When we're looking at formations, central midfield is where the changes usually are. Teams don't go from 4231 to 3412 to maintain their central midfield trio, for example. If you're the third-best guy in that situation, you get dropped so that the back four can be maintained.
So it was for D.C. United in 2012. Much of the season saw us play a 4132 with Perry Kitchen playing deep. The attacking midfield role was supposed to go to Branko Boskovic, but the emergence of Maicon Santos and the extra games given to Hamdi Salihi in an attempt to let him fit in often saw Bodkin get dropped, with Dwayne De Rosario playing in the midfield instead.
Later in the season, Marcelo Saragosa pushed his way into the squad - thanks in part to the decision to move Andy Najar to right back - and formed a double-pivot 442 alongside Kitchen. This further evolved when De Ro was injured, as United often opted for a a 4231 during the stretch run where the Black-and-Red were piling up points but not really providing much entertainment.
So how does this apply for 2013? Will the probable addition of John Thorrington change things? What about the return of guys like Lance Rozeboom (from injury) and Conor Shanosky (from a season-long loan with the NASL's Ft. Lauderdale Strikers)? Let's get into it:
Depth chart: Perry Kitchen, Marcelo Saragosa, Lance Rozeboom, John Thorrington (?), Conor Shanosky, Lewis Neal, Brandon McDonald, Robbie Russell
Naturals: Kitchen, Saragosa, Shanosky (arguably)
I'm comfortable with where we are here. Kitchen has not at all plateaued; if anything, he actually began developing faster as the season wore on and the games got more important. I've said it before about him, and I'll say it again: The sky is the limit for him. Kitchen's ability to read plays and snuff them out without having to chase someone down for a tackle is coming along nicely, and his comfort with the ball has grown to the point that he now has more time, which in turn means more options to play attacking passes rather than simply moving the ball onto the next player.
Saragosa fought his way into the team as the season wore on, and he turned out to be a classic example of a player's character allowing him to make more of an impact than simply what he can and can't do with the ball. While I do see him as a player that needs replacing as a starter - I want to get away from the double-pivot and add an all-action sort of player who can provide more goals - I am quite comfortable with him as a regularly-appearing substitute who makes 10 starts or so over the course of the season.
If Boomer makes good on his promise as a versatile central player, we have a good third option. ACL tears don't threaten careers like they used to, and even if Rozeboom has lost some mobility it's not like speed or elusiveness were crucial factors in who he is as a player. I am pretty optimistic that he'll be able to contribute for us, even if this is probably not his best position.
Overall, this is a solid group. Depending on acquisitions elsewhere, we may be a little short here in Open Cup play if the double-pivot remains our best option, but that's where a guy like Shanosky will need to take his game to the next level to make a difference.
Depth chart: John Thorrington (?), Marcelo Saragosa, Perry Kitchen, Lance Rozeboom, Lewis Neal, Raphael Augusto
Naturals: Thorrington, Rozeboom
Given that I define De Ro's role on the team as more forward who tracks back than midfielder who goes forward, I think it should be a priority to upgrade our choices in this spot. The addition of Thorrington - Steve Goff says United is "very optimistic" of signing the veteran - is a good step. However, the fact remains that Thorrington has terrible luck with injuries, and at 33 is not likely to start 30+ games. A more durable first-choice player here would be my preference.
Behind Thorrington, things get iffy. Since I see us as starting the season in a 442, I have Saragosa listed ahead of Kitchen in this role. Intriguingly, when United played a 442, Saragosa was the central midfielder who would push up to support the attack. In the 4231 with Branko Boskovic starting, however, Saragosa was more likely to drop underneath the rest of the midfield when we attacked.
In either case, neither is particularly comfortable jumping up and providing an additional goal threat, and that's one thing we need. Rozeboom could well surge up the depth chart, but until he proves it in MLS matches it would be a bit much for me to put him higher than fourth.
Neal and Augusto are emergency options here, though it was instructive that when Saragosa was injured at Houston in the playoffs, it was Boskovic dropping back alongside Kitchen and Augusto playing as our attacking midfielder. That's not a strong indicator that Augusto is comfortable with the defensive responsibility he'd have in this spot. With Neal, we've seen him succeed centrally against tired teams (Montreal at home) but struggle with the speed of the game in the middle against teams that aren't dragging (1-0 loss at Columbus).
Depth chart: Dwayne De Rosario, Raphael Augusto (?), John Thorrington (?), Lewis Neal, Lance Rozeboom, Nick DeLeon
Naturals: De Rosario (arguably), Augusto
This is a tricky spot to define for us now that Boskovic has headed back to Europe. With De Ro in the squad, there is little difference between how he'd play this spot in a 4231 and as a second forward in a 442. If United were to go back to the 4132 that we favored for the early two-thirds of 2012, Ben Olsen would likely prefer to field a central/box-to-box type in this spot given the attacking quality we get from our wingers. The midfield would actually be a bit more of a Y-shape than anything else.
Still, United succeeded out of the 4231 more often than not, and as long as we are playing a double-pivot of Kitchen and Saragosa, fielding someone in a true attacking midfield spot will be on the table. It would not surprise me to see Olsen start to tell De Ro to play with a bit less positional freedom on the road, which would leave us in more of a 4231 in my book than in the 442.
In any case, our only real option if we want to have a player in this spot - let's say we start in the 442 but are in need of a goal - that isn't De Ro is Augusto, and currently we still have to work out a loan extension to keep him here. I was pleasantly surprised with Augusto's play going forward in what was our most difficult fixture of the season - in particular, I liked his movement - but I was not all that surprised to see him make a defensive mistake that came back to bite us. Such is life with young players.
If we can keep Augusto, and he can live up to his attacking promise while shoring up his defending just a bit, we won't really have to go out and find a replacement for Boskovic. I'm not saying some brilliant schemer would be unwelcome by any means; I just think that we'd be able to have a successful team with Augusto making 15-20 appearances (mostly off the bench) and starting Open Cup games. Signing a direct replacement for Boskovic doesn't strike me as a prerequisite for success, though it would be nice.
Thorrington is by no means a natural to this spot, but he does have experience here and would be a good option for us to use in this position if we're defending a lead. The idea would be similar to how Pontius was deployed at Portland and at TFC down the stretch: Despite being in the #10 spot on a line-up sheet, his principle job would still be to disrupt possession. It would be a very conservative choice, in other words. That said, I could see Thorrington using his soccer IQ to be a decent goal threat from this spot, even if the assists would still likely come from elsewhere.
As I mentioned with Neal in the central/box-to-box section, we've seen that he can have some success as a central creator if teams don't play high pressure and/or are tired. However, this is MLS; most teams are built to run forever. If Neal is deployed centrally, it's because we have a real injury problem.
Just like in the previous categories, Rozeboom is a player that could move up the depth chart quickly. He has played an attacking midfield role in the reserves, and would be more of a goal-scoring midfielder than set-up man if used this way. We'll see where he is once the preseason starts, but the club remains very high on his future.
I threw in DeLeon despite the fact that he played maybe 10 minutes in a central role once while we were protecting a lead and dropped into a 4141 (can't remember the game, but it was in the first half of the season). Until we see him play this spot it's impossible to evaluate him as better than anyone, but theoretically he has the tools to push up the depth chart. It's still not the best place to put him in my opinion, but I won't deny that he could theoretically deliver in this role.