Preseason Laboratory: D.C. United should get with the trend and experiment with a 433

Nick DeLeon wants to play centrally, and a 433 would let that happen. - Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

With the Black-and-Red set to start playing preseason games this week, we asked the B&RU editors what formations they'd like to see the team look at. The second part of the series will look at the very fashionable 433.

It started sometime in eighth or ninth grade for me. I was a bit like a male Daria, but happier and with Gazelles instead of Doc Martens: A know-it-all with strident beliefs based on a black-and-white world that doesn't actually exist. I was quite sure that any soccer formation that was not a Total Football-style 433 was obviously either foolish or simply a cop-out from someone who didn't have the balls to play an attacking style. It was that simple in my mind, like most things are in teenaged minds.

I was already a huge Johan Cruyff fan, and a simple bonus excerpt of Fritz Barend and Henk Van Dorp's Ajax Barcelona Cruyff (David Winner's English translation was just coming out at the time) that came with my subscription to FourFourTwo magazine got me to commit philosophically to the 433. Cruyff seemed so certain of himself, and like the other things I enjoyed (music especially) he had that air of being the thinking person's choice rather than the popular preference. He starred in the 1974 World Cup, but the Netherlands lost in the final, joining the pantheon of soccer hipster-endorsed losing finalists that are discussed more often than the teams that beat them (see also: Brazil 1982, Brazil 1950, Hungary 1954, Netherlands 1978). I mean, how could someone like me not love a team that scored in the World Cup final before their opponent ever got a touch on the ball?

My love for the 433 was mostly unrequited, as my teams generally played an unusual 4312/3412 hybrid that involved a shuttling role for a defensive midfielder/center back, as well as a sweeper (note: Every team for teenagers in the 90s had a sweeper; thanks 1990 World Cup!). I spent a lot of time in a linking role between that guy and our attacking midfielder while wishing I was being used as a #10. In retrospect, I was absolutely better off where I was, but that didn't stop me from sketching out 433s that would fit my team in my notebook during class. Other kids pined for a girl or a car; I pined for a formation. I mean, I wanted a girl and a car too, but I would have been perfectly happy with the conceptual one out of the three.

My final year of high school, the club team I joined after my longtime team finally lost too many players to teenage hijinks did go with a 433, but our coach had no idea how it was supposed to look. In our first game, we had a midfielder standing out on the touchline because he was told to go play right midfield. I suppose this was also where I became a player-coach, as I showed up to our next practice with the positions drawn on a piece of paper and reading material for our head coach. Like I said, strident.

Anyway, this preamble would make you think that I love the fact that US Soccer has essentially made the 433 (or 4231, which can be very similar) our new dogma as a country. Every academy worth their salt is playing 433 now; the national team teaches it all the way down the development pyramid. D.C. United doubled down on the idea on the youth side, hiring Sonny Silooy - a man who spent most of his life with Ajax, the club you should think of first when you think "433" - to oversee this change.

It's funny, though: As I've grown older, I don't look at the 433 as a panacea any more. Given a blank canvas to build a team, I'd probably still assemble a team for it, but that's not real life. I'm not a fan of dogmatic approaches in general, and the very idea that any given formation is inherently superior seems naive at best. As such, the shift in American soccer thinking strikes me as lacking the proper amount of consideration. Somewhere, some talented kid is going to be cut from his academy team because he doesn't quite fit a 433, a 4231, or a 4141.

I also have an admittedly silly reaction to something we see in MLS all the time: Teams calling their formation a 433, and then playing in what clearly is not a 433. Portland sometimes played a 433 but were far more often in a 4231, while the Colorado Rapids were a full-time 4231 team in spite of their claims. Before them, Steve Nicol's last Revs team would be presented as a 433 but featured a lone striker 30 yards away from his bunkering teammates. I know none of this actually matters, but it grates on me.

