Tampa Bay Sports Day

DC United still seeks the missing link

It’s a cliché, but it’s true. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. For DC United, that link has been the defense. The uncompensated loss of Bryan Namoff and the injury pileup in defense have unsettled the overall dynamic of the team.

Take the two most recent losses in which the team seemed to play well only to have critical defensive lapses prove their undoing. Against New England, Branko Boskovic failed to adequately mark Pat Phelan, who scored the winning goal. The lack of strong defenders left the DC United coaching staff with no choice but to assign a fundamentally creative player to a specific defensive task.

Against FC Dallas, Dejan Jakovic, who is a defender by trade and talent, found himself in a superior position yet was outmaneuvered by Jeff Cunningham to stifle what had been a nice United recovery. This lapse was uncharacteristic of Jakovic, but can be laid to his coming off a hamstring injury with a consequently weaker sense of the game as he rejoins the fray.

At no time during the season has United had a consistent set of defenders. To his credit, ex-coach Curt Onalfo adjusted his formation to the sad reality by using two defensive/holding midfielders. The defense actually held up fairly well, but the offense went begging as the transition game failed in the now less creative midfield.

With the arrival of creative help in Boskovic and Pablo Hernandez, the coaching staff had to make a fateful decision. The midfield would lose a defender. The weak link moved a back a notch and the game got a bit more creative. The last two outings have seen a quicker, more dangerous, and more entertaining DC attack.

The dearth of goals from that attack can be laid to two causes, the greater of which is that United’s players have not moved as well off the ball as necessary. Despite showing a clear desire to transition quickly into attack, each United player with the ball is too easily closed down as teammates fail to move swiftly enough to open up passing sequences.

Some of that can be laid to a proper earlier emphasis on defensive responsibilities and the remainder to a lack of confidence as the team slips further into the cellar. If Jakovic continues to recover game fitness and Jed Zayner steps up as hoped, enough balance may be restored to allow a fully functional team.

As this season has progressed, United has gradually improved in its use of the full width of the field. Yet, against Dallas, they moved the game to almost half width after the Dallas goal in the 36th minute. The second half saw some improvement and some reward as United finally got their first MLS goal since July 18th courtesy of Dallas’ Jair Benitez, who poked the ball into his own net while defending the hard charge of Andy Najar.

On Sunday, the Philadelphia Union will come to town with DC Alumni Peter Nowak, Fred, and Andrew Jacobson. While United will be grateful for a bit less foot speed than they faced against Dallas, they can count on a disciplined and mentally quick Union team.

Alejandro Moreno will bear watching as he probes for weaknesses and Fred will have a chance to show the team that traded him that he can create and convert danger from midfield. Nowak is an intelligent coach and if he has balanced Fred’s dribbling prowess with other Union players’ runs, United may a have another difficult day.

On the other hand, Jakovic is a week stronger, newly acquired Jed Zayner should be ready to deliver on his promise, and a bit better off the ball running may open up the game and score sheet for United.