Major League Soccer is a league full of versatile players. American soccer in general seems good at producing players who are jacks of all trades rather than great specialists. Even our star players end up wandering the field like nomads: Landon Donovan has spent time on both flanks, as a forward, and as a #10. Clint Dempsey has done the same. Michael Bradley has suited up as essentially every kind of central midfielder you can think of. Geoff Cameron has played three different positions for three different teams over the last three months. The list never ends, and the utility man becomes more common the further you go down American soccer's list of talents.
The same environment that has produced all of these versatile players also produced D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen. Benny was a highly touted forward in college, using his speed to terrorize defenses. When he came to United, his former college coach Bruce Arena quickly slotted him into a right midfield role, which was the better fit for his skill set all along. He occasionally lined up at left midfield as well, and still could be called on at forward if injuries became an issue.
Later, after his two-year battle with ankle problems, Olsen returned briefly as a forward - to spare his still-healing joints from the running required in an MLS midfield - before his 2004 transformation into a box-to-box central midfielder. Olsen was arguably the most attack-minded player in the middle during the first half of that season, where he mostly played alongside Dema Kovalenko and ahead of Brian Carroll.
When Christian Gomez arrived, however, Olsen had to make further adjustments, playing a linking role between Carroll and our newly-arrived #10 (or #13, as Gomez wore in our first post-Marco Etcheverry season). In the ensuing season, that last role was Olsen's main position, but he did spend time out on the right of a 352 and a 442, as well as games here or there as both an attacking midfielder and a defensive midfielder.
Needless to say, Olsen got a first-hand look at how versatility can be a benefit, and how a player seemingly built for one job can still do another if they approach it from the right angle. Olsen's return to right midfield, for example, saw him robbed of his speed; playing much smarter soccer allowed him to compensate.
Now, let's fast forward to Ben Olsen, head coach. Slowly but surely, Olsen has been growing more confident in his abilities as a manager, and as a result he's become a bit more bold with his formation, his player selections, and the jobs he gives players on the field. Where Benny was very by-the-book when he first shed the "interim" tag for the 2011 season, he is now prone to springing surprises on opponents and fans alike. Even when you see the starting eleven, you can't be sure who is actually playing where until the team kicks off.
That's where Olsen found himself when he lost his most important player to injury a couple of weeks ago. United had just slipped into 6th place in the Eastern conference to boot. United seemed trapped, and Olsen had been robbed of his #1 way to escape such a trap. This is also essentially the plot of every MacGuyver episode: A dude with a mullet and a jean jacket gets trapped by villains, and uses unlikely items to escape and save the day.
MacGuyver had his magnesium strips and paper clips. What did Olsen have in his pocket as the time ticked down on United's 2012 season?
Marcelo Saragosa as Osvaldo Alonso clone: Before anyone starts, I'm not implying that Saragosa is as good as Alonso. Instead, I'm taking note of something that happened this past weekend when it became clear that United's flat central midfield - with Saragosa playing as the marginally more attacking player - wasn't the ideal arrangement.
Chivas USA had come out in a 4231, and were asking wide midfielders Ryan Smith and Miller Bolanos to drive into central spots with the ball. They provided some odd angles of attack, and Nick LaBrocca roamed around to open up space for them rather than stand in their way and become redundant. Having a flat midfield meant either Saragosa or Perry Kitchen was going to have to read the right time to drop deep and occupy the space Smith and Bolanos wanted to attack. It was adding another decision to a process that's already complicated.
Adding to the problem was the yellow card Saragosa picked up earlier. The referee clearly took exception to Saragosa on some level - let's assume it's a combination of something he said and his admittedly foul-happy approach - and it looked like if any player was going to get a red card, it would be Kaka's best friend.
Olsen's solution? Saragosa was tasked with dropping into more of an anchor role. This meant that there was always a United player in the space Smith and Bolanos wanted to attack, but also meant that Saragosa had more space (and thus, more time) to see what was coming. Rather than have to run towards the danger, Saragosa could simply position himself where the danger was going to be, and that meant a far lower likelihood of him picking up the second yellow card that the ref seemed to want to give him.
