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Tough Choices Loom For Curt Onalfo

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Boskovic and Hernandez will most likely force Onalfo into a few changes; who's going to sit? (via <a href="http://mattmathai.smugmug.com/">Matt Mathai</a>)
Boskovic and Hernandez will most likely force Onalfo into a few changes; who's going to sit? (via Matt Mathai)

Pablo Hernandez and Branko Boskovic will be eligible to play for DC United as of next Thursday (just in time to take part in the grudge match against the Seattle Sounders). This is, hopefully, a good thing. Our forwards have all been goal-shy - we have no one with more than two goals in MLS play after 15 games - and we often find ourselves unable to create chances down the middle of the field, causing our overall offensive approach to be predictably based on wide play. Adding a striker and an attacking midfielder will cure these ills if both players can adapt quickly to MLS and are not further examples of the kind of scouting that brought us Franco Niell and Jose Carvallo.

Obviously, if both players establish themselves as starters, current starters will have to make way. Regular commenter dc army recently insisted that we had to find some way to keep Stephen King on the field. The man makes a point; it'd be really tough luck for King to lose his spot so soon after he began to exert more influence over games. He seems to have a good understanding with Clyde Simms, and he also seems to have developed a knack for knowing where Andy Najar will pop up in space (and not just on the goal against San Jose). On the other hand, Boskovic is supposed to be our new attacking midfielder. In a 442, there isn't room for him, King, and Simms. It stands to reason that a midfielder will lose his starting job (praying assuming Boskovic has the quality required to make a difference for us).

Similarly, Hernandez will be pushing someone to the bench if he's as good as the club says he is. His path to a starting role will be less difficult since he's a) been training with the team for weeks, b) apparently is match fit, and c) there isn't any particularly strong competition for time up front right now. Realistically, all of our forwards at the moment come with a major caveat. If Hernandez is even simply decent in a United shirt, his name will be written in permanent marker on Onalfo's team sheet due to the lack of sharpness displayed by our strikers.

Read on to see who should be worried about their starting job, and how I see things going in the near future.

We'll start up front, since that's much more straightforward.

Danny Allsopp has only scored via bad mistakes by opposing defenses, and hasn't scored an MLS league goal since May 5th. Our resident Aussie has also struggled to integrate himself into this team for the most part. His work rate is acceptable most of the time, but I still find myself wondering what kind of forward he is for us. Is he a target man? It doesn't appear so. He's not particularly good in the air, and while he's hardly a shrinking violet he doesn't seem to have the zeal for physical play that you see out of your prototypical target striker. Does he want to work  combinations in an effort to break defenses down as a collective? If so, then he and the rest of the team are alarmingly out of sync. Is he the type of forward that spends all his time off the shoulder of his defender, right on the edge of offside and onside? There were expectations coming into the season that he wanted to play that way, but his merely average speed means that he'd have to be very intelligent with his runs, and his timing would have to be virtually perfect. Even if those two things were true, he'd also need the right kind of players sending him through, and we definitely don't have them at the moment. Even if Boskovic is that kind of playmaker, no one else on United really has eyes for that kind of pass. That means that teams will invariably cut that link off, and Allsopp goes back to being on an island.

Adam Cristman and Jaime Moreno bring with them simpler problems. Cristman, despite being one of the hardest working players you'll find, simply doesn't have the nose for goal to be a starting forward in MLS. Being physical and making life hard for defenders are good attributes to have, but that can't be the large majority of your contribution as a striker. Compounding that problem is the fact that this United team isn't very good at sending in high crosses in the run of play. Cristman's size and fearlessness are negated as an attacking weapon because we don't have wide players that are adept at picking out players for headers. Meanwhile, crosses on the ground tend to require speedier players than Cristman, so he's not really going to benefit from those either.

Moreno's problem is obvious: Ninety minutes is simply too much soccer for him after years of being kicked and multiple back surgeries. Onalfo is currently using him as a game-changing sub, but any coach or defender being caught off-guard by that at this point is an idiot. There's also the issue of whether he can consistently change the flow of games that are long settled into a rhythm. It's one thing at halftime, when a natural break has occurred. It's another thing in the 60th or 70th minute; by that point, the game is being played a certain way, and changing that is a lot to ask of anyone.

With Luciano Emilio virtually certain to be out the door, that leaves us with Santino Quaranta, who is easily the most curious case of this group. On one hand, Quaranta's movement is far and away the best thing we have going on our forward line at the moment; even if we aren't scoring enough goals, Tino is dragging players out of position and generally causing enough chaos to open things up for others. Quaranta is also undoubtedly our best option at linking the front line to the midfield right now, and he is often the first player both King and Simms look toward when they gain possession. In terms of ability, intelligence, and fitness, he's clearly our best forward as of right now.

On the other hand, we are simply not getting enough production from him. Quaranta has one goal and one assist in MLS play this season. I usually avoid focusing too much on statistics because they don't tell anything close to the whole story in soccer, but when your withdrawn forward has so little in the way of tangible results to show for his time on the field, something is clearly wrong. Shooting accuracy and confidence have been major issues, but perhaps even more important has been a tendency to deliver a poor final ball. It often seems like Quaranta's play only lifts to an appropriate level when Moreno is in, but they both want to play in the same spots on the field. When they're both on, we're still lacking an out-and-out striker in the 442, so our problems up front continue.

Hernandez will almost certainly walk into the starting lineup at this point, because everyone else has done little to prove they belong there. It's more about who gets to play alongside him at this point. My guess is that Quaranta will stay in the lineup for now, with Cristman and Allsopp battling to ensure their spot in the 18-man squad for game days.Right now, I'd say Cristman has the edge. If we're going to have a non-scoring forward, Cristman's ability to run forever and push defenders around opens more doors for everyone else than Allsopp's slightly higher ability with the ball.

