Fixed starting XI? We don't need no stinking fixed starting XI!
For the third straight game since Dwayne De Rosario went out for the season with an MCL sprain, D.C. United won by one goal Sunday night. For the third straight game, United ran out a starting XI, and a starting formation, different from the previous game. And more interestingly, for the third straight game, a second half substitute was involved in a major way in the game-winning goal. A week ago, against the New England Revolution, it was Lewis Neal entering for Branko Boskovic to score the go-ahead tally. Thursday night at the Philadelphia Union, Boskovic again made way, this time for Maicon Santos, whose 40-yard diagonal through-ball found Chris Pontius, who crossed to Lionard Pajoy for the only goal of the night.
Sunday night in the friendly confines of RFK, against Chivas USA, Boskovic flipped the script. Let's see what's being said about the win out there in the tubes.
What They're Saying About It
Shatzer (B&RU) - The stories about Branko Boskovic write themselves. Publicly criticized by his coach, repeatedly subbed out just barely into the second half, and now finding himself on the bench to start the match. Many players would mope, or beg to return home where the playing time comes easier. That's not what Boskovic did though. He kept fighting for minutes, and when deployed in an unfamiliar advanced role, he earned himself a goal and his team a win.
Goff (Post) - The result extended United's unbeaten streak at home to 15 and forged a third-place tie with the New York Red Bulls in MLS's Eastern Conference, just five points behind front-running Sporting Kansas City. "We talked about nine points in three games as a goal," Olsen said. "You go about working toward it and then when you get it, it feels good. We've put ourselves in a pretty good position."
Cammarota (MLSS) - Against Philadelphia on Thursday, Olsen brought on Santos to replace Boskovic in the 57th minute and Santos quickly notched an assist with a beautifully-played 45-yard ball to Chris Pontius. Pontius then set up Lionard Pajoy for the game's only goal. Against New England last Saturday, the start of United's three-match winning streak, Olsen replaced Boskovic with Lewis Neal in the 56th minute, and Neal then scored the winner in a 2-1 victory. This time, instead of coming off, it was Boskovic's turn to play the hero.
Ratterree (Goat Parade) - The match started out slowly, as both teams seemed content to hang around in the middle third of the field, although D.C. had all of the early chances. Chivas didn't really have any attacking intent until the last 10 minutes of the first half, but while they had numerous crosses and set pieces, they had only one shot on goal all match.
Webb (UM) - United has four matches remaining, three of them on the road. "That's been our Achilles Heel," head coach Ben Olsen commented after the match in regards to his teams road performances this season, "But we got that monkey off our back in Philadelphia and look forward to this two-game stretch (at Portland and at Toronto FC)." United will play in Portland next Saturday night before heading up to Canada to play Toronto FC the following weekend. United will be off the week of the October 13th for the World Cup qualifying break and then will host Columbus at RFK Stadium in United's last home match of the season on October 20th. By that time, all will be revealed and United will know exactly what they need to either qualify or move up the table in the chase for higher playoff seeding.
My thoughts after the jump.
What I'm Saying About It
Boskovic is obviously going to be the story among the big part of the Internet that's not focused on D.C. United to an unhealthy degree. But Martin and the commenters had the right of it in our recap: Dejan Jakovic was the man of the match. He quite literally did not put a foot wrong all night, blocking a late shot inside the 6-yard box and making another clearance from that zone, completing 34 passes while only missing 2 and essentially locking down our left-center channel, all while committing precisely zero fouls on the night. When we used to talk about the Canadian international's high ceiling, this is what we were talking about.
When Benny Olsen talked about players needing to step up their game in the wake of De Rosario's injury, most of the focus - rightly - was on the attack. Chris Pontius, Maicon Santos, Lionard Pajoy, Nick DeLeon: these were the guys who would have to replace DeRo's production and creativity. But maybe we should have been looking farther back on the field, to the defense. In the three games, United have given up just a single goal, and the pairing of Jakovic and Brandon McDonald (combined with some great saves by Bill Hamid, though none of them came last night) has to be given credit.
