Dwayne De Rosario's injury leaves D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen with some big choices in terms of his starting eleven. Investigating the most likely solutions to the most difficult problem United has faced in 2012.
First of all: Put your sword down. That includes machetes, Mr. Levein. We can't just cut this thing in half.
D.C. United has a big problem: Dwayne De Rosario has an MCL issue of some unknown severity. He'll have an MRI when he gets back to the DMV, but until then it's safe to assume that Ben Olsen is going to have to do without his best player for at least the next two or three games.
Since De Ro's arrival from those jerks from Jersey, United's record without him in the starting eleven is as bad as you might have expected: 0W-0D-4L, with only 2 goals scored. Most MLS teams would struggle without their key attacking player, but when you factor in De Ro's leadership on a young team and the fact that he's creative - rather than just skillful - on a team that can sometimes lack ideas, doing your best Chicken Little impression is defensible.
With United one point out of the playoffs and only seven games left in the regular season, there's no time to ride out the storm and hope to pick up the points we'll need once De Ro returns. United has to get points right now in any circumstance. Saturday's game against the New England Revolution - one win in their last eleven games, but also unbeaten in their last three - is a game playoff teams find a way to win, even if their best player can't go.
Saying United should win is easy, though. Figuring out how to replace the straw that stirs the drink is the problem here, and Olsen will have a lot of tough choices in terms of personnel and shape. Can Chris Pontius take this team on his back? Can Nick DeLeon cover a larger share of the creative responsibilities? Could erratic players like Branko Boskovic or Maicon Santos come up with the goods when United needs them? The trick for Olsen will be to make sure that these questions have positive answers.
De Ro's role of late has involved roving around and underneath Lionard Pajoy. With Marcelo Saragosa getting starts as a second defensive midfielder over the past few games, De Ro has had to carry more of the creative load than before. Before we explore Olsen's potential formation changes, we should take note of where we were as of Tuesday night:
With that in mind, here are the most likely options Benny will be considering:
Shuffle the 442: The double pivot 442 remains in place, but with multiple new roles: Pontius moves from left midfield to forward; DeLeon goes over to the left side of midfield; Najar's transition to marauding right back is delayed while he stays at right midfield; and right back is covered by either Robbie Russell (who played both of the past week's reserve matches against Montreal following a spell on the sidelines with plantar fasciitis), Chris Korb, or one of the center backs.
Russell is the best choice at right back, especially since Korb is our left back until Daniel Woolard returns from his concussion or until Mike Chabala gets up to speed, which is somehow taking forever.
The key to this being a success will be DeLeon. He'll have to take on a more creative role, which he can do (he ran the attack for last year's high-quality Louisville Cardinals side despite playing on the wing). Pontius and Najar will obviously have to deliver more big plays than usual, but the cleverness with the ball and the chutzpah will principally come from DeLeon.
Pajoy's hold-up play will be sorely tested as well. His target role could be a big plus for the aforementioned trio if he can successfully dish the ball off to runners on a regular basis.
There's another wrinkle to this one if Olsen wants to keep Najar at right back, but it would mean a start for Lewis Neal at left midfield. If Olsen notices a team that doesn't defend crosses well, Neal's more traditional approach to wide midfield might be handy to have around. There's also the possibility that Russell isn't 100% fit yet to consider.
Shuffle the 442 (alternate): The other way this idea could go would involve Boskovic playing from - rather than on - the left. DeLeon would stay on the right, and Najar would be free to play right back.
It would add a pretty intriguing wrinkle, as Boskovic would be playing the role he sometimes played for Montenegro. MLS teams don't often have a true playmaker stationed on the wing, but it can be effective simply due to defenses not being used to it. It would help quite a bit if Korb can overlap effectively down the left, as that maintains enough width for Boskovic to do his thing (assuming the dangerous Boskovic has turned up, which at this point appears to be totally unpredictable).
The real source of width on the left, though, would come from Pontius. Party Boy would have to take something of a Fabian Espindola approach to his role up front. Rather than always playing underneath Pajoy - which would crowd the area Boskovic would tend to drift towards - Pontius would often turn up wide left. Essentially, he and Boskovic would take turns being the guy wide on the left, and when Pontius moved to the wing he'd be more like a left forward in a front three than a second forward in a 442.