However, much depends on what kind of player Hernandez is here. Is his best fit as a withdrawn forward? If so, Quaranta would have to push Najar to the bench, and at this point that seems highly unlikely. It would take a major step forward in form (up to the level we rightfully expect out of Tino) to even make this a difficult call right now. Najar may not influence games over 90 minutes consistently, but he's a potential match-winning player every week for us. Even in San Jose, where he wasn't often involved, he scored a quality goal and played a big part in keeping Bobby Convey and Ramiro Corrales quiet (though partial credit has to go to the rib injury that had Convey coughing up blood during the game). At the moment, I don't see a potential Najar vs. Quaranta battle for time as even being close. The Little Warrior is, as of now, probably one of the first names Onalfo writes down when he selects his lineups.

Quaranta also figures into the possible changes in midfield. For a second, we'll pretend he keeps his current starting role up front and gains a new partner in Hernandez. That leaves incorporating Boskovic, which will be a slower process as our new playmaker needs to get fit after the layoff from the European season. Boskovic is said to play both as a central attacking midfielder and as a left winger. I think it's safe to assume that he was brought here with that central spot in mind first and foremost; I can't imagine United using a DP slot on someone who is a better fit as a wide man (no disrespect, Seattle).

The obvious move is to simply bench King and start Boskovic. Things may be that straightforward, too. If Boskovic comes in, gets fit, and proves himself to be both dangerous offensively and able to do enough work defensively so as to not leave Simms on an island, then King's days as a starter are numbered. That would be a big improvement on carrying guys on our bench solely because they're literally the only option (coughMorsinkcough). A team good enough to keep an in-form King on the bench is a team that wins games in MLS.

Things could get tricky, though, and there are numerous reasons that we could see a formation change. What if Boskovic doesn't offer the defensive qualities we need in a 442? Or, say none of our forwards steps up his game; why play people who aren't doing enough at the expense of benching King, who is currently playing well? At some point, loyalty to a formation must be overruled by the realities of your available squad. If that comes to pass, we would most likely go to a 4231 given the guys doing well at the moment and the profiles of our newest acquisitions. It would most likely look something like this:



Hernandez








Pontius
Boskovic
Najar









King
Simms








Graye
James
Jakovic
McTavish









Perkins

One luxury of such a formation would be the easy move to a 433 if circumstances dictated it. Pontius is considered a midfielder/forward and is comfortable on the left, so I don't see any reason why he can't function as a left forward (especially considering the job isn't very different from what he'd have to do in this 4231). We've also heard a couple murmurs from the United youth academy that Najar's best position may be as a forward, so playing as a right forward would probably work just fine. There's also Quaranta, who I have long theorized is best suited playing in a 433 (but has never had the chance to do so over a long enough period to prove my hypothesis).

Naturally, this wouldn't be set in stone. Even if Najar would surely keep Quaranta out of the team based on current form, we can't deny that a) he's still 17 (and thus prone to bigger and less predictable dips in form) and b) Quaranta is capable of so much more than he's producing right now that even a moderate uptick in quality would make it highly difficult to keep him on the bench. There is also the possibility that Onalfo continues with his intriguing use of Moreno as a left winger, which would see Pontius switch to right midfield. That would also apply to the 433 mentioned above; in fact, with Moreno in, you'd almost have to think it would be more 433 than 4231.

We could also see a rehash of the attempts to use Quaranta centrally, which would put him in a battle with King for time. I'd rather not see that, but Onalfo was so enthusiastic about it early in the season that a second try at it can't be totally ruled out. Najar could also play that role (since he can apparently play everywhere).

By now you've probably sensed the players in danger of moving to the bench. Quaranta (for poor form), King (for simply not having as high of a "ceiling" as others), and Najar (for being a young player prone to inconsistency) are the players under the most scrutiny. This isn't a decision that Onalfo has to solve immediately, however; for the home games against Seattle and LA this week, I imagine we'll line up as such:



Hernandez Quaranta








Pontius




Najar


King
Simms








Graye
James
Jakovic
McTavish









Perkins

There's the chance that Onalfo won't be willing to play Hernandez from the start against Seattle, but what have we got to lose? If Hernandez turns out to be too lazy, or has issues adapting to actual MLS gameplay, we can make a switch at halftime. Meanwhile, holding him on the bench ensures a start for someone that probably won't score and robs us of the potential for Hernandez to surprise Sigi Schmid and his defenders. As for a partner, Quaranta (even in his current form) deserves the first crack at the job. Perhaps finally having someone else up front that also offers skill, size, smarts, and athleticism (as opposed to always having to compensate in at least one of those categories for someone else) will lessen his burden, allowing him to relax a bit and grow in confidence?

To sum up, my guess is that we won't see bold changes right away. Hernandez will start ahead of Cristman and Allsopp, who are both in and out of the team anyway. When Boskovic is ready to start, he'll replace King and we'll switch to more of a diamond midfield. Once that happens, however, the pressure is on the other starters. If a guy like King is on the bench, you have the kind of problems good teams have (i.e. you have someone on your bench who is there in spite of his quality efforts, like Columbus often does with Emilio Renteria or Real Salt Lake with their rotating band of dangerous strikers). That's a big step forward for us, but it also means that Quaranta has to start offering up more than just movement and the possibility of realizing his potential. It also means that Najar must either maintain his form or become our supersub. Finally, it means that when we encounter a game that isn't going our way, we have more options than "put in Moreno and hope for the best."