MLS First Kick 2013 Countdown: 6 days - Let's talk about shape in the central midfield

Paul Frederiksen-US PRESSWIRE

As the 2013 MLS season approaches, we're counting down the days to March 2 and looking over what we can expect from D.C. United this year. Today's subject: the shape of D.C. United's central midfield.

Traditionally in soccer, certain numbers are associated with certain positions. The number 1 is always going to be a goalkeeper's number. When we say "number 9" we're talking about a striker. A "number 10" is a central attacking midfielder, a trequartista, and a subject we talked about just a few days ago in this very countdown. Another well-known number-position association is the number 6, the stay-at-home defensive midfielder. This association is so strong that the combination of two deep-lying ball-winners in midfield is known as a "Double 6" in Europe. Here in the States, we usually refer to it instead as a double pivot.

Which brings us to D.C. United. Last year, Ben Olsen's side began the season in a variation of the 4-4-2 diamond, the 4-1-3-2. In the proper diamond, as run by Real Salt Lake, both outside midfielders remain fairly close to the center and help crowd the middle of the park, while in Olsen's system, Chris Pontius and Nick DeLeon stayed higher and wider, looking to take on opposing fullbacks as often as they looked to combine with their midfield mates.

Both systems utilize a single number 6, though. That guy at the base of the diamond, whose job it is to screen the back four and break up passing moves through the midfield before they turn into chances for the other team. When Olsen first took over at United, that guy was Clyde Simms, now with the New England Revolution, and at the start of last year it was Perry Kitchen.

Whether it was because Kitchen wasn't ready for that position, because the back four hadn't yet gelled or because other teams so often packed the midfield, having a single midfielder in that deep zone wasn't working for us. So we switched to the double pivot, and at first, things opened up in the attack and we walloped an otherwise resurgent Chicago Fire 4-2 at RFK. Having two defensive midfielders screened our defense better than just one had, and our fullbacks suddenly had even more license to bomb forward into the attack. We controlled possession and kept the ball moving forward, meaning Dwayne De Rosario could stay higher up the field to help finish attacking moves rather than dropping deep to start them. Our outside midfielders found themselves closer to goal, as they were able to stay upfield and pinch in while the fullbacks provided the width. (That was a really fun game to watch, for the record.)

But then DeRo got hurt, and nobody else could really provide that spark that had our attack near the top of the goals scored table. So the double pivot's defensive stability came into play as the Black-and-Red ground out results down the stretch and into the playoffs.

Past is prologue, and all this rehashing of history is by way of asking what will we see in 2013? To this point in preseason, we've seen the flat 4-4-2/4-2-3-1, both of which utilize double pivot, pretty surely entrenched as Ben Olsen's starting formation. If we get out to a good start - getting results while controlling possession and being able to build out of the back - I imagine we'll see the double pivot stick around. If it ain't broke, and all that.

But what happens if our attack is stagnant? Would the pragmatic Olsen revert back to a single-6 formation like the 4-1-3-2, or might he change systems entirely, switching to one based more on a 4-3-3/4-1-4-1? What happens if the defense starts shipping goals in numbers that we won't accept? Because Olsen is such a young coach, and because his development as a coach has been remarkably fluid, it's very difficult to call this one.

But let's have a go at it anyway. How do you see the midfield developing this year? You know where to holler at us.

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