Tampa Bay Sports Day

DC United should start focus on Open Cup at Houston

Despite a horrible beginning to their season, DC United has demonstrated better team cohesion and maturity than last year’s side. Overall team shape has been better maintained even as the flow of play has changed from central control and attack to over the top and wide attack.

United’s traditional control game failed them in 2009 because the team focused too narrowly on central attack and became predictable. The control game is best defeated by quick counterattacks, but becomes vulnerable to even more varied attacks if the side attempting to maintain control loses its own discipline and leaves spaces within its midfield.

The opponent gains the initiative since defenders need to cover slashing runs into vulnerable space which takes some of their focus off runs into space behind them. Coach Curt Onalfo’s choice to play double holding midfielders, Clyde Simms and Kurt Morsink, has helped to deny that option to opponents.

That adjustment has allowed United to play reasonably well defensively despite a lack of running speed in central defense. Simms’ and Morsink’s control create just enough certainty and deflect enough forays that DC can keep opponents at bay for much of the game.

The several recent quotes from Carey Talley in which he explains how Jordan Graye has learned to turn wing attacks wide to delay or deny runs in behind him illustrate how a mature defense can work with strong midfield support.

However, defensive support comes with a price, an anemic attack. The players who have expressed opinions agree that service from midfield is the primary weakness. With a rash of injuries, the team lacks just enough talent to deny DC that two-way midfield that any good team must have.

In the away game Saturday at Houston, Onalfo could continue the emphasis on defense, hoping that his minions can hold Houston scoreless well into the second half and then switch to an offensive style by replacing either central midfielder with an attacker.

Instead, I think he should go for attack from the start. The 2010 MLS postseason is sufficiently out of sight that the team should focus on the Open Cup in its stead, while building a system that will pay dividends later this year and next.

If Morsink or Simms is replaced by an attacking midfielder like Andy Najar, the wide midfielders will have to be very disciplined and work both ways consistently to support the center. Midfield work rate will become the key to the game.

Substitutions should focus there, with Jaime Moreno (for Najar), Simms or Morsink (for the other), and Boyzz Khumalo, Chris Pontius, or Brandon Barklage for a wide midfielder.

Houston is a flexible well-coached team even with several top players missing. Dom Kinnear has a strong system which allows his players to slot into it comfortably. Still, he will probably plan for United to try the semi-bunker and counter strategy which is classic for an away team.

A change in emphasis should put Kinnear’s team slightly off their own plan, but they will adjust fairly quickly. In essence, Onalfo would be gambling on two things, the possibility of an early goal before Houston adjusts and the ability of his own side to maintain enough discipline throughout the game within United’s changed midfield.

In the short term, the switch in emphasis is very much a gamble. For the longer term, it is almost essential if United is to improve its record and also be competitive in the Open Cup.

In the next month and one half, United plays very few MLS games and only the Open Cup on 2 June has specific significance. By that game, Tino Quaranta and Chris Pontius should be solidly back in form. By the time MLS returns to full swing, United should have Dejan Jakovic back on defense and may have acquired the creative midfielder who could drive a more potent attack.

The MLS season presents little hope of fulfillment, but the remainder of the season may well see a stronger side and even an Open Cup trophy by the end.