Balance is a vital component for any successful soccer team. Playing two poachers up front starves an attack of options in the build-up, for example. A midfield featuring too many traditional playmakers will struggle to win the ball back and will often appear to have too many cooks in the kitchen. A center back duo comprised of two big, powerful, but slow players might be unbeatable in the air, but they'll be shredded on the ground. Nothing groundbreaking here, right?
Sometimes the need for balance beyond these basic pairings gets forgotten though, and that's where people may miss out on the importance of Nick DeLeon in D.C. United's 442. Right midfield is very much a "little things" position for Ben Olsen's current set-up. It's where most of our attacks originate from - per WhoScored, we're the third-most right-sided team in that regard - yet it's not where our real danger is given Fabian Espindola's preference for drifting left and the key role Chris Rolfe plays in our attack. Even in terms of overlapping fullbacks, the more dangerous crosses are going to come from the left via Taylor Kemp.
So what does this have to do with balance? Why do we attack more via our seemingly less threatening wing? I think a major factor here is what kind of attacks we're talking about. Espindola is our biggest risk-taker with the ball, and Rolfe also has plenty of license to take chances. Crosses may not be a reliable way to generate chances, but when they do connect you tend to get big chances rather than half-chances. Why not feed the machine, so to speak?
The way United generates chances from the right tends to involve less risk, because they usually involve more people and an option of some sort in a deeper position. DeLeon loves to look for passing combinations, and that means forming triangles, which means someone is always going to be further away from the opposing goal. These attacks break down just like an Espindola 1v2 rush or Rolfe suddenly cutting inside his man can break down, but the difference is that United is usually in a position to prevent a break downfield. Teams may get the ball, but they're either forced into a slow build-up by the numbers around the ball, or they go with a low-percentage long ball.
United did a good job of striking a balance between riskier attacks and safer attacks. In that WhoScored table, United was 10th in MLS in terms of attacking from the left; it's down the middle (16th in 2014) where we don't generate as much, which makes sense considering that a) we don't have a traditional playmaker and b) the person who functions as the focal point of our attack is a forward who wanders out to both flanks.
It's not just about varied means of attacking teams. In possession, United needs DeLeon - or for that matter, Michael Farfan, Miguel Aguilar, or even Davy Arnaud now - to be a frequent contributor in central midfield. It's about options, basically. We primarily think of the times where United goes 3v2 in central midfield in defensive terms, but it's hard to keep the ball when those are the numbers in your region of the field. With Eddie Johnson's career apparently in jeopardy due to an enlarged heart at the moment, United will probably lack the option of playing to his feet through the middle, so that central help from a wide man will become more important than before.
There's the more obvious defensive role as well. There is a significant chance that every single Eastern Conference foe United will face is going to play either a a formation featuring three (or in NYCFC's case maybe even four) central midfielders. United did a great job last year of mitigating that numerical advantage, and it was often DeLeon's combination of smart choices and commitment to doing what is basically grunt work that allowed the Perry Kitchen-Davy Arnaud central midfield to succeed.
This might be why Olsen and Rolfe have both brought up Aguilar's defensive positioning in the preseason; it's not lack of effort but rather learning the responsibilities and decision-making process a United right midfielder is required to do well. This shouldn't be a problem for Farfan to pick up - he had similar duties when used as a left midfielder opposite Sebastien Le Toux in Philly - and it's also why we could see Arnaud get more than a handful of minutes on the right (particularly as a defensive sub).
All of this helps centrally, but it also frees Rolfe and Chris Pontius to be more attack-minded on the left. I mentioned the riskier style we see from our left side before, and it bears mentioning that we also let our left midfielder pick up a higher starting position. As much as Olsen's current 442 is derided as simplistic or pedestrian by people who simply haven't watched United play or are prone to sticking with #narrative, it usually works best when it's asymmetrical (asymmetry is pretty trendy these days, FYI). The right midfielder sacrifices a bit more so the left midfielder can cheat forward, particularly when opposing possession is about to break down.
I alluded to this earlier, so I'll close on a thought for 2015: Without a skillful target man - and with EJ sidelined indefinitely, that's what we are right now - anyone that plays right midfield will have to exceed the standard set in 2014. We get caught up in the fact that DeLeon isn't the goalscoring threat hew as a rookie, but goalscoring is only one of the many ways a player can be an important contributor. United's right midfield role is very important to how this team wins games, but if United were a movie we'd cast an ace character actor for the part rather than a star. It's a job that has to get done and done well, even if it means missing out on headlines.