Finally, Saragosa knows more than Kitchen does about dictating the rhythm of a game, and part of his job in this deep spot was to facilitate possession. Once United got the lead, Saragosa started seeing a lot more of the ball. He was always there as an option for defenders - important on a team that tends to use long balls as a way to give possession to the opposition - as well as available as support for the midfield and forwards.
Perry Kitchen, forward destroyer: Saragosa couldn't just be moved backward without Kitchen also having to shift to a slightly different set of responsibilities, and normally Kitchen would be the guy going deeper. However, Saragosa's yellow card and the need to slow things down trumped the normal order of things.
Our more awesome version of MacGuyver's way of dealing with this problem was to employ Kitchen in a role we don't see often in MLS: The forward destroyer. To put it as succinctly as possible, the forward destroyer's job is to play like an old-school relentless defensive midfielder, but to do so further up the field than normal. The idea is to disrupt teams who are trying to use their own deeper players to control possession.
That's exactly what Chivas had in mind, too: Shalrie Joseph was staying rather deep, while Pete Vagenas seemed to almost never even venture into United's half. The Goats are a primarily defensive team, and their use of possession is first and foremost about keeping the ball so the other team can't attack (aside: This is one reason why possession should not be revered out of context).
As the game wore on, Robin Fraser's side were finding it easier and easier to keep the ball for long stretches, and letting them do so allowed them to play on their terms rather than the higher-paced game United prefers.
Kitchen's job was essentially to do more of the running and tackling than Saragosa, and that meant going further forward than he's used to. There were several instances where a Kitchen tackle or interception saw him in the kind of position we associate with attacking midfielders; it was notable that Kitchen had the discipline to immediately dish the ball off rather than overextend himself by falling for daydreams of killer passes and golazos. A forward destroyer must know that his game is still very much defense-first, and Kitchen intelligently kept his composure rather than chasing a rare, low-percentage chance to get on the scoresheet.
Branko Boskovic, forward...sort of: This was by far the most intriguing choice from Olsen. Boskovic was given a broadly similar role to the one Dwayne De Rosario has, where DCU's formation is still a 442 but could easily be confused with a 4411 or 4231.
When Boskovic came on against Chivas, I assumed Olsen was moving to a 4231 to allow our wingers to push higher while maintaining even or better numbers in the central midfield. Instead, judging from Boskovic's positioning throughout and Olsen's post-game press conference statement that he had "...put [Boskovic] in a position he's never played at in his life," it's safe to say that Boskovic was told to play the De Ro role.
If you read this blog regularly, you know that I think a big problem for Boskovic has been his tendency to play too deep. He's more of a threat to create and to score when he pushes high into the attack; the combinations he wants to play aren't available further from goal, and for obvious reasons being deeper means being less of a goal threat.
Olsen has figured out one solution to those issues (not to mention Boskovic's defending, which is less than enthusiastic by MLS standards), and it dovetails perfectly with our need for a more creative, skillful forward right now. The forward pair of Lionard Pajoy and Maicon Santos has been rather unremarkable, but that shouldn't be a shock. Both play the target forward role differently, but ultimately they're still more or less the same kind of player.
Boskovic, playing as a quasi-forward, gives us the different look that we've been needing without De Ro's unique combination of creativity, power, guile, and effort. Boskovic won't be playing the same way as De Ro - his game is much more subtle - but he can still offer up some De Ro-esque moments. Who ever would have thought they'd see Boskovic score his first-ever league goal by throwing himself down for a diving header in front of a rugged center back like Danny Califf? With De Ro out, Boskovic is our most skillful player, and that means a lot when you're generally playing two defensive midfielders and a target forward whose main attribute is strength.
If Olsen has truly solved the Boskovic problem rather than simply catching Fraser off guard, he'll have done something very remarkable for someone who, let's not forget, has less than three total seasons in a coaching role. I mean, how often does a player re-invent himself at this stage of his career after a difficult two-year span and an injury that required major surgery? Didn't we used to have some bearded midfielder who fit that description?