Going into the first game of the season against Queretaro, the biggest questions about D.C. United's roster focused on the center of the midfield. Despite numerous overtures from the club, Perry Kitchen decided during the winter that it was time for him to move on in hopes of advancing his career, while Davy Arnaud is seemingly on the verge of retirement due to lingering issues with a concussion.
Markus Halsti seemed poised to start in Mexico against Los Gallos in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal, so it was somewhat of a surprise when manager Ben Olsen trotted out Marcelo Sarvas and Nick DeLeon as his midfield pair.
Most wouldn't have predicted such a pairing as the calendar turned to 2016. DeLeon, who has spent his entire professional career with the Black-and-Red, has always been a wide player in MLS, save for several cameos at right back and in the middle, while Sarvas - acquired in a trade with the Colorado Rapids - wasn't even with the team until the beginning of February.
But there they were in Mexico, working together to give United a chance to get a result in the first leg, despite the eventual 2-0 loss.
"The pairing between Nick and Sarvas was good. We didn't get to work on it a lot, for Nicky being in a new spot, and we're asking 'Celo to change what he is about, to complement [DeLeon]," Olsen told reporters on Monday. "I was pleased. There are things that need to be worked on in there, but the balance overall was better than I expected."
While most of the other positions on the field seem to be set for the time being for United, the center midfield positions seem to be up grabs with Kitchen's departure, and Arnaud's absence. Halsti picked up a calf strain in preseason, and also had to deal with the arrival of a newborn in January.
That forced Olsen's hand in Mexico, choosing two players who he thought could give him full 90 minutes performances, despite having to learn on the job how to work with each other and within the team structure.
"I think it's new for both of us. Nick is not in his original position. He's doing very well. He's a guy that is very strong, he can make runs, he can track players, and he can get into the box," Sarvas said about the roles for himself and DeLeon. "For me, I used to play more advanced, and now I have to sit more, have more discipline, tactical discipline."
"He's a fun guy to play with. He's a very attack minded midfielder as well. He likes to bomb forward at times as well, so for me and him, it's about finding a balance," DeLeon added about his partner. "When one goes, one has to cover. We are just in the middle of making that relationship that much stronger, where we just read each other, and know when to cover for each other."
The covering of each other worked well for the most part in the first leg against Queretaro, but the time that the two both got forward ended in a goal for Los Gallos. Sarvas had a rare surge forward as the clock struck 70 minutes, and sent a cross in the box. DeLeon was there to make a run, but Tiago Volpi pushed the ball out, and Queretaro quickly countered the other way.
With DeLeon and Sarvas both far up the field, United were caught out of rotation, and Yerson Candelo was able to take advantage with his well hit effort that was the eventual game winner.
Knowing when to come and go, when to stay and cover, and how to read and react to each other's movements will come in time for Sarvas and DeLeon. DeLeon is still learning the position, and Sarvas is still trying to learn his new role with the Black-and-Red.
For their manager, both have the abilities to succeed together.
"I like his ability to drive out of the middle. I like his second line running. He's able to play balls forward, his range of passing is good. He has all the qualities to succeed at that spot," Olsen said of DeLeon. "But it's going to take time. There's little nuances in the center of the park that you have to pick up, both sides of the ball, and in transition, that the games are going to be his teacher."
"He had a good match. It was part of the reason why we brought in Marcelo," Olsen said of the former LA Galaxy midfielder. "He's a mature player, he's been around the block, he's played in Central America, he's played on championship teams. He's a guy who gets it, and he's a good link for our group."
For a guy who has spent his entire career playing as a wide midfielder, there has been some distinct challenges for DeLeon as he has tried to quickly transition into a center midfielder. Though he had seen limited action there before, it wasn't until after the end of the 2015 season, when Olsen told him that he might be needed there with the potential departure of Kitchen, that DeLeon realized that might be the next move of his career.
And thus far, he has taken to that transition. It's still a work in progress, but there are reasons why he got the start down in Mexico. DeLeon believes that he is growing into the role, not over thinking the position as he was at the beginning of the preseason.
"The first few [preseason games] was more thinking while I'm playing, and it's not coming instinctively. I'm at the point now, where instincts are taking over," DeLeon said. "I'm not thinking as much as I was before, and it's becoming more natural."
The switch for Sarvas is a more subtle one. A career center midfielder, Olsen is now asking Sarvas to move further back in midfield, to help protect the back four, and turn defense into offense for his teammates. While not as big of a change as DeLeon's, there are still nuances that the Brazilian is working on.
"It's not a big change, for me its more about the the tactical discipline. I like to press, I like to move forward, get behind the line of the ball, and get involved in the attack," Sarvas said of how he is used to playing. "So I need to cut a little of the forward part, and stay in good positions behind the ball, to recover balls, and make the players in front of me have the ball as much as they can."