Tampa Bay Sports Day

DC stands United behind Onalfo’s plan

Even as DC United spiraled downward at the beginning of 2010, there appeared to be a simultaneous improvement in the team’s discipline and overall shape. That seeming contradiction could be explained by a superabundance of injuries to the top tier of players. The team simply lacked the critical talent mass to execute the tasks assigned.

Still, there seemed to be something more at work. I spoke with an experienced coach about it and received an interesting explanation. He described two key elements, the quality of the coach’s plan and the degree of player understanding and consequent buyin.

He would explain to his players that his plan could be good or bad and their buy into it could likewise be either. If his scheme was poor and they bought it or his scheme was good and they didn’t, the result would be mediocre at best.

The 2009 DC United players would invariably answer when interviewed that they bought Tom Soehn’s plan, but they often strayed from it during games, indicating by their actions that they didn’t fully buy it. Mediocrity ensued. Piled on top of a demanding overall schedule, the team fell below even that standard.

Enter Curt Onalfo, a legacy of the legendary DC United. Add an assistant from that same era, Ben Olsen, and you have two disciples of the Bruce Arena school of discipline. One would expect their plan to be a good one and their training to emulate the organization and focus which are Arena characteristics.

United’s first coach had a similar rocky beginning to his tenure, but righted the ship and piloted it to glory. Let’s take that analogy one step further. Arena took a while to integrate a major element of his style into the team, the effective creative midfielder. Onalfo came into 2010 with that same element lacking.

For whatever reason, over the offseason DC United did not acquire the midfield engine that they so clearly needed. Onalfo tested Santino Quaranta there, but found that the young veteran’s natural talents lend themselves to wide midfield or flexible striker play. He has had to resort to a less effective plan until the front office gets him the DP creator that will optimize the roster.

The reason that United can now approach a decent mediocrity (albeit with flashes of brilliance) lies in the players’ buying into the current plan. That plan is well described by a series of quotes from Tino Quaranta:

“We clearly went over this week what we wanted from each individual…We wanted to build off the AC Milan performance in terms of the way we defended, collectively from the forwards to the midfielders to the backs. We had a plan and we followed it to a tee.” That is classic Arena ball: press, control, and go fast when the opportunity arises.

It takes a while to become comfortable and confident. One must be patient, “At halftime I told the guys that if it takes us until the 90th minute to win this game tonight then that’s what it does, but we have to stay patient.”

The patient player has confidence that he and his teammates will fulfill each others’ expectations and that good things will come from overall focus, “It was a disciplined performance. In the past we would put our head down when the 78th-79th minute goal would go in. Tonight we lifted the guys. We kept pushing, we went forward. It was the type of performance we expect from these guys.”

Confidence is infectious, “Once they scored that second goal, I just looked around at the guys and I felt that we were gonna win this game.”

A large part of that confidence comes from the knowledge that the whole team is on the same page. Carey Talley, another Arena legacy, said it well, “We established a rhythm…It came from 1 through 15, however many played tonight….For us we’re starting to see the hard work, the discipline, pay off.

“There has to be a system established, like you say in Houston, where guys step in and do their role. We’re still obviously working on that and every guy is stepping in and trying to do what’s asked of him and you can’t complain about that.”

The defender, who wears the captain’s armband when Jaime Moreno is out, has made his own contribution to team development with his advice to the young Jordan Graye who continues to develop into a solid right defender.

In turn, Graye has begun to pass on his knowledge to 17 year old Andy Najar , who played in front of him, “He’s aware of where I am and I’m aware of where he is. He’s really good defensively.” Success comes about because, “The communication is key. Pena and Talley keep me in check and keep me focused on doing the right things during the game and I kinda put that on Andy too.”

Just as Olsen absorbed the lessons from John Harkes and Marco Etcheverry, the latest number 14, Najar, is growing rapidly, “He takes it seriously. Like Curt says, he’s wise beyond his years when it comes to professionalism in soccer, and that’s why he’s playing for the first team.”

The Open Cup match and regular season games that fill out the rest of this week will sorely test the team’s new found confidence. To Onalfo’s credit, he has slowly built a certain amount of depth into the squad which may see them past Real Salt Lake.

Two of MLS’ most successful coaches over time, Dom Kinnear of Houston and Steve Nicol of New England, built teams with solid systems which gave each player a clear role and obtained their buyin. Onalfo may well be on the right track, requiring only a creative midfielder to make it all work.