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D.C. United training notebook: Could United opt for a 433 this season?

United heads back to Florida looking to “get in the habit of winning”

Jason Anderson/Black and Red United

Earlier this week, D.C. United wrapped up the first phase of their preseason, returning to the area for a few days of training, media availability, and other obligations. A day before returning to Florida to resume training camp, United worked out at The St. James in Springfield. Intensity was noticeably higher than was seen before the club spent two weeks in Florida, with sturdy challenges and a higher tempo popping up throughout the 105 minute session.

“We’ve already built up some fitness in this first half of preseason, and now it’s time to get back down to Florida, kind of finalize the way we want to go about the season,” said defender Steven Birnbaum, who added that he wants the team to “get in the habit of winning” in their final three preseason games (against Orlando today, Nashville SC on Wednesday the 19th, and finally against Philadelphia on February 22).

Recently acquired midfielder Julian Gressel, who used the time back in the area to pick out an apartment with his wife, was looking forward to getting more time on the training field. “The trainings have been good. I think we need a little more reps. The next ten days will give us those, where we just play through things, and then talk through things, and go in the classroom and look through things. So yeah, it’s been a good process.”

On the day, United focused on building out of the back, and on how to play in two different formations. United spent equal time working on both the 4231 that they’ve been using for most of the last two seasons, and on a 433 alignment.

In both set-ups, United had Gressel working out in a central role, with Paul Arriola and Ulises Segura out wide.

“We’ve played Julian at like six positions,” joked Olsen, before turning serious. “That’s a blessing and a curse with guys that are versatile. You can move them around, but sometimes it halts them from mastering that spot, or mastering some relationships. So we’re slowly narrowing down where he’ll fit in for us.”

Gressel, who emphasized that he’ll play wherever he’s asked to, pointed out that his position in training has stemmed from both a need to observe different possibilities, and the fact that players like Edison Flores and Yamil Asad haven’t been available. “I’ve played all over the place a little bit. But that was also because we had some [players out with] little knocks, you know, kind of moving things around, kind of seeing how everything fits. Obviously we’re going to have to adjust during the season.”

Russell Canouse, as shown in the above photo, spent the session at right back. Like Gressel, that’s partially due to team needs, as both Oniel Fisher and Chris Odoi-Atsem (who both saw time at right back and left back with the second team) are still building up after long spells on the sidelines.

The 24-year-old midfielder downplayed the idea that he was missing out on too much by having to spend this phase away from his natural position. “For everybody, not just me individually, it’s understanding not only the position you’re training in, but also the other positions in the team and how you within your position can react off of other guys. I’m getting reps in at both positions so far in preseason, right back here today, and I’m trying to take everything in.”

Gressel noted that there are still things going on away from the training field that allow versatile players to get a feel for what they’ll be doing at a given position, as well as a way for absentees to have their say in how the team is going to evolve. “I think we obviously have video sessions where we talk a lot about things, where we imagine players in different spots, where [injured players] are definitely included. They have their input on certain things. Those communications are big, and important for us to take steps in the right direction, and then obviously we just have to go through certain things as well. We’ll make mistakes, we’ll learn from those mistakes. I think that’s the best way to learn, you know?”

Injury update

Flores and Asad, both of whom are dealing with groin injuries, worked out on the side throughout. Olsen expressed some optimism that both are in line to see time in United’s upcoming preseason matches. “We anticipate Edison being in full training by the end of this week,” said Olsen. “Most likely, in the Wednesday game...and then the Saturday game against Philly, we would hope he’ll get minutes in both of those.”

Asad, who Olsen termed “a little bit more behind Edison at this point,” is in the frame to hopefully receive some time in the preseason finale against the Union, which would open the door for him to possibly make the gameday 18 for United’s season opener against the Colorado Rapids.

Olsen expressed sympathy for Donovan Pines, who returned from a minor hamstring strain only to sprain his ankle in his first practice after being cleared. “It’s not been a fun 2020 for him,” said Olsen before emphasizing that he sees Pines as part of his plans this season. While Olsen hoped the diagnosis for the center back would only be “a couple of weeks,” the Washington Post’s Steve Goff later reported that the injury will keep Pines sidelined for over a month.