While I really like this idea as a theory, it would probably take weeks of dedicated work to get right, and that kind of time is a luxury we don't posses right now. Still, soccer can be a type of alchemy. Sometimes things just work as if by magic. Who else remembers Christian Gomez turning up mid-season in 2004 and instantly being the perfect fit in a complicated role (sharing #10 responsibilities with Jaime Moreno while also providing a goal threat as the third man into the attack)? There's no reason that should have worked out instantaneously, but that's soccer.
Boskovic returns to the role we thought he'd play all season: This would require bringing back the 4132, which seems like a popular move amongst our readers right now. Boskovic would replace Saragosa, and we'd see either Pontius up top with Najar and DeLeon on the wings, or possibly a true two-striker combo (Pajoy with Santos/Tan/Salihi, Pontius at left midfield, Najar at right back).
Russell's return fitness and the need for some extra skill in the midfield without De Ro makes me think we're more likely to see Najar in the midfield, which means Pontius will have to start banging in the goals as a second forward. This strikes me as the most likely formation to expect against the Revs, simply because we've played it before. It will still depend a lot on DeLeon providing some ballsy play going forward, but the responsibility of creating chances with passes would be mostly on Boskovic.
The other option Olsen would have here would be using Pontius in the midfield, playing Najar at right back - where he'd have to be more cautious with only one defensive midfielder available to cover - and deploying a second striker up top with Pajoy. Maicon Santos would make it a pretty daunting duo physically, but are we talking about Santos or Mike Sanders? Long Tan will run himself into the ground for his teammates, but in this formation he'd eventually have some chances fall his way; can he finish well enough?
Most notably, Hamdi Salihi doesn't have Olsen's trust these days despite being our sharpest finisher. I've heard the argument that Salihi can't play alongside a target man, but I disagree. Salihi is a poacher; he'll find a way to work off a target man, and he'll probably be happy to not have to do all the hold-up work himself. The last time we saw Salihi play alongside a target for any serious amount of time, it's worth noting that Santos set him up for a goal against the Richmond Kickers in the US Open Cup.
Yes, it's a lower level of competition, but the point is that Salihi can play alongside a target man without becoming redundant. I have my doubts about whether it's being considered, but I think it should be. Salihi's ability to turn chances into goals will help cover a lot of other flaws up on a team that will have a few without De Ro around.
Change formations to a 4231: Let's get crazy! Boskovic returns but plays higher upfield - something I've been saying he needs to do forever, as that's where he's most effective - but Saragosa doesn't lose his place. Instead, DeLeon and Pontius push high as wingers, Boskovic plays the high point in front of Saragosa and Perry Kitchen, and Pajoy continues to play the role he seems to want (back-to-goal set-up man).
This is a pretty intriguing idea, especially once you factor in Najar bombing forward. The presence of Kitchen and Saragosa makes that more safe; in the 4132, Najar would have to rein himself in a bit due to having fewer players available to cover him and slow the opposition down if there's a turnover.
On the other hand, it would put a lot of eggs in the Boskovic basket, and we simply never know what we'll get from our enigmatic #8. He could be brilliant; Brankostock only happened because Boskovic played his top-of-the-diamond spot with aggression. One would assume he'd play with that same level of freedom knowing he has two minders underneath him.
It could also go poorly. Imagine what our attack would look like if Boskovic drifted back as he often does, only this time into even more of a crowd. The results would be ugly. As anyone who saw the 2-1 loss for the United States at Jamaica would note, a three-man central midfield can quickly become a disaster if everyone is occupying the same space. A 4231 only works for United if Boskovic can commit to staying up high and making himself into a goal threat with that powerful left foot.
Olsen has not played 4231 this season, but he did it in last year's season-ending home game against Sporting Kansas City. On that occasion, he played De Ro as a false nine. This time around, he'd be calling on Pajoy to play as a true target forward, and his hold-up play would be vital to get the attacking midfield trio involved.
A final note: All of these formations only matter so much. The most important thing United will need to do without De Ro is to get the little details right. That means avoiding turnovers, staying mobile as an attack, and it most certainly means defending well. Without De Ro, we're a less threatening team in the attack; that means we're going to need to make wins out of fewer goals.
Our games may become more tense and are more likely to be decided by a mistake here or there, because we don't have Superman turning up to save the day. We can't afford plays off defensively, and we're probably going to have to convert our chances at a higher rate because they won't come as easily.
Let us know what formation you like down in the comments. You're also free to tell us how your "De Ro is injured, we are doomed" freak-out is going.