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How will D.C. United manage a month without Ian Harkes?

Ben Olsen has a tricky problem to solve in central midfield now that Harkes is out

Lost in all the hullabaloo of D.C. United and their various big-name transfer targets (it’s weird to even type that without scare quotes) is the fact that their best offseason addition, Ian Harkes, is out for up to a month due to an ankle injury. For a Black-and-Red side struggling as badly as they have in years, it’s yet another piece of bad news in a year that’s been full of them.

If Harkes needs the full four weeks, he’ll probably miss five games starting with this Saturday’s home match against Toronto FC. It will also leave Ben Olsen with a tricky problem to solve. While he has numerous central midfield options, no one really plays the game like Harkes, who has also turned into one of the club’s best scoring threats of late.

Let’s look into how United can handle this situation:

The on-paper choice: Nick DeLeon

We know DeLeon was “safe” to the point of it being a problem as the #8 during the first 30-40% of the 2016 season. DeLeon would routinely be United’s most accurate passer on a given day, but his passes were mostly sideways and backward, and United’s offense suffered for it. Despite the positives - DeLeon’s good feet, balance, ability to make himself available to others, and comfort in traffic - this issue overshadowed everything else.

At least against TFC, though, “safe” probably helps United avoid catching yet another beating at the hands of some superior team. The more United has possession, the less likely the Reds are to feed Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, Victor Vazquez, and the rest. United also needs a midfield that can handle the ball under pressure, since TFC is usually comfortable pressuring the ball with numbers in midfield. DeLeon is the best choice to deal with that in the #8 role.

Since DeLeon’s return, Ben Olsen subbed him in on the wing against Houston, though a follow-up sub left him at right back for more than half of the 45 minutes he played that night. Last week in Minnesota, he was used as a winger in the first half, and then played as the #10 due to Luciano Acosta’s nagging ankle injury needing protection with an eye towards the long term. It’s an odd choice, though, given that DeLeon seemed to be the best right back on the team before his injury, and no one has offered up a strong rebuttal in the meantime.

The reason we need to discuss that is that if Olsen (rightly or wrongly) is comfortable with Sean Franklin remaining the starter at right back, then DeLeon is free to play elsewhere. United is probably going to be without Patrick Nyarko again, which could be a reason to play DeLeon elsewhere. However, I think there’s a strong argument to be made that playing Lamar Neagle opposite Lloyd Sam with DeLeon as the #8 would be a better path to get United back on their feet than deploying other possible combinations.

The popular choice: Julian Buescher

Buescher is, from a technical perspective, probably the second most skilled central midfielder on the roster behind Luciano Acosta. On a team that has offered little joy this season, just the prospect of finding a path for a gifted player to get onto the field has significant appeal. You can’t blame fans for wanting to see something fun, right?

There’s also the reality that the kid needs to play to improve. Buescher has received just 171 minutes of playing time this season, and just 34 minutes since the start of June. He hasn’t played at all in the last three losses, which also means that he’s not associated with those horrific efforts. Every player that wasn’t at fault for those games is looking pretty decent right now (related note: #FreeJalenRobinson).

Bringing Buescher in might necessitate moving back into the 4141 and out of the 4231 United has had to use because of their woeful defensive midfield situation. That’s not ideal against TFC, as it leaves no one specifically close to Michael Bradley, but let’s be honest: United is probably going to struggle against Toronto regardless of formation choices. Buescher’s development - not to mention simply giving him a reason to believe he’s still wanted around - is probably more valuable at this point than making choices based on beating Toronto.

But on that last point, we also have to consider the value of the tactical surprise it would be. Greg Vanney is surely expecting a different look (that we’re about to discuss), and it seems highly unlikely that he will have game-planned for United choosing technique and passing vision over graft. Bringing Buescher in might just cause TFC some uncertainty, on top of the benefits of giving a player a shot to prove his worth in an otherwise lost season.

The likely choice: Jared Jeffrey

Sigh. I like to start with good news, so here goes: Jeffrey is probably best as a conservative, ball-winning #8, so the positive here is that he’ll be handling responsibilities he’s more cut out for than when we’ve seen him having to collect the ball from the defense and hold down zone 14. Those things aren’t his game, and this move to a simpler role will probably help him out.

The reasons we should expect to see Jeffrey get the nod are clear. Olsen trusts him, and against arguably MLS’s best team, it won’t be a surprise to see the conservative option chosen. The only possible advantages United will have in central midfield are work rate, toughness, physicality, and all that other unsexy stuff. It’s completely logical to play the player who will help with that the most.

The bad news is that Jeffrey and Marcelo Sarvas, who I’m assuming would start as the #6 in this set-up, have been in declining form recently. Given that they weren’t starting from a particularly lofty place, that’s particularly bad news for United. The season is already very bad, but it could get worse if the Black-and-Red can’t lift themselves up in these next two home games. Going from having to settle for one of them partnering Harkes to having both of them on the field is pretty far from ideal given how they’ve played this summer.