D.C. United just wrapped up a three-game homestand with a frustrating draw against the defending MLS Cup champion Colorado Rapids, finishing the stretch with 5 points from nine. This was always going to be an important stretch for United, taking on three likely playoff sides from the deep Western Conference. Despite their dip in form over the last couple weeks heading into the homestand, the boys in black remained mid-table coming in. They're still right there heading out, having won only one of the three games.
Nevertheless, I think there's a good chance we'll look back at this stretch as a turning point for the team. The biggest jump in performance you're likely to see talked about - and rightfully so - is in the back, where Perry Kitchen's shift out to the right and Ethan White's insertion to the center have helped steady a defense whose woeful inadequacies have already been cataloged elsewhere. United gave up eight goals in the two games before the homestand while only allowing two during the course of the three games in the friendly confines of RFK.
Instead of adding to that considerable heap, though, I'd rather talk about the midfield, and the central midfield specifically. We've said all along that Dax McCarty's performance was going to be essential to this team's success, and this was only confirmed when he was named captain before the season opener. After this homestand, I think we've finally seen more than just glimpses into what he can provide, and where he needs to be to really be at his best. I'll clue you in to the details after the jump.
A lot of people have been somewhat disappointed with Dax McCarty, and as Chest has said several times, such disappointment is as much a function of misplaced expectations as with McCarty's form on the field. Martin made the observation that these expectations have something to do with the number Dax chose to wear when he arrived in D.C. With a trequartista tradition stemming from Marco Etcheverry and Christian Gomez, the United #10 shirt comes with the expectation that its wearer will play in that advanced playmaker role.
Of course, that's never been Dax's game. In Frisco, he covered ground in the center of the park, connecting the FC Dallas defense with David Ferreira, the Hoops' (now injured) own #10. McCarty's never been a Makelele-type of destroyer either, but he's always been more comfortable in a deeper-lying position than he has finding space between the lines. United may have only scored three goals in as many games, but there's little question that they created more danger over the past three games than they have over other similar stretches this season - only a breakdancing Kevin Hartman and some bizarre decisions from Terry Vaughn stood between United and better numbers in the Goals Scored column.
The reason for this greater danger does have something to do with the resurgence of Andy Najar and the continued good play of Chris Pontius, but it's also got a whole lot to do with Dax McCarty, who has been much better since dropping further away from goal, into a deeper midfield role. Over the last several games, regardless of who's been paired with McCarty, the formation has been something closer to a flat four in midfield, or at the very least a "T" or a "Y", rather than a full diamond. This plays to Dax's abilities much better than the advanced role he was trying to play earlier in the year. And with the tendencies of Chris Pontius and Andy Najar to drift centrally (or that of Fred da Silva, or Santino Quaranta, or really any other winger Ben Olsen might deploy), as well as our strikers' ability to drift wide or come underneath, United still have options in attack without McCarty playing in that advanced role. The resulting formation isn't exactly utilizing a double-pivot - a tool many of us speculated about when the team first acquired Dax in the trade with Portland - but it has some of the same virtues, especially regarding McCarty's skill set. Of course, that speculation centered on Branko Boskovic's playing the attacking midfield role, something that obviously won't be happening in the near term.
My hunch is that Olsen eventually would have paired Boskovic and McCarty in a diamond, moving Dax from the head to the base. I think it was Olsen's decision to stick with this system until Boskovic's inevitable return to form so that he'd be able to insert Boskovic right into the lineup and drop Dax to DM without needing to make other tactical changes. Whatever the wisdom of this tactical choice, unfortunately, Boskovic has joined Ferreira and Javier Morales on the shelf. Notice it was only when it was clear that Boskovic wouldn't be cracking the lineup at least until fall that McCarty began setting up deeper, more alongside Clyde Simms or Stephen King (depending on the game) than in front of them.
From what I've seen on the field and from some of the stuff at Big D Soccer, it looks like we've finally put Dax in a position to succeed on the field - not leading the attack from an advanced position, but winning the ball and linking play a bit deeper in the midfield, with either central midfielder free to break forward - as McCarty did when he should have won a red card against Dallas fullback Drew Moor. As you can tell from the fact that I'm rambling on for 1,000+ words on the subject, I think McCarty's dropping back to a deeper midfield role is a really important development, and one that will only help United's attack. Given the team's probable best XI, I think this is likely as part of a flat 4-4-2, but even at the base of a diamond midfield - as we saw during the last ten minutes against Colorado - McCarty looked at home deep in the midfield. Dax McCarty is at his most effective with space and time to pick out his passes to players who are more comfortable with out-and-out attacking, which means that he's going to be more dangerous setting up further away from goal. Finally, that's exactly what he's doing.
Now, Dax, about those set pieces.