More like Post-post-post-post-match. Real life distractions were abundant this past week. However, I should be mostly unencumbered for awhile here, which will allow me go back to focusing on our beloved, bedraggled United.
In the comments for Shatz's recent post on our schedule getting tougher, I was reminded of Dante's vision of hell and where the current experience of United fans would fit in. Obviously we're all just talking about a game here, but a fourth consecutive loss to open 2010, coming after 2 maddening seasons (including our dreadful play down the stretch in 2009), has served as a form of torture to regulars at RFK. It only gets worse if you consider the stadium situation.
Unlike the home game against New England, where DC controlled the game without ever creating enough danger from the run of play to claim total domination, on this occasion our visitors made more than their fair share of opportunities. This was despite the fact that Chicago came to town without either of their first choice central midfielders (John Thorrington and Logan Pause both missed out injured) and with Brian McBride only coming in as a sub. This is not a particularly impressive or deep Chicago team, and yet they came to RFK and generated more shots, more genuine chances, and took a 2-0 win that one must admit was rather deserved.
Despite being gifted a fairly soft opening group of opponents, United sits all alone at the bottom of the standings. There are many injured players, and the only two that are guaranteed to improve our play (Bryan Namoff and Clyde Simms) are not guys that will come in and fix the club's biggest problem, which is the utter lack of cutting edge in our attack. What makes our current plight like a circle of hell isn't that it sucks right now; it's that it's hard to imagine when it will stop sucking. This season is starting to look like a huge boulder, and we're Sisyphus.
Beyond the jump, I have some thoughts on the game and some experimental ideas that, at the very least, are worth trying.
The starting lineups for the game left me feeling at least some modest hope. Curt Onalfo stuck with the switch that created 2 goals in Philadelphia, letting Santino Quaranta play his natural right midfield position. Chris Pontius, who has struggled as a forward, was moved to left midfield in place of Cristian Castillo, who seems desperately low on confidence at the moment. That move created a vacancy at forward that was filled by Jaime Moreno. These moves were welcome changes to a United team that needed to free Quaranta from central responsibilities that he was ill-suited to fulfill, as well as keeping the athleticism and attacking endeavor of Pontius somewhere in a lineup that lacks both qualities.
On the other side, Chicago looked like something of an easy mark. Aside from their overall mediocre start in 2010, the absence of Thorrington and Pause meant that Peter Lowry and Baggio Husidic would be in from the start. On top of that, Lowry was being asked to play a more defensive role than he has in past appearances, where he had a bit more license to go forward alongside the reliable Pause. Elsewhere, Carlos De los Cobos made changes on either side of his back four, with Dasan Robinson replacing Tim Ward at right back and rather unimpressive newcomer Krzysztof Król replacing the equally unimpressive Deris Umanzor on the left. Add these changes to the fact that Andrew Dykstra's play in goal has done nothing to illustrate why De los Cobos would want to get rid of Jon Busch, and it seemed at the very least that United would find some degree of control in central midfield and maybe a goal or two.
It occurred to me that Chicago's change to a 4231, after previously playing a 442 to accommodate both McBride and Collins John, was in part due to a desire to support the duo of Lowry and Husidic, who are decent players but probably not a Cup-winning pair of starters. By making use of Patrick Nyarko, Marco Pappa, and Justin Mapp in advanced roles, Chicago could take the creative burden off of a second-choice duo and allow them to focus on the simpler side of the game.
While Chicago did manage to attack fairly well, I thought we stood toe-to-toe for the most part in terms of volume. The Fire edged the first half, but Troy Perkins was basically a spectator for the opening 22 minutes of the 2nd half. This period should have been, at the very least, a spell in which we took a lead. Instead, what I noticed was that our lack of consistently dangerous passers and the slow forward pairing of Jaime Moreno and Danny Allsopp meant that Chicago's back four could cheat forward, compacting the field. The game got a bit ragged, and oddly enough it was our defending that ended up giving us an advantage for this stretch of the game. Our makeshift back four started getting to balls with more purpose and aggression, which exposed Mapp's lack of fight and also found John a bit disinterested in having a battle on his hands with Julius James.
Sadly, the best things we could muster in this portion of the match were on set pieces. I suppose it is encouraging to see United players frequently winning aerial battles, and the service from Quaranta and Castillo seems to often go to dangerous spots. However, none of that matters much if the headers are either wide, high, or weak and at the keeper. The problem, when it wasn't a poor finish, was that we can't make the passes count when we need to. One good example came in the 55th minute, after Morsink did well to intercept Husidic's attempt to play out of Chicago's defensive third. Morsink played the ball to Moreno, who swung play across to Castillo. As Nyarko and Robinson collapsed on him, Castillo stabbed at the ball, sending it too far away for Najar to do anything with it but not far enough to return it to Moreno. This was a fairly simple one-touch pass that Castillo, or any pro, could do in his sleep. Right now, it seems like our players can't help but tense up at crucial moments and make this kind of needless passing mistakes. Psychologically, a lot of work needs to be done to get this group of players to relax and play with some semblance of self-belief, or this is just going to continue.
We all know how this game ended, so I'll just push past it and head to some ideas I have about finding a solution. First up, I'd be interested in seeing the club try a 433, similar to what Peter Vermes is doing in Kansas City. Going off our currently fit group, it would look something like this:
This is hardly a world-beating lineup, but it's not like the current 442 is working either. Perhaps the idea in central midfield, at least for the time being, should be to simply harass our opponents into giving us more of the ball via turnovers. It doesn't appear we can carry the game with incisive possession play, so we have to find a new way to go about our business in that part of the field. Morsink may catch a lot of heat for dallying on the ball too often, but at least some of the time it's been a function of having no options. Giving him two high-energy central midfield partners will give him more easy outs when the inevitable midfield pressure is applied.
Further forward, there's room to consider some moves. Castillo's poor form and confidence would leave me spending plenty of time considering Boyzzz Khumalo to start over him in this kind of formation. Khumalo may be inconsistent, but he's dynamic and seems to have a reasonable amount of self-belief (something we could use right now). He'd also add a touch more speed, which would not be a bad thing. Moreno may do very well leading the line if he and his forward partners came to a good understanding about when he'd move deep or float wide, but that would take time. The other option there is Allsopp, who has been pretty poor thus far. However, given the success the Wizards have had by going high pressure at every position, one must admit that Allsopp would be better at hassling center backs than Moreno. If we were to use a 433 with Moreno starting, we'd have to approach the concept of pressure entirely differently from how KC is doing it at the moment.
This isn't an idea I'm going to shout off the mountaintop or anything; it just seems like high time to reconsider every single thing about this year's team. Formation, approaches to attacking and defending, using new players...it's all there. If Lyle Adams is doing well enough in practice to possibly allow Wallace to play left midfield, it deserves some thought. If Tiyi Shipalane has had a few good practices, we might want to look at keeping him in town rather than loaning him out to Richmond for the weekend. Is Adam Cristman burying his headers in practice? Get him on the field.
I'm a big advocate for patience in these matters, but there's little evidence that whatever we'd be waiting on is coming around the corner. You don't get the sense that this team is going to shake things loose and meet even the modest hopes we had placed upon them. We might improve marginally with more time sending out the same players in the same formation attempting the same styles of offense and defense, but I don't think marginal improvement is going to fix this. Obviously this will be a different team when Simms, Pena, and Jakovic are back, and whenever any of our forwards shows any ability to finish a chance, but I still don't see the current method of using this group amounting to much.
Got any crazy ideas? Not-so-crazy ideas? Let's hear them! Just make sure to cc the coaching staff and players.