clever duo for the second half. That approach deliberately commits half of the 4 substitutes allowed in the Open Cup. Unlike the regular season, with a 3 substitute limit, there remains some small flexibility to shore up defense or midfield and hold an emergency reliever in case of injury.

Both United and Dallas come into the game hoping to turn around poor starts. Knockout games often mean boring games, where both sides play not to make a mistake. This one has the added pressure of the need for both teams to turn their season around.

For that reason, I think that Najar might provide the key element. He will inevitably have some turnovers while also providing some spark. Young players do best when they don’t know enough to be afraid. That requires Morsink to play especially conservatively, a style that his experience and closeness to the coach should allow.

If the players understand the plan, focus, and execute, they might, with some luck, advance to play either Real Salt Lake or San Jose to enter the Open Cup round of 32.