MLS First Kick has come and gone, but most DC United fans are much more concerned with our own opener, Saturday evening against the Columbus Crew. While much of the starting lineup appears set, there is much more competition throughout the squad that Ben Olsen has assembled for 2011. We took a look at United's defense last night, but there are other big choices to make further forward as well.
In past offseasons, the appointment of a history-obsessed club's favorite son would be the biggest story. Or maybe it would be the trade that brought new captain and potential national team player Dax McCarty aboard. However, in what has been a wild winter, DC made arguably the biggest splash of any MLS club by acquiring Charlie Davies on loan from FC Sochaux of France. Davies, whose emergence as a US national team starter was followed by a nearly fatal accident and a much-publicized attempt to recover from his injuries in time for the 2010 World Cup, is what they call a "get" in the media. One example: CD9 has more Twitter followers than United and MLS combined.
Despite being the biggest headline, however, there is no guarantee that Davies will be a first-choice player as the 2011 season begins. Thanks to the efforts of Olsen, the coaching staff, and GM Dave Kasper, the club has more proven options at forward than they did in 2010. MLS veterans Joseph Ngwenya and Josh Wolff have come aboard via the MLS Re-Entry Draft, and Supplemental Draft pick Blake Brettschneider has emerged in the preseason as a player capable of scoring goals in Olsen's preferred 442 alignment as well. That doesn't even factor in the wide midfielders DC has that can play up top, which include Chris Pontius, Andy Najar, and Santino Quaranta. To put it plainly, Olsen has a wide array of choices in picking his starting front line.
Read on to see how Olsen is likely to sort those choices out:
Let's start off by cherry-picking the most likely outcomes for the above list of potential forwards. Najar and Pontius are virtual locks to start at right and left midfield, respectively, against the Crew Saturday. Najar won the 2010 Rookie of the Year award playing primarily on the right wing, while "Party Boy" has returned from a major hamstring injury to edge himself ahead of Designated Player Branko Boskovic on the left. Quaranta, for his part, will be giving it his all to break into the lineup on either flank ahead of those two; until that happens, look for him to be a sub that appears in virtually every game on one wing or the other. Finally, while Brettschneider has exceeded expectations - finishing tied with Davies for second on the club's preseason goalscoring charts with four - he's not yet a realistic option to challenge our other three natural forwards (all of whom have appeared for their respective national teams). Look for him to be a regular in reserve matches and the US Open Cup, and don't count him out as a player that can garner semi-regular appearances on the gameday bench either.
That leaves us with Davies, Ngwenya, and Wolff. Ngwenya, for his part, appears to have earned a starting job. United's first-ever Zimbabwean player notched six preseason goals, including a well-worked equalizer in the Black-and-Red's preseason-closing 2-2 draw with Toronto FC (enough hyphens for you there?). Ngwenya has shown a good understanding with everyone he's been paired with, and has put his outstanding athletic gifts to good use. Most importantly, Ngwenya has given United a player that wants to crash the goal right down the center channel, and that's where his goals have been coming from. While DC had players that did that last year (Danny Allsopp and Adam Cristman come to mind), no one offered the quickness or, frankly, the desire Ngwenya has shown throughout the preseason. While his name won't be chiseled in stone as a starter - Olsen looks like he'll be playing the hot hand all season - Ngwenya looks like he's the striker in the best form at the moment.
That leaves us with Davies and Wolff, both of whom are loved by US soccer fans for their exploits against Mexico. At their best, there's no question that Davies would start; he'd be as good a forward as there is in MLS. However, Davies has not played a first-team match since the fall of 2009. In spite of some very promising displays, including a well-struck goal in the aforementioned Carolina Challenge Cup match against Toronto, there have been plenty of signs that he still has a long road back to being the guy that was starting in Ligue 1 and for Bob Bradley's Yanks. His trip back to France to pack up his possessions for a move to the District brought with it a significant amount of rust, while he also had to train on the side Tuesday after apparently tweaking his groin muscle. Davies appears to have his speed and strength back, but his body appears to be not quite conditioned to the rigors of constant high-level play. While completely understandable after his injuries and the length of time he was away from the game, the fact is that his recovery time is a question mark when it comes to possibly having to go 90 minutes with points in the standings on the line.
There are also question marks attached to Wolff. One worry amongst United fans after signing him was the fact that he didn't score many goals for Kansas City last year. That can be attributed mostly to the decision by Peter Vermes to switch to a 433 that demanded top-line speed at each wide forward spot. The formation, more than anything else, kept Wolff off the field. Olsen's 442 is a much better fit for Wolff, who scored 11 goals in 2009 in a similar alignment. Partnered with either Ngwenya or Davies - both of whom would play higher up the field - Wolff can use his vast experience and quality technical ability to help unlock defenses both as a scorer and as a provider.
The other, more relevant worry with Wolff is that he went scoreless in the preseason despite getting ample time. While that's not a surefire indicator of anything, it is something that will give United fans pause after watching their collective strikeforce contribute just nine league goals in 2010. While I don't think Wolff will match that 2009 haul, he should have no problem reaching a target of, say, seven goals and seven assists over the course of the season. That assist total is just as vital in my book; Wolff's ability to create chances for others will be his best asset in a United shirt.
On Opening Day, it seems most likely that Wolff will get the start alongside Ngwenya, with Davies a lock to come in as a sub. That pattern will probably hold up over the first month or so. Wolff will try to play in the space between the opposing defense and defensive midfielders, while Ngwenya will offer a dynamic presence pushed up high. The key for getting the best out of Wolff will be the runs United gets from Ngwenya, Najar, Pontius, and McCarty coming from central midfield.
However, as the practices and games pile up and Davies re-adjusts to the daily grind of the life of a pro soccer player, my expectation is for he and Wolff to switch roles. Davies and Ngwenya are somewhat similar players, but their partnership in Charleston looked strong nonetheless. Both players have the skill to drop off underneath, and both have the speed, strength, and physical presence to battle defenders while leading the line.