D.C. United's first preseason games were actually over the previous two weeks, but since neither had streaming video or radio coverage, they almost didn't feel like "real" preseason games. Tonight was different: United closed down the first night of the Walt Disney Pro Soccer Classic by thumping the Tampa Bay Rowdies 4-0. Lionard Pajoy scored twice in a three-minute span a few minutes before subbing out, while first round draft pick Taylor Kemp picked up an easy brace himself as the Rowdies crumbled.
United started out with a nearly full-strength team. Trialists Kyle Porter and Joseph Nane were given the chance to impress alongside what was otherwise essentially the group we should expect to see starting at Houston on March 2nd:
Going forward, this was a 442 with Dwayne De Rosario free to go wherever he wanted, while Joseph Nane was positioned ahead of Perry Kitchen. Defensively, it was a 4231, with Lionard Pajoy directing the team's high pressure and a standard double-pivot central midfield underneath De Ro, Nick DeLeon, and Kyle Porter.
Nane hit the ground running, playing some nice one-touch passes that allowed his teammates a chance to actually do something with the ball. However, after about 15 minutes the pace of the game had picked up enough that the Cameroonian trialist started to look a step slow. While Nane was not particularly guilty of any terrible turnover or mistake, United's attack seemed to slow down whenever he ended up on the ball. Given the high tempo required of any team featuring De Ro as the star of the show, that's a major strike against him getting a contract in 2013.
Elsewhere, United was able to create danger down both flanks. Nick DeLeon appeared to have Tampa's left back Andres Arango fearing for his life after beating him in their first 1v1 battle, and the Rowdies were forced to play conservatively to help gang up on DeLeon to prevent further damage down the right. Meanwhile, Chris Korb jumped into the attack with regularity and was generally able to create a threat or aid someone else's move forward.
On the other flank, Kyle Porter saw less of the ball but created chances when given the opportunity. It appeared that the Canadian winger had won a penalty kick after his attempt to chip Rowdies keeper Andrew Fontein was blocked by a handball, but the referee appeared to judge it as a ball-to-hand situation and gave nothing. Later, he blazed past a Tampa defender with a nice shoulder-dip and fired narrowly wide across goal. All in all, Porter confirmed that his showing against Malmö was not a one-off. His speed, desire to go to goal, and the ability to play on both wings all fit in with what United needs right now.
Maybe the biggest story for United was the play of Korb, who was arguably the man of the match. Despite wearing what appeared to be non-uniform socks to cover what may be ever-so-slightly larger shinguards (think a billfold in each sock instead of last year's credit cards), Korb found space time and again up the right wing and put every cross into a spot where a teammate could do something with it.
It was in fact Korb who ended up with the assist on both of Pajoy's goals. The first came as United moved the ball intelligently from left to right with Chris Pontius and De Ro heavily involved before Korb fired a pinpoint cross into the box. Pajoy intelligently chose to head back across goal rather than snap it down, wrong-footing Fontein to open the scoring. Three minutes later, it was Korb's looping ball over the top that Pajoy controlled before fooling a defender with his second touch and then chipping the advancing keeper to make it 2-0. What I'm getting at is that, while Korb can't replace Andy Najar's ability on the ball, it's not like he's an uncoordinated oaf. This was an encouraging showing from the man who appears to be our new starting right back.
Another big positive was seeing that De Ro is no worse for the wear after last season's knee injury. The club captain, back in the roaming forward role he prizes, looked ready to bring back the up-tempo style that saw United score plenty of goals for the three three quarters of 2012. De Ro created a couple of chances, had a long-range blast that nearly overpowered Fontein before the Rowdies keeper could corral the ball, and had an outrageous through ball that Pontius nearly - and arguably should have - converted just before halftime.
The more important thing for United fans was that De Ro looked physically fine and was his old self in terms of pushing the speed of play and urging his teammates to play quickly. Perhaps the best moment for him wasn't even in the attack; rather, it was after a Tampa free kick hit the United wall and was pumped back into the box. De Ro had been in the wall, but found himself defending a Rowdies player 1v1 in the box. De Ro showed the physical strength to hold off a hefty challenge for the loose ball, then had the composure to free himself and spring a counter attack.
We also got to see the return of Daniel Woolard, though to be fair he barely had to be on the field in the first half. Tampa's attack was strongly left-sided, which meant that the left half of our defense - Woolard and Dejan Jakovic - had very little to do. Still, even though he had been cleared to play in last year's final two games against Houston, it was reassuring to actually see him back playing again. Woolard wore a rugby helmet throughout, and unlike Calen Carr he actually figured out how to fasten it at the bottom.
