We all know the numbers. They've been counted time and time again.
The nine-game undefeated streak that capsulated the final matches of D.C. United's 2012 season and the beginning of the playoffs has been mentioned in this place and others dozens of times. I don't know if we keep bringing it up as if to remind ourselves that it happened, or if we bring it up because we still don't fully believe that it happened.
That streak represented a change from the attractive soccer that this D.C. United organization has been seeking for the better part of two decades to a more conservative style that this fanbase is naturally averse to watching. It was forced upon us by a coach that we all love who was reacting to the unfortunate departure of his best player. Ben Olsen had to do something when Dwayne De Rosario got hurt, and the 4-2-3-1 was born. And it wasn't pretty. But it worked. It freakin' worked.
Without De Rosario, United would go on to finish the season without a single loss, and then beat those despicable New York Red Bulls under loads of adversity. The team was one terribly unfortunate match against the Houston Dynamo away from an MLS Cup appearance. Without suspensions to Bill Hamid and Andy Najar, without three substitutions in the first half due to injuries to Chris Pontius, Brandon McDonald, and Marcelo Saragosa, without an incompetent referee missing a clear red card challenge, United could very well have been lifting a trophy at RFK Stadium last December.
And yet here we are, less than five months later. Here we are at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Here we are with just two goals scored in six games.
What's changed? Some of the personnel have changed. United sold Andy Najar to Belgium for millions of dollars and didn't replace him with a starting-quality player. United allowed Branko Boskovic to head back to Austria and replaced him with a player who has spent more time injured than not over the past decade.
But that isn't all that's changed. The formation has suddenly changed too.
The 4-2-3-1 formation that was used for the entirety of that nine-game undefeated streak was once again employed for the first three matches of 2013. United collected four points from those three matches, which isn't an incredibly impressive tally, but it was mostly acceptable. It included a win against a Western Conference playoff team, a road loss in a building that has hosted many more prior and since, and a scoreless draw against our hated rivals in New York.
After those three matches though, the formation changed. And those same hated rivals just embarassed us on our own field.
The next three matches of the 2013 season saw the sudden emergence of a 4-4-2 formation that is a bit more common and more familiar. It's a formation that the fanbase at large has been hoping would help bring back a bit more sex appeal to our storied club. The 4-4-2 is a formation of tradition in an organization that takes tradition quite seriously.
But it doesn't work. For whatever reason, it doesn't freakin' work.
With the 4-4-2 as its new default formation, United dropped the next three matches, all against Eastern Conference opponents. The team lost a home match for the first time in over year, and then it lost another.
As much as we all want to stand up and definitively claim that Olsen was wrong about Lionard Pajoy being a lone striker and we all were right that he doesn't belong in the starting lineup... The numbers don't quite tell the same story. As much as we were all glad to see Raphael Augusto on the field in place of Marcelo Saragosa, the team hasn't scored any more goals because of it. And they've given up quite a few more.
Right now, we're at the crossroads. Sure, the play on the field has looked better in a lot of ways the past three matches, but the results have been awful. How much longer can we keep using this same 4-4-2 formation when it's just given us our first three-game losing streak since 2011?
There's another option, of course. You know what it is.
Even though it's unattractive, even though we all hate to watch it, perhaps United should change back to that other formation. You know the one. For whatever reason, it's the one that just freakin' works.