Sorga’s status

Erik Sorga played up front for the second team, providing a presence with and without the ball. While still technically a player signed with Loudoun United, it’s expected that he’ll have a D.C. United contract confirmed in the very near future.

Based on early returns, Olsen has been pleased with what the 20-year-old Estonian has brought to the table.

“He has done well so far. We have not seen a ton of him. We saw him in one game, and it was only for a few minutes, because he’s a little bit behind physically. He was off for a couple months [due to the European offseason], and we’ve gotta make sure we don’t go backwards and give him any type of injury.”

Interestingly, Olsen said that getting him into the fold has revealed that Sorga’s approach to the game echoes that of Ola Kamara, his main competition for playing time. “The more we see him, the more we feel he’s similar to Ola. His ability to maneuver in the box, he smells chances very well... Sometimes you want a different profile forward, in case you need to go about the game in a different way, but it’s also nice to have a kind of like-for-like,” reasoned Olsen, who added that he’s been impressed with Sorga’s soccer IQ. “Speaking to him, he’s picked up what we want out of him very quickly, both on the field and in the classroom.”

Trialist watch

After releasing Duke Lacroix (who signed with the Charlotte Independence) and allowing some Loudoun players to join the USL Championship affiliate’s own preseason preparations, United’s selection of players in camp who aren’t under contract has dwindled. Goalkeeper Simon Lefebvre, selected in this year’s draft, took part in the full session, but all signs point to him ending up with Loudoun for the season. Fellow draft pick Josh Fawole is out with an injury for the time being, while Loudoun midfielder Michael Gamble participated in the session to help United be able to do some 11v11 work.

That leaves trialists Aaron Maund and Carter Manley as the only players whose status is not particularly clear. Maund was given a strong chance to make more of a case, spending the entire 11v11 portion of training paired with Birnbaum on the first team’s back line. The 29-year-old looked the part, and with United currently down to just two healthy center backs, his chances of being offered a deal appear fairly solid.

Manley, a right back up to this point in his career, spent time at the base of the midfield triangle, putting in solid work supporting United homegrowns Moses Nyeman and Kevin Paredes.

“We’d like to add a piece or two. Whether that’s outside of the trialists that are here, or picking up Aaron or Manley. They’re in contention, and we just want to look at them a little longer,” said Olsen. However, there does appear to be pressure to make a choice one way or another in the near future. “We also have to be fair to them. If it’s not in the cards to sign them, we have to get them to another place to have an opportunity to sign,” explained Olsen.

The tougher preseason schedule? All part of the plan

In previous years, United has generally played four or five preseason games, with opponents from Scandinavia and the USL seemingly selected based on their proximity to United’s preferred base in Clearwater, Florida.

This year, however, the plan was to play more games, and for those games to be tougher. United scheduled games against the New York Red Bulls and the Philadelphia Union, two of MLS’s biggest adherents of high-pressure, physical soccer, and Olsen said that was not just because those teams happened to be in Florida.

“The way they go about the game now, it’s a really good exercise in preseason,” said Olsen of the Red Bulls, who rolled to a 3-0 victory over a United side that, while fielding a mixed team, still had a strong back four on the field. “Every time you see them for the first time in the regular season, it takes you 10-15 minutes to kind of get up to speed on how quickly the transitions happen, how quickly you have to prep to find somebody or be in a good spot to help, because of the way they speed the game up (snapping for emphasis). So to see that early, and get punished for not being up to speed, will help us in the regular season.”

The Union, who have largely gotten the better of recent meetings, will provide another tough challenge in D.C.’s preseason finale. “Philly’s similar: one of the teams that want to push the tempo, and they give you two forwards [to defend against] and make you make some tough decisions. So every one of these is a little glimpse into, not only the [teams] you’re gonna play, but you, and how you handle certain aspects of the opponent,” said Olsen. “That’s why we scheduled a bunch of games with tough opponents. Each game we dissect, we grow a little bit.”