So needless to say, I come to this piece with mixed feelings. However, the idea of United in a 433 is one I can't shake. It all started with Steve Goff getting a quote from Nick DeLeon about how he'd like to see more time in the middle, which is apparently a possibility. DeLeon moving into the middle on a team that traded for Davy Arnaud, already has Perry Kitchen and Jared Jeffrey, and probably sees Lewis Neal as a central player more than a winger at this point? It sounds nuts given United's rather concerning lack of depth in terms of wide midfielders.

The easiest way to work around that problem? Go to a 433:


Dcu_433_a_medium

If United doesn't have many players capable of playing wide in a 442 (or the 4411 we saw a lot last season once Luis Silva showed up), we could just play a formation that does emphasize what we do have enough of. As we discussed on the site Monday, United has the players to run out a more narrow midfield and not worry about depth.

The roles required in this bottom-point 433 are easy to fill. We have two fullbacks who can overlap zealously to be wide outlets as well as providing crosses from deeper positions. Our center backs might not catch the eye with their skill on the ball, but both Jeff Parke and Bobby Boswell can be relied upon to avoid turnovers without resorting to long balls as quickly as our previous CBs used to.

Ahead of them, Kitchen is ideally suited for a deeper and truly central role. His ability to keep the ball under pressure has improved, and he can pick out a decent long-range pass or switch more regularly as well. He'll still be a true defensive midfielder rather than a deep-lying playmaker, but you need more than just a simple destroyer in this role. Arnaud is a good fit to be a ball-winner who covers a ton of ground and connects his teammates (think of his job as being equivalent to that of Paulo Nagamura's dirty work with the Sporks).

DeLeon would get the more attacking of the two roles ahead of Kitchen, which I imagine will be questioned in the comments. Silva doesn't really fit the role positionally, as it requires taking up a deeper position and doing more defensive work than Silva is really capable of doing. We'll cover his place in all this later on, so for now let's stick to DeLeon. The job he'd be given here is to be a supplier of the ball, but not necessarily an out-and-out playmaker.

DeLeon was very comfortable being that guy in college, but in MLS he seems to prefer a secondary role involving a lot of combination play. Fortunately, that could work here, as this team would be built around getting as many touches as possible for that front three. Chris Pontius and Fabian Espindola would likely exchange roles regularly, as both are better off in the left forward spot than on the right. However, I'd want Pontius wide left more often than not for two reasons: First, obviously, is the Pontius Special (his typical fake to set up a curling right-footed shot after cutting inside). Second would be the fact that Sean Franklin will be providing more crosses than we saw last season, and having Pontius at the back post rather than Espindola would give us a better aerial presence.

This would solve some issues we have in the 442. The debate over what to do with Pontius would end, as this role would still see him cutting inside, but also give him the forward's role plenty of fans would prefer to see him in. United's lack of real wide midfield depth would no longer be an issue, and we'd get Kitchen where he truly belongs on the field.

Not only that, but you can put together a pretty similar B team:


Dcu_433_b_medium

In terms of depth, United could go far down the bench without having to change the formation. Kyle Porter can fill in at either wide forward role, while Conor Doyle is probably capable of playing any role along the front line. Michael Seaton would be best centrally, but we'd have more opportunities to get him on the field if we could use his speed down the right as well (Christiano Francois is in a similar boat).

I'd also be interested in seeing DeLeon play as a nominal wide forward who drops off the front line and come inside a la Graham Zusi. I'm not saying they're the same caliber of player, but Zusi's movement and positioning helps destabilize teams. I think DeLeon could match that movement at least, and that alone would make United a more awkward opponent to deal with while also encouraging more of a short passing game.

In the midfield, Jared Jeffrey would push Arnaud hard for starting minutes, and we'd have both Silva (for DeLeon) and Neal (for Arnaud or Jeffrey) available if a more attack-minded look is desired. If we want to sew a game up, Jeffrey would again be someone we could turn to, this time for DeLeon.

