DC United have enjoyed some early success, a renaissance in many ways, and has rejuvenated an often unrealistic but supremely loyal and passionate fan base.
United (8-4-3, 27 points) have won four or their last five matches, including the final three all at home, and sit atop the Eastern Conference table, a point ahead of New York. In those final two games however, United have been creaky, surviving on opportunism and little bit of guile and it finally caught up to them last week with a dreadful 2-1 loss to the Philadelphia Union in the U.S. Open Cup at the Maryland SoccerPlex.
That match was a heated affair from the opening kick and the same two teams will take to squared circle again this Saturday, this time at PPL Park. The teams combined for 43 fouls, five yellow cards and two ejections in the 120-minute match and there definitely could have been more in all three of those categories.
But the soccer part-dysfunctional and aimless at best-is what concerned head coach Ben Olsen more than the loss and he let everyone know that it was unacceptable.
“I’ll look at myself first and our staff first, but we have to realize that that’s not good enough. Too many guys were on their own page today. We were cute all over the field. We thought it was going to be enough to step out here and beat a team because they were a little down on their luck. Maybe it’s a good thing because this really does show us that we’re not as good as we think we are,” Olsen ranted after the loss.
“All the little things that got us success up and to this point – we forgot about tonight. There were signs that we were forgetting about that over the last couple games and we have been squeaking by. Tonight we didn’t squeak by and it’s a good thing,” he continued.
Olsen had the same displeased and despondent look on his face the entire first half, shaking his head in disbelief at what he was watching, even after Josh Wolff brought the game to level terms in the 44th minute, seconds after the Union had taken a well deserved lead.
“But, you know what, maybe it’s a good reminder to the players and a good reminder to myself that we need to get back to working hard and doing some of the things that got us some success. At the end of the day, this game is a perfect reminder of what we can’t do, the attitude we can’t come to a game with.”
So what can they do to stay atop the table or at least secure a playoff spot, their first in four years.
United is very deep and more importantly, their depth is versatile but someone has to step up and take some of the pressure off Dwayne De Rosario, not only with responsibilities in the flow of play, but afford him and the team the ability to cut his minutes.
As the league heads into its unofficial “second” season, where the mercury tips off at over 85 degrees with high humidity on a regular basis in Washington and it gets even higher in Houston, Dallas and Kansas City, De Rosario will need a break. Though a supremely well conditioned athlete at 34-years old, I am sure he is also planning on a long run with Canada in World Cup qualifying, adding more games and more minutes to his ledger for the term.
Wolff is savvy with a high soccer IQ but is clearly not comfortable in the attacking midfield spot. Branko Boskovic has been very good in the middle but has not been able to get in a full 90 minutes after coming off of ACL surgery on his knee. While he is technically and tactically excellent, he does not have the grit and killer mentality of De Rosario. However, Olsen has used him in the middle and pushed De Rosario up top to minimize his energy expenditure and overall the results have been acceptable but not ideal.
Boskovic’s contract expires in July and though team President Kevin Payne has said he is overall happy with the team and sees no significant moves being made, he makes a lot of money. As many players do, especially ones with children, they like Washington, start laying roots and want to stay. But with the stringent MLS salary cap, a contract at over $400,000 a year and clearly not at full speed after the injury, he may be too expensive to keep at his current production rate.
That was the coaching staff’s mantra at the start the season and so far they are on that path and it must continue for their overall short and long term success. After dropping their season opener 1-0 to Kansas City, United are undefeated in their last eight games (6-0-2) at RFK Stadium and have scored 19-goals that also included a scoreless draw with Seattle.
The rickety old stadium, an even hotter oven in the summer than many of the other venues in the league due to its architecture, used to be a fortress and an intimidating place to play but not so much in recent years. United had been 7-16-9 at the stadium heading into this season so the current results would have to be considered an anomaly so far.
Goalkeeper Bill Hamid was called into the National Team and promptly got a red card for a stupid decision in a 3-1 win against Toronto. The overall performance against Philadelphia showed this team that they can’t take even a play off at any point during a game-or hopefully for their sake it does.
There are a lot of young players on this team that are used to winning and they may think it will just automatically continue because it has so far- not a good mentality for winning in this league.
There is a fine line between cockiness and arrogance. Anyone that is good at anything is arrogant but in a good way. Bad arrogance is overbearing, self absorbed and cold, all to hide the true insecurities within. Good arrogance is being self assured, having the right attitude, mentality and skills to be great without having the undying compulsion to let the world know about it. It’s never forgetting that the details are what make you great and working harder and smarter than the other guy on a daily basis is a requirement and responsibility of a professional.
As much as he likes Andy Najar, Olsen needs more than a couple of assists from the young Honduran. If he is mad at not being invited to Honduras’ camp for their upcoming qualifiers, get over it and play better. Olsen need Najar to stay wide and be a threat in the attacking third and responsible at the other end, but frankly, he is not the only one where this would be applicable. And shoot the ball!
De Rosario and Maicon Santos lead United in goals (8 and 7 respectively) and not coincidentally, they are both top five in the league in shots. De Rosario is fourth with 44, while Santos is just a step behind in fifth with 43 shots but has done it in 433 less minutes and two less games.
Shoot the ball!
While the concept of an ideal starting XI has been bantered about, especially when heading into the playoffs, this is not going to happen with Olsen. This is not his old United teams where all of those players could play any way the match called in any circumstance, any time. These players are good but not necessarily suited to do that.
Olsen has a bevy of options all based on who and where they are playing, any rest factor and most importantly the game plan and he wants to go about the game. He wants to utilize his players skills and put them in spots where they can succeed.
But one spot in particular needs sorting out: central defense.
Brandon McDonald has played every minute of every game for which he has been available, Dejan Jakovic is coming back from Canadian National Team duty and Emiliano Dudar has had some nagging injuries so it’s convoluted.
Olsen could go situational with them but each has a compelling attribute and one combination has proven to be very insightful and steady.
McDonald is the best tackler of the lot, is more physically imposing but substandard on the ball other than a long ball clearance and prone to letting his emotions consume him as evidenced by his red card in the U.S. Open Cup match for punching a Union player in the face
But the combination of Dudar and Jakovic are the most fluid and reliable though certainly not the most intimidating tackling combination, which is often needed in this league. Dudar is intelligent in his challenges, commands the air and is composed on the ball, as is Jakovic, both to the point of seeming too casual.
One additional thing…enough with the Chad Ashton halftime pep talks on the field! Again against Philadelphia, they had the meeting and came out flat and awful. If there is going to be a speech it should be done by the head coach-one voice, one message! More on this at the end of the season…
Chris Webb from UnitedMania.com and Alex Caudana from WTOP Radio in Washington contributed to this story.
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