Positives. We must think of the positives. In Saturday's 2-2 tie against the Chicago Fire, Ben Olsen trotted out more or less the same collective of players but with different results. For the first time this season, the boys in black managed to string passes together in the final third, get shots on target, and score goals. Read again: score goals. But the same defensive demons that have defined United's young season turned three points in to one and left the fan base wondering what could have been.
Let's start with the improvements. The fluidity in the attack, especially in the opening sequences, was a gulp of fresh air. Ben Olsen once again sent out his trusty diamond midfield, meaning United needed to constantly overload the attacking half to avoid being caught out. This worked extraordinarily well early on. United's attack was consistently pulling Fire center midfielders Jeff Larentowicz and Alex out of middle, creating space on the inside for Eddie Johnson, Fabian Espindola, and Nick DeLeon to shoot or slip the ball through. Perry Kitchen and Luis Silva played much better than the Toronto match keeping the middle under control while still keeping an attacking edge. That kind of performance I'm sure is what Olsen wants from his diamond midfield, but it's important to note that a Chicago Fire side using a new system and many new players is still finding itself and couldn't mount a potent attack when it did recover the ball.
Luis Silva's injury, while unfortunate, provided an interesting tactical wrinkle. Davy Arnaud stepped in for Silva and provided a more naturally withdrawn role. Arnaud is a steadfastly attacking player from the midfield, but he showed a more solid defensive mindset than the mercurial Silva. The game became even more interesting when Jeffrey stepped in and Arnaud moved out wide. The procession of substitutions provided an excellent study for the best partner in the midfield for Kitchen. Silva's defensive work was satisfactory today, but I doubt it would have held up against a more powerful side, as it hasn't in the first two games of the season. My preference would still be a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, where Silva would enjoy a more free role. But if Olsen is insistent on two center midfielders, then Arnaud, Jeffrey, or Lewis Neal would be the better option.
The conceded goals today came down to a porous back line rather then a leaky midfield, which is better than our first two games. Sean Franklin's inability to handle Soumare and Jeff Parke's refusal to acknowledge Quincy Amarikwa as someone he should mark resulted in the goals. And while United's offense is showing signs of life, the defense is still a cacophony of mind-boggling errors. The mess in the back is personnel based, but it could be helped by having more dedicated two-way players in the midfield, which would also allow the winger (particularly Nick DeLeon) to push more up the field. In it's current incarnation, the back four can't handle only having one holding mid and Perry Kitchen would probably stand to improve from having help in the midfield as well.
Up top Eddie Johnson had a better day. United's designated player showed some of his wheels, got behind the defense from a DeLeon through ball and then slammed a shot just wide from outside the box. It remains worrying that he still drifts way too far away from the opposing penalty box where he can use his strength to feast on quality service. Drifting has always been my biggest pet peeve about Johnson's game and at times he looks genuinely convinced he's an American Messi, dropping back all the way to midfield or the touchline to receive the ball. I have no qualms with him coming out every once in a while and working the channels, but there are times when he camps out on the wing and directly passes up a chance to reek havoc in the box. Fabian Espindola was everywhere on Saturday and had a sensational game. His work off the ball and in the midfield should mean Johnson can test the back line and prowl in the box, not check 30 yards back to make a simple five yard touch pass.
United's play provides reason for optimism but also caution. The Fire don't quite have their bearings in the new season and most other teams in the league will present bigger challenges, particularly the midfield. A slight tinkering with the midfield shape next Saturday against the Revolution would be a welcome experiment, if not just to see if Olsen is capable of such change.