If you check around for the opinions of most MLS pundits, D.C. United has 90 minutes to scale Mount Everest. Down 3-1 thanks to a barrage of bad luck (Ricardo Salazar, being forced to use all three substitutions for injured players, and a very sharp finish from, of all people, young Houston Dynamo right back Kofi Sarkode) and mistakes (shutting off on the quick free kick that made it 1-1). While it would be foolish to brush this off as crazy talk, things have gotten a little out of hand. It's not like United lost 5-0 and will have to sign academy players just to field a full eleven this Sunday.
Thinking about how to approach this game, I was reminded of a bit of history that any long-time soccer obsessive in the English-speaking world is probably aware of: The 1988-1989 title-deciding match between Arsenal and Liverpool in England. This was before the days of the Premier League (the English top division back then was called - get this! - the First Division), and has been made famous by Nick Hornby's book "Fever Pitch."
Let me set the stage and see if it sounds familiar: It was the last day of the season. Arsenal had to win by two goals (2-0, 5-3, or anything else) or more to seize the title; a one-goal win would see Liverpool lift the trophy instead. The newspapers, writing off the Gunners, carried headlines like "You Haven't Got A Prayer, Arsenal."
Now, imagine those circumstances, and how you'd react if your team were in that same situation and the head coach sent out his squad in a new-look 541 for the big game. Take a second to let your blood pressure come down. Even in the dour period soccer was in during the late 80s and early 90s, playing a 541 was hyper-defensive. It was a safe bet if you were trying to scrape out a 0-0 draw, but winning 2-0 over a good team?
(Aside: My getting hooked on soccer as something beyond the sport I played started with me and my dad watching tape-delayed Italia '90 matches on HTS, which is just astounding because that World Cup was likely the most ugly, negative, and chippy that has ever been held. It's like picking your favorite band after hearing their worst song).
Arsenal manger George Graham had something figured out, however: Playing open soccer carries risks with it, and needing to win by two goals - particularly in a day when your average match basically only had two goals scored - meant that conceding at any point would probably kill their hopes. It also means that your opponent likely knows that there will be great chances to play on the counterattack. Letting up a goal in the first half to go behind 1-0 would essentially turn Mount Everest into Olympus Mons topped with Mount Everest topped with a pack of angry bears.
Graham knew that, barring some absurd good luck, Arsenal would have to take risks at some point to win the game. However, he preferred to lower the number of minutes his team might face the possibility of giving up a killer goal, and instead focused on getting the best out of his team despite the 541. He ordered his fullbacks to jump into the attack, thus forcing Liverpool's wide midfielders - they were in a customary 442 - to spend their time defending. That extra help also meant Arsenal's four midfielders could smother the possession-heavy Liverpool midfield, breaking up their foe's style of play.
The result? Arsenal kept the first half clean sheet just like Graham wanted, and then began playing a more risky game in the second half. They got the first goal in the 52nd minute on a set piece, but headed into stoppage time still in need of one more goal. What followed is one of the most famous play-by-play calls in soccer; the American equivalent would be Ian Darke talking us through Landon Donovan's stoppage-time winner against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup.
Arsenal midfielder Michael Thomas fought through an attempted block to get in alone on goal before slotting home a 91st minute title-winning goal. Until this past season's nerve-shredding last-moment triumph by Manchester City, it was considered the greatest end to an English season ever. If you want the full experience, here's a ten-minute cut of the live TV broadcast (featuring anachronisms like the benches having only two players, and the backpass being a perfectly legal maneuver).
The point here isn't to embrace Arsenal's triumph; all my club soccer eggs are in a Black-and-Red basket. The point is to take a lesson from George Graham. United can't start prepping RFK for another MLS Cup final after 45 minutes, but we can certainly dig an even deeper hole. If United comes out in desperation mode from kickoff, Houston will likely punish us. 3-1 is bad, but giving up a first-half goal to go down 4-1 would more or less end our hopes.
United's approach instead needs to be similar to most of our home games, where we won by two or more goals on six different occasions this year. Despite what some more pessimistic fans and neutrals may be thinking, this is not a team that has struggled to score goals at home. DC finished the season with 37 goals in 17 home games, good for a 2.18 average per game and also the second-best total in MLS in 2012.
Yes, United needs to be positive. Yes, Graham's way of doing things was probably extreme (not to mention that it took place in an era where subs were mostly used for fresh legs and not for tactics, which is not something Dominic Kinnear will do). Naturally we'd all like to see United go up 1-0 before the 52nd minute, and surely we should not enter stoppage time needing a goal to stay alive (remember Christian Gomez getting called for a handball in 2007?).
It's not just about having the belief to stick to our guns and stay with what has worked. It's also about the situation. Desperation soccer in MLS means lots of long, high crosses from deep in hopes of a forward winning a header or some kind of scramble resulting. There is no team in MLS more at home in those circumstances than the Houston Dynamo, whose center backs would absolutely love to see us feed them a steady diet of headers to go win.
Need an example? Go look up Houston's 1-0 loss at Sporting Kansas City. Much was made of KC's 20 shots attempted - as if this was at all a departure for the shoot first, aim second Sporks - but what no one brought up was that KC put just four shots on goal in a game they had to win by two. Seven KC shots came from outside the box, and their only consistent long-range threat (Graham Zusi) had none of them. The Dynamo mostly kept KC in front of them, and even the headers Sporting did win were always heavily contested (hence KC putting just one of six headed shot attempts on goal).
And that's KC, a team that loves to go hyper-direct and contest headers. The Sporks play a very different game from United, and it happened to match the way Houston prefers to defend quite well. Contrast that with how things looked in the opening half-hour in Houston for us: Our movement off the ball and passing on the ground were what put us up 1-0 and left the Dynamo scrambling.
Being overeager is not a recipe for success for this United squad. That applies to everything: The choices our individual players make, the players that Ben Olsen chooses, and the formation he puts them in. A 4132 may be forced upon us due to the injury to Marcelo Saragosa, but that's a formation that had huge issues with anyone playing a 433 (the formation the Dynamo went to when Adam Moffat was subbed out, and the formation in which they scored all of their goals in). It's not that all 4132s will struggle with all 433s; it's that our personnel in a 4132 has struggled with every competently-run 433 we've seen all season. The 4231, if we can maintain it without having to send out guys like Stephen King or make crazy changes to our back four, is still likely the best way for our available players to win this game.
Now, if United is stuck at 0-0 coming into the second half, you'll see adjustments quickly. If we're in the 4231, you'll probably see Hamdi Salihi or Maicon Santos come in for Marcelo Saragosa. You'll see Olsen take chances on recovering players like Dwayne De Rosario or Chris Pontius. You could even see a switch to a back three if the grains in the hourglass start to really look like they're running out.
When there's no time for anything but desperation, we should get desperate. However, when there's 90 minutes to play, that time is not at the opening whistle. I'll say it again: We can't win this game in the first half, but we can sure as hell lose it. A patient, calm approach will allow us to play our brand of soccer; a nervy, hectic outlook will see us start to play the way the Dynamo want us to play, and that's a recipe for defeat.