I’ve been beating the drum of late about how even the red-hot Sporting Kansas City should be frightened of us, and seeing as how we just drew at home with the Seattle Sounders and were a bit fortunate to beat the New England Revolution on the road, I want to explore the subject a little more deeply. I haven’t lost one bit of my confidence in where this team is headed, and I want to get on record before tonight's Montreal Impact game, because the journey starts in earnest now.
Since the FC Dallas match, I’ve been pondering what was so revelatory for me about D.C. United’s performance that night. Some of my elation at the time appears to stem from my interpretation of FCD’s performance; I didn’t (and don’t) agree with the common wisdom that Dallas was tired, poor, a huddled mass yearning to get the hell out of RFK. But looking back, I don’t think that the quality of the opponent is what matters here. United displayed several qualities that evening that were not in evidence at the start of the season, let alone last year:
This is the basic point that everyone took away from the FCD game. Hey, look, instead of having three quality attackers and several question marks, we’ve got six quality attackers (plus the Rapid Vienna Enigmas)! And oh by the way, two starter-grade young goalies instead of just one. On this basis alone, 2012 DCU moved past 2011 DCU in just about everyone’s estimation.
But the key thing about the excellent performances put in that evening by Nick DeLeon, Maicon Santos, and Danny Cruz wasn’t the four goals they scored; it was the way they went about creating those goals. Santos and Cruz were very effective at disrupting Dallas’ build-up from the back, and it wasn’t just a case of being energetic - they were both highly observant and alert, anticipating the play and forcing errors. DeLeon, meanwhile, demonstrated a very cerebral style in all respects: finding space, making the smart pass, faking out defenders, and never losing track of his surroundings. DeLeon and Santos both also displayed the ability to control the ball in traffic, which isn’t surprising for a Brazilian but was an eye-opener for an American collegian.*
If I wanted to summarize why Santino Quaranta was considered surplus to requirements here, I would point to the above paragraph and simply observe that Tino had none of these qualities. These skills do not grow on trees. They are also inordinately important over the longer haul for a team that wants to win consistently. The concern everyone is repeatedly voicing about whether the team can perform well week in and week out is understandable, but I think these players have already demonstrated that they have the right qualities to make it work.
Adding this much soccer IQ to the squad in a single offseason was a huge win for management.
*Cruz, in his own way, also controls the ball well in traffic, but not by what we normally call "technique." Rather, he is so good at alertly reacting to the movement of the ball and to his marker that he can achieve the same result by winning, then losing, then re-winning, then re-losing, than re-re-winning the ball in the span of 2-5 seconds. This is a large part of what makes Cruz a winger and not a center mid - the effect of his superior mental agility is magnified near the sideline, where space is at a premium and reflexes count more than planning, while his pinball plays are much more dangerous in the middle of the field, where a loss of possession will lead to open-field running for the opponent.
And then there is the cornucopia of attacking options now available to Ben Olsen as he brings the team together over time. Everybody is bringing good things to the table, and the sheer number of combinations is dizzying. We have a team that can score goals in any way: finesse dribbling, sophisticated passing, power shots from outside, dragging defenders out of position, hassling defenders into turnovers, fast breaks in behind the defense… perhaps the only tool not in Benny’s arsenal is an attacker who can truly dominate in the air.
When married to the improved intelligence, I feel safe in saying that there’s no way this team is going to have problems scoring in the long run. We’re still watching the players learn how to best combine these possibilities, and that means quite a bit of misfiring; but these guys are going to figure it out, they’re too good at observing the game not to. And as they do, you’re going to see a rolling avalanche come into existence. Even with the league-wide improvement in talent and depth of MLS 2.0, defenses at this level simply aren’t going to be able to cope.
The Dallas game was the first time in a while I can recall DCU (A) confronting physical opposition and a congested game with lots of 50/50 balls, (B) fighting that fire with fire, and (C) winning.
DCU showed two different forms of mental fortitude, one just in that match and one in all of the games in this unbeaten run. In all the recent games, we are seeing a much steadier effort, a fairly constant push for 90 minutes. Allowing a soft goal isn’t shaking the team up, and they aren’t taking breaks. This was a basic objective of management’s offseason overhaul, and clearly it has been achieved.
The other form, and the one we’re all waiting to see more of, is the will to finish. I remember shouting after D.C.’s second goal against FCD, "They are disorganized and they are weak. Kill! Kill!" And it was wonderful to see them do precisely that. But on this point, and this one alone, I remain somewhat cautious in my evaluation, because the FCD game could have been a complete fluke in this regard. We won’t really have enough evidence one way or the other until August at the earliest.
It’s going to be a little while yet before the regular beatings commence. We overuse the term "chemistry" to cover "things we don’t understand", but teams clearly benefit from experience playing together… Sporting KC is exhibit A this season, a team that has been playing the same way with basically the same personnel for over a year now and is reaping the benefits in a league full of personnel changes.
But commence they will. Sure, everybody gets euphoric after a big win, but mine is not an empty optimism. I wasn’t moved by the outcome, I was moved by the process. The ingredients are right, the recipe is right, and there’s no evidence that the intangibles are missing. I remain convinced this team is the class of the East, and will go at least to the conference finals.
The road is open. Time to drive it. Vamos!