Defensive midfield has been a bit of a problem for D.C. United in 2017. It was widely considered a potential weak point coming into the year, and after two underwhelming games, it appeared that Marcelo Sarvas might be rotated out for Rob Vincent. Vincent then got hurt during training before that could happen, and though Marcelo took a half-step forward against Columbus, and then a full step forward against Philadelphia, he’s now suspended for United’s match against NYCFC tomorrow.
That leaves Ben Olsen with some difficult selection issues against New York City FC. Let’s look at the candidates:
Jeffrey is the most obvious choice. He’s the only experienced defensive midfielder available, and he’s the only player on the roster with Marcelo’s ball-winning ability. He’s also more athletic than Marcelo, which will be important against an NYCFC team that used their speed in transition to expose United up the gut several times at Yankee Stadium.
The flaws here are also pretty well known. Jeffrey has been a clear #3 behind Marcelo and Vincent for this role, and it’s mostly because he doesn’t reliably connect his passes often enough. While Jeffrey does have the ability to spread play to the flanks from deep spots, he can also be pressured into giveaways, and in what will be a crowded central midfield, that’s a big problem.
Jeffrey’s ball-winning ability also hinges on physical play, which means having to leave the center channel. This is why Olsen tends to play him as the #8; there will be one more midfield layer available for safety if a player in that spot can’t win the ball. As a #6, if he steps to the ball, he’s got to either win it, or direct play sideways or backwards.
The popular choice for the job this weekend is undoubtedly Durkin, and it’s not hard to figure out why. At 17, Durkin is United’s future #6. He’s captained the under-17 national team, and in professional games - both for the Richmond Kickers and for United in last year’s preseason and Open Cup - he has looked more like a 23 or 24 year old than a teenager.
On the plus side, Durkin is physically capable of battling NYCFC’s central midfielders for the ball, and he’s fast enough to keep up when the game stretches out. He’s capable on the passing side, too, and though he’s not flashy with the ball, he also tends to avoid turnovers.
So why would Olsen think twice? There’s the surface level problem of his age; if Durkin plays tomorrow, it will be against the best opponent he’s ever faced by some distance. However, the bigger issue relating to this is long-term. Young players can struggle to bounce back after a bad performance, and Olsen has to balance what is a tempting opportunity to let Durkin loose with his development down the road.
Only United’s coaching staff can really be sure whether Durkin is ready for this challenge. It would be thrilling to see him get the start, and if he were to succeed, he might even emerge as a threat to be first-choice sometime this year. Patience is a virtue, though, and this opening could possibly have come just a bit too early.
Per Steve Goff, Olsen mentioned DeLeon as an option. That would mean playing Sean Franklin at right back, which might hurt United going forward but would likely add a bit of defensive steel to a back four that struggled against left winger Rodney Wallace the last time these clubs met.
DeLeon has played central midfield, but he’s never been the most defensive player in either a three-man unit or in a duo. However, some of what drew complaints about DeLeon as United’s #8 last year - his preference for a safe pass, for example - might actually be helpful in this deeper role. DeLeon was routinely one of the Black-and-Red’s most accurate passers during his time in central midfield, and that would help United build their own share of possession against an NYCFC side that often approaches 60% in that department.
The flaw here is obvious: DeLeon has never played this role before, and asking him to do so against one of MLS’s best attacking teams is setting him up to fail. However, D.C. doesn’t have a lot of options, and Olsen wouldn’t have mentioned DeLeon - who, to be fair, has shown a knack to adapt to new roles almost immediately on more than one occasion - if he wasn’t seriously considering him.
There was a bit of talk about Harkes ending up as a #6 someday, and United could get creative here. The set-up would be to deploy Jeffrey as a ball-winning #8, while letting Harkes function as a deep-lying playmaker of sorts. Harkes has the skill to succeed in this role in possession, so the real question would have to do with the defensive side of the ball.
However, that’s the beauty of deploying Jeffrey ahead of him. With Jeffrey winning tackles and recovering the ball, Harkes can focus on his positioning. If he could clog up passing lanes and deny NYCFC easy looks to attack, he could end up with plenty of interceptions and recoveries based on being in the right place at the right time.
Of course, moving Harkes deeper means relying on Jeffrey to connect a whole hell of a lot more passes than he did in his last appearance against the Pigeons (where he had just 55% passing accuracy before being given the hook in the 52nd minute). For this plan to work, United would need to have more of the ball than a normal match against NYCFC, and that would mean Jeffrey having to have one of his best games in possession.
Now we’re getting into the unlikely choices. I’m a big fan of Buescher’s game, but Olsen has viewed him (with some justification) as not secure enough defensively to field him as the #8 from the start of games. It stands to reason that he would therefore be out of the question in an even more demanding role on the defensive side of the ball.
However, Buescher played defensive midfield before coming to the US, and did so with Syracuse during his college career. His passing range will undoubtedly open the field up for United, who if we’re being honest will need to have their best attacking game of the season if they’re going to take three points.
I might be reaching here, but I also think the more cerebral deep role would suit how Buescher defends a bit more than having to cover a ton of ground and win tackles. Buescher understands space at a pretty high level, and if he can manage to deny NYCFC access to the space ahead of the center backs, he’ll be able to succeed without playing the #6 role as some kind of hard-nosed warrior.
Still, this is a long shot. Not as much as the next one, though.
In that Washington Post link earlier, Olsen joked that Bobby Boswell was an option as well. I don’t think Boswell - who chooses to play long balls too early in his decision-making process for a center back, let alone a defensive midfielder - is at all on the radar, but I wonder if Franklin, another veteran defender, should be.
Franklin still has the mobility to play this role, and of the players to see more than half of United’s 360 total minutes this season, only Ian Harkes has completed more of his passes. He’s also third on the team in pass attempts per 90 minutes, which means he could in theory be reliable in possession despite a brand new role. At the very least, he has the raw tools.
Look, I know we’re not going to see Franklin playing as a defensive midfielder tomorrow, but it’s an intriguing option to me nonetheless. With some time, I think he could actually be a fairly effective defensive midfielder (though his ability to receive the ball in traffic would possibly be a hang-up), but a week is not even close enough to the right amount of time.