D.C. United has been very busy this offseason. We've added to the coaching staff, we added some veteran forwards to boost an anemic attack, we've cut some highly paid underperformers, we've done some shopping abroad, and we had what looks on paper to be a successful draft. The first meeting, physicals, and fitness tests are today. In other words, it's go time.
The club has attempted to address the litany of issues it had in 2010, and the vibe appears different this year. Still, we won't be able to find out much about the intangibles of how this group fits together until they actually get on a field and get to work. Trying to figure out who will be a starter in January is often a fool's errand (if you thought Andy Najar would be our starting right midfielder at this time of year, then I'd like to congratulate you on raising a fine young man because you are Mr. or Mrs. Najar).
Making things even more complicated is the fact that new coach Ben Olsen has assembled a squad chock full of versatile players, most of whom have at least some experience at two or more positions. The 2011 edition of D.C. United will be, if nothing else, flexible. If Olsen wants to tinker during games, he won't have any shortage of options. This will also ensure that competition for playing time is more fierce than it was last year, where getting on the field for D.C. seemingly required nothing more than being able to walk and having your own pair of shinguards.
Beyond the jump, we'll start a two-part series attempting to make sense of the numerous options Olsen has, both in terms of formation and with regards to each position within those formations.
We should start off with what appears, at this point, to be the most likely lineup. Olsen appeared to strongly favor the 442 last season, sticking with it through the never-ending series of injuries that defined his spell as interim head coach last season. However, I'd say that there are at least a couple reasons to stop short of saying that Olsen is a strict 442 coach. Those injuries, and the desire to give a young team with no confidence something to build on, are big reasons to stick with a familiar, tried-and-true formation. If you've played soccer, you've played in a 442. It's the standard, the default.
Those qualifiers aside, I am inclined to agree with The Fullback Files in giving the 442 the shortest odds as our 2011 formation. The reason why is essentially a numbers game. I think we're going to have a back four (though I'm not 100% sure of that, as will be discussed later), and our forwards are all cut out to play with a partner, which means we have only four available spots for midfielders.
442 is not a catch-all term, however. The Colorado Rapids and Real Salt Lake both play 442, but they are very different in how their midfield four line up and what they do once they get in position. Given the players we have at our disposal, I think we could end up a narrow diamond like RSL uses almost as easily as we could see ourselves as a more possession-oriented Rapids clone.
Let's look at that latter option first. The Rapids played two defensive midfielders in their engine room, with Pablo Mastroeni tending to push forward slightly more often than Jeff Larentowicz.On the wings, there was a rotating cast of characters (Jamie Smith, Brian Mullan, Wells Thompson, etc) but the job remained the same: Play high up the field, but not so high as to be confused with a winger in, say, the popular 4141/433 hybrid.
For United, it's safe to say that our new #10 Dax McCarty will play one of those central roles, but which one? I think McCarty would excel playing the Mastroeni part with a more attacking mindset than Colorado's captain, but that would leave Olsen with some real headaches. If McCarty is the more attacking central midfielder in this particular 442, then you have a domino effect on your hands.Are you sitting down? Here goes:
Branko Boskovic, who still has to prove he can adjust to MLS, would be pushing for the starting job at left midfield...where our new captain Santino Quaranta started for most of last season. OK, you say, Quaranta can play all over the place. Well, if you want to move Tino to his old right midfield position, you need to find somewhere to put Najar, who happens to be our deadliest attacking force. So if you're OK with that too, and you move Najar to forward (where some people, including Thomas Rongen, want him to go anyway), who do you partner with him? Chris Pontius, Josh Wolff, and Joseph Ngwenya all seem to prefer playing off a target man, and Najar is our smallest player. Can you get Pontius or Ngwenya - who both have the athletic qualities for the job - to adapt to the target role? What about the rumored pursuit of a real out-and-out striker? There are no clear-cut answers to any of these positional quandaries at the moment.
There's also the option of asking McCarty to play the more defensive role and playing Boskovic centrally. I don't think I see Olsen going that way. McCarty was brought here to be a big part of what we do, not to be sacrificed in a role that's not really his best spot just to accommodate other players. That pairing also means leaving Clyde Simms, one of our few proven, reliable MLS veterans on the bench. If this team is so good that we can afford to leave a guy like Simms on the bench, then great; we're probably going to win MLS Cup. However, if you think D.C. United is an MLS Cup favorite right now, I'd like to try whatever you're drinking.
