So, DC United is facing a new situation this season. It's a question the team really never had to answer in 2010 -United just has too many players of starting quality. Martin and Chest have discussed the position battles in defense and the forward line, but the "problem" is especially pronounced in midfield, where no fewer than six players are legitimate MLS starters. Here's the thing: we know from Ben Olsen's statements and tactics through the preseason that he prefers the 4-4-2, and three of the four midfield spots are all but locked up by newly minted skipper Dax McCarty, midfield anchor Clyde Simms, and 2010 MLS Rookie of the Year/new Vokswagen owner Andy Najar. That leaves three players vying for time in the fourth and final spot in Ben Olsen's midfield: the left wing. Designated Player Branko Boskovic, 2010 on-field captain Santino Quaranta, and 2009 Rookie of the Year finalist Chris Pontius are all looking for starter's minutes on the left side of midfield.
So, who's it going to be? All three players are capable of starting - and succeeding - on a Playoff-quality MLS team, but we can't shoehorn any more than one into United's crowded midfield (at least, not without a change in formation, which just might come along later this season).
The early money is on Chris Pontius, who spent last year on the mend from a hamstring injury. Party Boy has been impressive in preseason: pressing well and applying high pressure on defense, making good runs off the ball, and finding teammates in goal-scoring positions. Most importantly, there are hints that Pontius has discovered the finishing touch, something the Black-and-Red were sorely missing last year. As for the defensive side of things, United haven't really found themselves under siege from a good attacking team yet, but we know from his rookie experience that #13 can mix it up all over the field, not just in attack.
After vacating the center of the park (a failed experiment under Onalfo) Quaranta found room on the left side of midfield in 2010. His specialty is the long diagonal ball, generally to an onrushing Andy Najar. Quaranta's a worker, ably tracking back on defense when required and hustling to get into forward positions once United regains possession. There are times, though, when Tino can get impatient and send in an ill-advised early ball or force an angled cross out for a goal kick. His best quality, however, has to be his leadership; he's been through hell and fought his way back, and there's very little he's not willing to do to help the team. Sometimes that means taking the armband. Sometimes it means getting fiery in practice. Right now, it looks like that means taking on a substitute's role, and as much as he wants to get back into the First XI, I think it's something Quaranta can do. And he's a hell of a supersub to have in reserve.
Boskovic provides a different look on offense, drifting inside from the left and staying behind the strikers to pull the strings rather than making forward runs himself. Heading into the preseason, several of us thought that the Montenegrin was going to be vital to United's chances in 2011, but just a day away from the opener, he appears set to start the season on the bench. I think this has more to do with Pontius' resurgence than any dip from Boskovic (though, I've been wrong before), but he still heads into this weekend seemingly on the outside. Other than coming on as a "change of pace" substitute or the occasional start, it looks like Boskovic's best chances of finding time in the First XI are a formation change from Ben Olsen or one of the starting wingers moving up top, neither of which is outside the realm of possibility over the course of the season.
Right now, I think most of us would agree that Pontius is the right choice to start. He provides pace, crossing ability, and (at long last) finishing. It should definitely be noted, though, that at the start of preseason, he was paired up top with Charlie Davies (with whom I thought he showed a good understanding) while Boskovic manned the left side of midfield. In either case, a starting job seems to be Party Boy's to lose.
It's going to be interesting to see how this resolves as the season goes along. Who do you think should be starting in midfield for United?