Position

First Choice

Second Choice

Third Choice

Goalkeeper

Bill Hamid

Joe Willis

Andrew Dykstra

Right back

Sean Franklin

Chris Korb

Jalen Robinson

Right-center back

Bobby Boswell

Steve Birnbaum

Nana Attakora

Left-center back

Jeff Parke

Steve Birnbaum

Nana Attakora

Left back

Chris Korb

Taylor Kemp

Travis Golden*

Right-center midfield

Nick DeLeon

Luis Silva

Jared Jeffrey

Defensive midfield

Perry Kitchen

Jared Jeffrey

Conor Shanosky

Left-center midfield

Davy Arnaud

Jared Jeffrey

LEWIS NEAL!

Right forward

Fabian Espindola

Kyle Porter

Conor Doyle

Center forward

Eddie Johnson

Conor Doyle

Michael Seaton

Left forward

Chris Pontius

Fabian Espindola

Kyle Porter

We can go deeper than even this chart indicates. Note how there's no mention of Francois, Casey Townsend - who would be better off as a right forward in a 433 than trying to play a more typical striker's role in a 442 - or Collin Martin. We might run into depth issues at defensive midfield, given that Shanosky appears to be a much better center back than he is a defensive midfielder, but Kitchen generally doesn't miss games and Arnaud could play there in a pinch.

Compared to the 442 I actually expect to see, I think this would be a step in the right direction. This team's attack will revolve around Johnson, Pontius, and Espindola succeeding no matter what our formation is, so why not make teams deal with all three of them at once rather than having Pontius come from deeper? Our other forwards as a group fit into the 433 better than they do a two-forward alignment, and any system that gives Kitchen a real central role rather than having him alongside someone else is going to benefit the team if all other things are close to equal.

Naturally, however, the weakness here is that Silva ends up with a substitute's role rather than a starting job. Generally I'd prefer to see the best eleven players get on the field, but there are times where system should take precedence. In this case, Silva would be forced to play a role requiring him to shoulder responsibilities that a) he's just not very good at and b) would in turn detract from the things he is good at. If the decision is to find a way to get Espindola or Silva on the field - and that's broadly the difference between this piece and Adam's article on the diamond midfield - I'd give Espindola the edge.

But wait, didn't I talk about the more attacking ideal the 433 allows, where there's room for a #10? Silva would be a great fit for that role, but the consequence is moving Kitchen right or left of center:


Dcu_433_toppoint_medium

To be sure, this eleven would be fun to watch and very dangerous going forward. However, I think it would be a defensively naive team, and I can't emphasize enough how much we should be seeing Kitchen making Zone 14 a no-go for opposing sides. Playing him at right-center midfield takes him out of the heart of midfield, and if given the choice between building around Kitchen or Silva, I'm going with Kitchen. I realize this comes off as almost anti-Silva, but the reality is that he just loses out to two very good players in this situation. The plus side? United has an element to bring in off the bench that could change both our mindset and how we actually go about attacking.

All in all, this is a formation that emphasizes what we have while hiding (most of) the things we don't. The lack of depth the current roster has on the flanks won't be cured if Victor Munoz makes the team or if some other trialist shows up and gets that contract instead. United would still be one Pontius injury away from relying on Porter to start, and we saw in 2013 that he's not ready to start for a playoff team in MLS.

It's not just the makeup of the roster though. United would instantly force teams to defend deeper by playing three fast forwards, which would make it more difficult to expose our own lack of speed at center back. Unless or until Steve Birnbaum pushes his way into the starting lineup, the Boswell-Parke combination's lack of speed is our most glaring weakness, so finding an attacking approach that makes it harder to exploit will benefit us at both ends of the field. Teams playing deeper can be forced into playing long balls, and one thing our center backs will be good at all year long is winning headers, which means more possession, which will mean more chances to attack. Last year's team would get caught in a vicious cycle; it's time we started subjecting other teams to that sensation.

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