As D.C. United's preseason gets underway, we here at B&RU will look at a few of the team's pieces and how they can and should be used in 2012. Our first installment focused on Chris Pontius and whether he should be used in the midfield or on the forward line. Today, we ask a similar question about defending MLS MVP and Golden Boot winner Dwayne De Rosario.
Has anybody in the history of Major League Soccer ever had half a season like the second half of Dwayne De Rosario's 2011? After coming to United from New York on June 27 in what was unquestionably the Steal of the Year, DeRo scored 13 goals and dished out 7 assists in 18 games, both team highs. If you're following along at home, that was good for an unthinkably high 1.2 goals and assists per 90 minutes, and it adds up to DeRo's having a direct hand in 70% of the team's goals after he arrived from the Red Bulls. He effectively put United on his back and willed the team into the playoff race. Were it not for a couple of late season injuries to Chris Pontius and Dejan Jakovic, there's every likelihood that the Canadian international would have succeeded in leading the Black-and-Red into the postseason for the first time since 2007.
Ever since the day he arrived, though - and really, throughout most of his career - De Rosario has been followed by the question: what is his best position? Is he an attacking midfielder, or is he a forward? Either way, he'll generally look to occupy space between the opposition's midfield and defense, but his starting points, the nature and number of scoring opportunities, and his defensive responsibilities will vary based on which position he takes up.
We've asked the question before, in the context of United's 2011 roster, but let's ask it again: where should De Rosario line up? Arguments, a poll and your comments after the jump.
I won't go point/counterpoint on this post, because I think the question is a lot less close than it is with Pontius. Last year, up until DeRo came along, United were without anybody who could really orchestrate the attack. Dax McCarty can be the engine room of an MLS team, but he's not the string-pulling type. Branko Boskovic began the year out of shape and, once he was fit, got kicked to the point of season-ending injury in an early season Open Cup game, leaving United without his services and eventually leading me to conclude that De Rosario should be primarily deployed in midfield.
But that was last year. This year, we have a Boskovic who - by Ben Olsen's telling - is as fit and driven as he's been since arriving in D.C. two summers ago. Assuming we'll want to play our best players in the starting XI, and further assuming that an in-shape, in-form Boskovic will easily force his inclusion in the lineup, the easiest way to accommodate United's attacking talent will be to put DeRo up top. Otherwise, we put Boskovic out left (where he'll drift inside and not provide the pace or width we need from wide midfielders in Olsen's system) and shift Pontius up top (where I think he can succeed, though he's been more threatening over his young career coming from the wing).
Putting DeRo in midfield also means moving him farther away from goal, which will necessarily reduce the number of chances he'll see. Not just because of the decreased proximity, but also because midfield (even attacking midfield) generally requires a lot more work on defense than forward - shutting down the opposing team's holding midfielder and tracking back to protect the DM and back four uses up a lot of energy, especially for a 33 year old. Last year, it was a necessary evil, as we had nobody else who could effectively play the position; even then, DeRo was often shifted to forward late in games, reducing his defensive responsibilities and allowing him to focus on creating and poaching goals.
In 2012 - barring another catastrophic run of injuries (knock wood) - there's little doubt in my mind that DeRo should - and almost certainly will - spend the buik of his time lined up at forward, underneath another striker. He'll play a free role, giving him license to read what the game needs - he can drop deep and help with possession and buildup or he can stay forward to keep pressure on opposing center backs or he can use a high starting position and drop deep to pull a center back out of position (a tactic that San Jose used against us to perfection at RFK last year).
A free role really only works, though, if the players behind you are solid enough in defense to limit your responsibilities when out of possession. I think that one added layer we get by putting the "free role" on the forward line and not the midfield line is important in this respect. Boskovic gives DeRo that extra little bit of cover to be audacious or to fudge the tactics a little bit in search of an advantage. With DDR, those risks frequently pay off, so you need a system designed to let DeRo be DeRo. Unlike last year (when we leaked goals and had no other attacking midfield options), with United's 2012 roster, we can best do that with him at forward.
That's my take, anyway. Let us hear yours by voting in the poll and giving it to us in the comments.