This is a different team without De Rosario. But as of today, it's on track to be a playoff team, and the defense is a big, big part of the reason why.
- Bill Hamid got over his nerves/nonchalance/whatever-it-was from the Philly game, looking appropriately confident and strong between the pipes. Thankfully he wasn't called on as he was in our last couple games, though, only having to make one save to preserve the clean sheet.
- I've already hit on the center backs, but it bears repeating just how great Jakovic in particular was. McDonald also had a good game (a few trademark Long Balls to Nobody In Particular notwithstanding), but it's going to be overshadowed by his partner's showing.
- Andy Najar came so close to breaking through the Chivas left a few different times. He's got to be the best thing about the double-pivot we've been trotting out - the extra cover in the center of midfield has allowed our center backs to spread wider while we're in possession. This has a double effect: it let's us switch field more quickly and easily, and it gives our fullbacks license to bomb up their respective flanks. It's still a work in progress, though, as the Goats did counter into the space vacated by Najar and Chris Korb on a few occasions, but the rest of the Black-and-Red defense was there to clean up.
- I wonder if Marcelo Saragosa slept with referee Jose Carlos Rivero's ex or something. The Brazilian defensive midfielder seemed to be getting whistled for things that players on both teams were otherwise getting away with. This culminated in a yellow card for accumulation on a play that looked from my seat like it was Saragosa who was fouled, not the other way around.
- I love confident Nick DeLeon. When he's cutting inside to take multiple long-range efforts on his weaker left foot, you know we've got a confident Nick DeLeon on our hands. I'd love to see him combine a bit more with Najar in the final third, or else take people on a bit more often, but all quibbling aside, I love confident Nick DeLeon.
- Pajoy needs to celebrate his next goal - and I have a feeling there will be a next goal for him this season - by pulling up his jersey to reveal a U MAD BRO? shirt. Despite his hold-up play, which is almost as good as any that we've gotten this year, and his admirable defensive work rate, the Colombian has a way of making frustrating play after frustrating play, and then once he's managed to lose the confidence of every single United fan, he goes and creates, or scores, a game-winner. Trollololol away, Mr. Pajoy. He did it again last night, trying to settle a ball in the box that he should have volleyed and turning the ball over a couple times before eventually holding off two defenders with his footwork and beating them to cross for Boskovic's tally. Trollololol, indeed.
United came out again last night in the flat-ish 4-4-2, with Perry Kitchen and Marcelo Saragosa lined up in the center of the park. Chivas USA did the same thing, but with Shalrie Joseph and, especially, Peter Vagenas sitting much deeper. After United's blistering first half hour (where we were probably a bit unlucky not to be up), Chivas settled down and were content to knock the ball around the back, letting Vagenas sit between the center backs and pick out passes. United seemingly wanted to sit back and counter - a strategy that worked gangbusters in the team's final meeting last season, to the tune of a 3-0 road win for the capital club - but the Goats never committed any numbers forward.
I think this is what led to Lionard Pajoy's seemingly constant waving teammates forward to press the Goats at the end of the first half and into the second. United ceded 58% of possession to the visitors - though Chivas never managed to turn that possession into anything - and when you're playing at home (especially when you're a high-work-rate forward), you don't want to be playing that much defense for such long stretches.
Ben Olsen might have agreed with Pajoy's take, as he pulled forward Maicon Santos to insert attacking midfielder Branko Boskovic. We know how that worked out on the attacking end, but it also gave United better numbers in midfield and allowed the outside mids to push up a bit more in defense as well (knowing that the d-mids would be staying deep with Boskovic in the area ahead of them). Boskovic also occupied some of the space Vagenas had been exploiting, denying him as much time to key the Rojiblanco possession game. In the end, what really matters was that Boskovic's late run from midfield onto Pajoy's cross also blind-sided Danny Calif, allowing him to beat the big center back to the ball on his diving header and net the game-winner.
In any event, Ben Olsen is on an almost Bob Bradley-esque streak of getting the in-game changes right, even if the opening tactics weren't quite spot on: three substitutes creating three game winning goals. He's stepping up his game, too.