We haven't even discussed the back four. Will left back be filled by Marc Burch, newcomer (of sorts) Daniel Woolard, or draftee Chris Korb? How about new signing Rodrigo Brasesco taking over at right back and Jed Zayner moving to the left? Brasesco might also factor in at center back, where there is no shortage of potential but also no sure-thing answer either. Julius James and Dejan Jakovic are the incumbents, but Perry Kitchen and Ethan White are blue-chip prospects. If Jakovic fails to eliminate the occasional disasters from his game, or if James can't continue to progress further after an encouraging 2010, there's every chance that our pair of USA youth internationals (combined age as of today: 38, or the same age as Juan Manuel Pena) could take one or even both of their jobs. Bottom line: The defense looks better than last year, but it's also extremely unsettled, and that will probably be the case until May or June at the earliest.
I told myself going into this that I'd commit to a "most likely" version of each proposed lineup. This is the first one, and it's already pretty difficult. There are two or more players with serious claims to virtually every position in this formation. I guess the bright side is that Olsen isn't going to lack options. Here is my best guess at this version of the 442:
Even as I enter this into Excel, I'm full of misgivings. A forward duo of Quaranta and Pontius will offer very good movement and plenty of skill in possession, but the biggest knock on both players is their finishing. If there's one thing you need forwards to do, it's finish; otherwise, you might as well pack the midfield and hope to play for a lot of 0-0 draws. I don't have high hopes for Quaranta to suddenly become a deadly finisher, but in this formation he'd either have to improve his finishing enough to keep a position, or play well enough at left midfield to displace the captain of a national team with real chance of qualifying for Euro 2012.
The bright side to all this is that two pretty decent players are going to be kept out of the team. Whether it's Quaranta, Pontius, Boskovic, Wolff, Ngwenya, or even Simms, it's a problem we never had last season. This may not be a worst-to-first kind of revamp, but I think it's clear that we've at least improved somewhat in terms of top-line starters and have added a lot of depth.
Circling back, the RSL version of the 442 is also a formation we could opt for. I refer to their formation as a 4312, because their wide men pinch in and play closer to Kyle Beckerman than to Javier Morales, who pushes far enough forward that he should be considered between the midfield and the forwards in my book. It's a tough act to pull off, however. Beckerman may be the most attacking defensive midfielder in MLS, and RSL only gets away with playing such an attacking midfield because they have outstanding individual defenders that also form the league's most cohesive, well-drilled collective defense.
This all sounds out of our reach, right? RSL is miles better than us, even with our strides forward. However, we do have at least one player that plays in a similar style to each of RSL's starters. Boskovic would obviously be our answer to Morales, though obviously he has not yet figured out MLS in the way that the Argentine wizard has. McCarty would be our Beckerman, as both are hard-working guys that, at some point in their careers, saw themselves as closer to a playmaker than a destroyer. Najar would be our Will Johnson, as both are high-energy types that cover tons of ground. Johnson has more defensive acumen, but Najar will provide more of a scoring punch. Finally, our version of Andy Williams/Ned Grabavoy (since Jason Kreis rotates them virtually every game) would be Quaranta, as in each case we have a player capable of defensive responsibility but preferring to focus on their role as the team's primary source of deadly mid-range passing.
It's not an exact perfect match, but it's a lot closer upon further examination than it would have appeared on the surface. The big issue is that this midfield, even with the defensive work we'd get out of everyone, would leave our back four exposed quite often. Boskovic would also have to hit the ground running to even come close to being a mimic of Morales.
Simms would be the odd man out, unless Olsen chose him in the defensive role. In that case, we could see McCarty move to the right (a role he's had before, and since he'd be pinched in it would mitigate the fact that he's better centrally to at least some extent). Najar would start up front, and to further the RSL parallel, he'd probably be best off playing forward like Fabian Espindola does. We'd once again have the gaggle of forwards competing for one job, but that's a good problem to have. Actually, if I'm being honest, I think this second version is the stronger version of this formation, though playing McCarty wide does seem like less than a sure thing.
The real issue with trying to be an East Coast version of RSL is the defense. We can match roles with RSL midfielders all we want, but ultimately their back four is stronger at every single position, and Rimando may be the best keeper in MLS today. It's that foundation that allows RSL to be so attack-oriented. They're able to defend with three or four men more successfully because those three or four men happen to be top-notch players. We used to do the same thing under Bruce Arena, Peter Nowak, and in Tom Soehn's first season. We can't get away with it now, unless Jakovic is ready to play up to the very top of his potential...and Simms has the best season of his career...and Brasesco is an outstanding signing...and Zayner plays left back like he plays right back. The point is, so many things would have to go perfectly; if all of these things happened, I'd advise Will Chang and Kevin Payne to also start buying lottery tickets.
In the end, I think the first 442 (somewhere between a flat four and the "empty bucket" Bob Bradley deploys with the US) is the most likely variation on the 442 that we'll see. Still, with the versatility throughout the team, nothing is written in stone.
In part two, we'll take a look at a few other formations, like the 4231, the 433, and yes, even the 3412. Those formations strongly emphasize our central midfield depth, but in each case there is at least one big ol' question mark.