Tampa Bay Sports Day

Has Arena ball returned for DC United?

Over a span of 11 days a team that has now amassed only seven MLS points in eleven games has reached a level of confidence that belies the simple numbers. The remarkable events that transpired in those eleven days are attributable to two factors, one tangible and the other intangible, and far more important.

Tino Quaranta hit on it directly, “The most important thing is that this team is pretty hard to play against right now. We’re not giving up a lot. The guys bought in to what Curt (Onalfo) believes and I think that with a couple of guys coming back we’ve lifted the team and made them understand that we have to push through this.”

The return from injury of a significant number of impact players is the tangible factor. They provide the critical mass for the intangible to work. Notice how Quaranta puts the two together to describe Real Salt Lake, “They’re a well coached team. Their shape is great. All around their quality of players is the reason they won the MLS Cup last year.”

Translate that discipline and skill to the rehabbed DC United and it explains his description of his own team, “We’re a tough team to play against right now. I don’t know how many shots they had, but it didn’t seem like a lot.” Indeed, on Saturday night, Troy Perkins faced only one shot that required a save.

On the offensive, DC United provided some of the most exciting attacking soccer of the year for the first 15 minutes before heat and humidity along with smart coaching adjustments by RSL Coach Jason Kreis slowed the pace to a calmer level.

United’s sensational young winger Andy Najar had the Salt Lake defense off balance repeatedly with aggressive and effective direct attacks. It was almost as if they believed that Najar’s sparkling goal on Wednesday had been a fluke only to realize their error just in time.

Quaranta saw it, “They understood. They put some numbers behind him. He’s gonna have to understand that in his development when that happens he’s got to play a little quicker and get it off his feet. It’s all a learning experience for him. He’s a great kid.”

His observation mirrored Onalfo’s observation about the learning process of his prodigy. Recent interviews with United players clearly shows a thorough commonality of belief in themselves, the coaches’ vision, and the steps to a successful season.

They have bought the Onalfo plan, and it appears to be a good one. I asked Quaranta about the influence of a coach that so many involved with United share, Bruce Arena, “Bruce has been a mentor for myself and also for Curt, and Benny, and Kelderman, and Simo (Mark Simpson) as well. I think we all understand that it takes a lot of effort, a lot of work. Organization and shape in this league wins games.”

At both club and National Team levels, Arena’s practices are highly organized and strictly structured. “Curt’s are too.” noted Quaranta, “He’s scientific. It’s down to the minute. Everything is well organized. The guys enjoy Curt.”

Specifically, Arena’s drills all tend to contain four elements, vision and control, at speed, under pressure. They simulate game conditions and reinforce responses and initiatives that the coach desires. A team plays best within a comfort zone in which the pace and understanding are constantly reinforced.

Quaranta clearly feels the common bond, “Curt’s the same way. He pushes and he’s a very positive guy too. The scientific part of it, he does that, but then he’s very positive. He keeps guys going and urges them on and when they have a good play, he comments on it. Guys need that.”

Returning to the subject of the tangible, United will soon see the return of Marc Burch who is already running and cutting on his nearly fully healed foot. His recovery is especially urgent as Rodney Wallace took a bone bruise in the area near his fibula. X-rays today should resolve the issue of his own recovery time, minimal if a bone bruise and more if a small fracture.

Finally, the World Cup break may allow United to acquire the major tangible they need to return to former glory, a strong creative midfielder. Is there a latter-day Etcheverry out there?