Tampa Bay Sports Day

Strong second half secures DC United a 1-1 tie

Saturday’s 1-1 tie against the reigning MLS Cup Champions demonstrated how far along Coach Ben Olsen has come in molding a young team into a pattern which served him so well as he developed as a player with DC United. They are working smarter and harder as they learn more with each game.

The team has tended for several years to play narrowly, with wide midfielders choosing very often to drive into a congested center where they lose possession. When Olsen took over last year, he continued a pattern of wider attacking that the team was already beginning to use.

The good pattern continued this year, but one still too often observed the half-width midfield and the congested central attacking lanes that cause an offense to wither. The width now often comes from overlapping wide defenders. It turns out that this is intended, at least some of the time.

Daniel Woolard who has stepped in very nicely for the injured Marc Burch, describes the rationale for Chris Pontius’ attacking inside and his assuming the wide attacking role down the left, “We do that in training. When he goes inside it’s my responsibility to get around him. It opens up the inside for him if the outside mid or the outside back comes out toward me that makes more space in the middle.”

There is some merit in that argument in that it presents the opponent with more choices he has to make, but it also places the erstwhile defender in a specifically attacking role for which only a few are well prepared.

Perry Kitchen served several good balls from the right when he got forward on Saturday, and he seems ready to be effective in an attacking role similar to the one that Bryan Namoff grew into. If Burch returns to action in the left back slot, he might provide a similar threat down that side.

It’s not quite that simple. The flaw in this strategy derives from the fundamental nature of DC United from its earliest days. A team which plays possession ball will trend heavily to a slower buildup and thereby allow opponents to clog the central attacking channels.

When wide midfielders choose the inside route too often they make the congestion worse. For years DC’s opponents have favored the quick counterattack from a semi-bunker. When congestion leads to a turnover and the wide defenders have come too far forward, an outlet pass down the wing will avoid the defenders and the goalkeeper and place the defense on its heels.

When both Charlie Davies and Josh Wolff went down with injuries in the first half against Colorado, their misfortunes may have worked to show another alternative to the congested middle. For years, Tino Quaranta has learned about the withdrawn forward position from Jaime Moreno, but rarely had a chance to play there.

On Saturday, he got that chance. Although the withdrawn forward role which favors his skills might seem to add to the problem, Quaranta’s effectiveness actually served to deter Pontius and Andy Najar from too much central play.

Quaranta’s forward pressure in defense and holding and distributing in attack allowed the wide mids to feel comfortable striking down the wings more often. Quaranta described the problem, “In the first half we were playing a 4-4-2. It looked like we were playing four guys in a flat row and they were too high.”

He went on to describe the solution, “Somebody had to drop underneath a little bit, give another option and give our team the ability to play wide and get our outside backs involved. By doing that it causes the defense a lot of problems.”

His description of the role seemed almost to describe a previous United forward, Alecko Eskandarian, “The most important thing in that position is to run, chasing defenders down, making it hard to clear balls, winning balls higher. It makes it easier for the guys behind us.”

The concept that everyone plays defense and everyone attacks is classic Bruce Arena ball; pressure, then possess, then attack, but only when it is clearly on and then very quickly with everyone involved. That is the historic United way.

With Davies resting his hamstring and Wolff happy to strengthen his groin, Quaranta may get a chance in a friendly against Dutch powerhouse Ajax next Sunday to develop some comfort in the role that for so long has seemed his best fit for DC.

Given Wolff’s age and the natural styles of other forwards, Davies, Joseph Ngwenya, and Blake Brettschneider, Olsen may have found a more deadly attacking approach.

Scoring Summary:

COL — Drew Moor 1 (unassisted) 23
DC — Chris Pontius 3 (unassisted) 62

Misconduct Summary:

COL — Drew Moor (caution; Tactical Foul) 46+
COL — Matt Pickens (caution; Delaying a Restart) 92+

Lineups:

Colorado Rapids — Matt Pickens, Marvell Wynne, Tyrone Marshall, Drew Moor, Kosuke Kimura, Jamie Smith, Jeff Larentowicz, Pablo Mastroeni, Wells Thompson (Ross LaBauex 89), Andre Akpan (Sanna Nyassi 75), Quincy Amarikwa (Conor Casey 67).
Substitutes Not Used: Danny Earls, Joseph Nane, Scott Palguta, Steward Ceus.

D.C. United — Bill Hamid, Perry Kitchen, Ethan White, Dejan Jakovic, Daniel Woolard, Andy Najar, Dax McCarty, Clyde Simms (Fred 80), Chris Pontius, Josh Wolff (Joseph Ngwenya 44), Charlie Davies (Santino Quaranta 34).
Substitutes Not Used: Blake Brettschneider, Marc Burch, Chris Korb, Steve Cronin.

Referee: Terry Vaughn
Referee’s Assistants: Steven Taylor; Jason Cullum
4th Official: Daniel Fitzgerald
Time of Game: 1:52
Attendance: 12,499
Weather: Cloudy and 66 degrees