Heading into the 2016 MLS Playoffs, D.C. United are just about the healthiest they have been all year, which raises two lineup questions for head coach Ben Olsen. With both Marcelo Sarvas and Sean Franklin playing 45 minutes in the 4-2 loss to Orlando City SC on Sunday, Olsen is now faced with the prospect of keeping together a team that’s on a run, or re-inserting two savvy veterans who have missed time to injuries.
It’s a decision that is sure to cause Olsen plenty of angst in between now and Thursday.
"There’s a whole bunch of different things that I think about," Olsen said Tuesday when contemplating who would start at right back and defensive midfielder.
"I watch them at training, I ask them how they are feeling. I watched them in the game the other day," Olsen added. "I think about how long they were out, I think about their experience."
Franklin, who went down with a calf injury in the 2-2 draw against the New York Red Bulls on September 11, was initially replaced by second year defender Luke Mishu. Mishu completed the game against the Red Bulls, and then started the next against the Chicago Fire. But Nick DeLeon, who mostly played central midfield this season after primarily being a wide midfielder during his career, replaced Mishu during that game and hasn’t looked back since.
DeLeon featured at right back in the four games after the Fire draw and before the Orlando loss. Those four games ended in wins for United, the reason why they ended up where they did in the Eastern Conference, hosting their knockout game against Montreal.
"He’s very versatile. He knows the game of football, that’s what is important. Whatever place you put him, he seems to do well," right winger Lloyd Sam told B&RU. "He settled in nicely. We’ve gone on our winning streak while he’s at right back. That says a lot."
In his fifth season with the club, it seems like DeLeon is looking for a permanent spot in the team, having bounced around from position to position in 2016. But during this stint replacing a veteran like Franklin, he has improved defensively while taking advantage of having more space available to him on the wing.
"He can make up ground with his speed, and his physicality is tough to get around. I think he’s improving on his 1v1 defending, and keeping the line," team captain Bobby Boswell said on Tuesday. "There’s little things he’s working on, but I don’t feel like there’s a drop off with him in there."
"He still has that natural instinct to go forward and get crosses off. In a way, it’s easier for him now," added Boswell. "A lot of times, if Lloyd [Sam] is inverted and he gets around, he has more time and space than he would had he been the guy that is out there."
So now Olsen has to choose between breaking up a starting eleven that hasn’t lost in weeks (the group that lost in Orlando only featured one normal starter in Rob Vincent), or putting Franklin and Marcelo back in the team with their wealth of experience.
Marcelo went down with a right knee sprain in the 4-1 win over Orlando City in September. Julian Buescher was his immediate replacement in that game, but Jared Jeffrey returned from a concussion in the next game against Columbus Crew SC to function as the ball-winner, while Vincent moved into the anchor role Marcelo had been playing.
It’s been a combination of Buescher and Jeffrey since then, with the likeliest competition for Marcelo’s spot to be Jeffrey come Thursday.
"It’s been a group effort. Guys like Rob Vincent and Jared [Jeffrey]," Olsen noted in terms of players who have chipped in this year in United’s success. "I’m really proud of that. It’s going to take that over the next couple of days to move on this journey."
"We’ve got some good guys back. We have a lot of players now," said Sam. "It’s nice to have full strength going into the playoffs."