Moments after Pajoy's lob made it 2-0, Ben Olsen called for wholesale changes. All eleven players in the game - even Pontius, who had only been on for about 22 minutes - were replaced. The formation stayed the same, again a 442 in attack and a 4231 in defense:
This was an intriguing group. Taylor Kemp - a player I have had my doubts about as a left back, in spite of his ability to join the attack - played left midfield. This was killing two birds with one stone: Kemp got some PT, while trialist left back Jan Frederiksen got to play his natural position, which is only fair considering Kemp already has a signed contract. Frederiksen, a Dane with experience at strong clubs in Denmark and Poland, seemed comfortable with jumping into the attack but tended to stay home once the game turned into a rout. It was hard to really judge what he was able to do, though he seemed like a smart enough player who is comfortable with the ball. Hopefully he'll get more action as this tournament moves forward.
Alongside Frederiksen was Henry Kalungi, who at 25 is already captain of the Richmond Kickers and Uganda's national team. Like Frederiksen, Kalungi had fairly little to do. He looked a bit unorthodox on the ball at times, but "unorthodox" is not automatically bad and he did show a good overall positional sense. Kalungi is among the best Richmond players, so it would be no surprise to see him fighting for a contract (though, per benuski, he does not yet have a green card and would thus take up an international spot).
The talking points for this eleven were elsewhere. Kemp, of all people, scored two easy goals. The first one in particular - coming after Ryan Richter's cross from the right was kept alive at the near post by a hard-charging Michael Seaton - was about as simple as possible. Still, you have to credit any goalscorer with being in the right place, and Kemp did his job in the situation. A wide midfielder should make that back-post run when one forward is on the opposite wing and the other forward has gone near post, and Kemp's awareness ensured that someone was in place to convert the sitter.
Speaking of Seaton, United's youngest player would have been impressive if he were 19 or 20. At 16, however, Seaton's soccer IQ is surprisingly high. His athleticism is obvious, but the timing of his runs was beyond what you normally expect from even supposedly promising players at that age. Both of Kemp's goals owe at least some debt to Seaton's work. We shouldn't get ahead of ourselves, but on this short evidence at least Seaton looks like he's closer to being ready for MLS than a good portion of the forwards taken in this year's draft(s).
Another positive was the play of Lance Rozeboom, who ended up as our deep-lying midfielder. While the Rowdies stopped living up to their name after Pajoy's second goal broke their spirit - thus freeing up some space for Rozeboom - it should be noted that Boomer was moving the ball intelligently. He repeatedly made the right choice with the ball, and just as importantly made every pass crisp. The game lost some rhythm and shape in the last 15 minutes, but Rozeboom at least was not responsible for that. A central midfielder who can deliver the ball where it needs to be without wasting time is a good thing, and that's what United got out of Rozeboom tonight.
Richter again looked good, this time playing the same positional role as De Ro. While his roaming is more predictable - basically, he drifted wide right, with LEWIS NEAL shifting inside when necessary - the job was still the same when we didn't have the ball, and he filled that role without error. He played a big part in the third goal, and overall left the same kind of good impression that he did in last year's preseason.
That said, I can't help but think he'll once again be player #31 or #32 once rosters have to be cut down to the MLS maximum of 30. At least this year, with the affiliation deal in place, United can steer him towards the Kickers and, if people are let go or put on the injured reserve - which frees up a roster spot but not salary cap space - United could go back and sign him. He's very close to being, to steal a phrase from MLSsoccer pundit and tonight's color commentator Jason Saghini, "rosterable."
On the downside, Conor Shanosky looked a bit hurried in his unfamiliar central midfield role. To be fair, he and Rozeboom essentially swapped the roles expected of them, which meant Shanosky was further forward than we're ever likely to see him in a real game. It wasn't that he was making poor passes or decisions, but just that he was unable to put the ball in a perfect spot for the target; people getting passes from him needed to use an extra touch, slowing things down. I'd prefer seeing him at center back or in a true anchor midfield role in our remaining preseason games.
In summary, United faced a game opponent that eventually ran out of steam and confidence. For the first half, Tampa fought hard but were still on their heels and needed a combination of missed shots, big saves, a handball in the box, and several professional fouls that didn't draw a card to stay level at 0-0. After halftime, United broke through with Pajoy's well-placed header, and his nice chip killed off Tampa's resistance.
Was it a great test? Probably not. The Rowdies don't have many players on their roster and looked well behind in terms of where MLS teams are fitness-wise. Still, you can't blame United for taking advantage, and this was a 4-0 scoreline that may have even flattered the Rowdies a bit given the charmed life their goal led in the first half. The Black-and-Red will have to play better in the regular season, obviously, but we look further along at this point in the preseason than we did in 2012.