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Jeff Parke, D.C. United, And You: What to expect from the Black-and-Red's newest player

D.C. United threw everyone for a loop by trading Ethan White to the Philadelphia for a very different kind of center back in Jeff Parke. A look at what Parke brings to the table and how the Black-and-Red will have to adapt their style of play as a result.

Well, at least Jeff Parke is used to wearing black.
Well, at least Jeff Parke is used to wearing black.
Brian Garfinkel

By now, you've had time to digest the trade that saw well-liked D.C. United Homegrown center back Ethan White traded to the Philadelphia Union for veteran Jeff Parke. The deal also included a swap of allocation spots and a public concession from GM Dave Kasper that, for salary cap reasons, United is not in the running for Marco Pappa or Maurice Edu.

That is to say, a team with what was likely unprecedented flexibility in October is now too constrained to add top-notch talent. On top of that unwelcome news, we've made a trade that allows a team we're competing with for playoff spots and will likely meet in the US Open Cup to go pursue one of those same stars. That'd be Edu, who the Union is apparently prepared to pay a preposterous sum but was held back by MLS.

Maybe "digest" isn't the right word, since the deal involves the above paragraph along with giving up a young player on the verge of becoming a full-time starter (as well as a proud local, as Pablo Maurer's great piece for DCist illustrated) for a guy who turns 32 in a couple of months. From the reaction on Twitter and elsewhere, United fans might have been popping Tums while working on things to yell angrily during Thursday's SuperDraft in Philly.

Raging further about what appears to be a bad deal is tempting, but that's not why I sat down to write this piece. We can't undo the trade unless one of you people invents time travel. What we can do is take a look at what Parke brings to the table, and how our new-look (new-new-look?) back four will likely function.

Here's the good news: Unlike some of our recent center backs - Dejan Jakovic, Emiliano Dudar, and White if we're being fair - Parke is not injury-prone. He might not have Bobby Boswell's near-perfect attendance record over the past few years, but he has appeared in 109 of the last 122 league matches he was eligible for (and in some cases with Seattle, he was rested due to CONCACAF Champions League or USOC play).

Parke may be rather unlikely to wind up on the 2014 All Star team, but he's still a very effective center back. In terms of athleticism, he has the right size, a good leap, and actually possesses underrated speed. That's not to say he's actually fast, but rather than people tend to think he's out-and-out slow when he's actually somewhere in the middle when it comes to MLS center backs. He might actually be faster than Brandon McDonald, to offer a familiar comparison.

More importantly for United, Parke is a very intelligent player whose understanding of angles and ability to read play has made him the main cog in several strong back fours in recent years. Since his return to MLS after an odd series of events saw him sign with the USL version of the Vancouver Whitecaps in 2009, Parke's teams have combined to concede 149 goals in 132 games. By contrast, the average MLS team in 2013 would have conceded about 173 goals over the same period.

Parke is one of those players whose value extends beyond the stuff you can find on, and I'm not talking about intangibles like "good locker room presence." How do you quantify something like a midfielder turning and expecting a window to pass through, only to find the angle is gone because someone like Parke correctly predicted the midfielder's desire to go there? That's where organization and anticipation come into play; now this midfielder has to take a moment to pick another option, and even low-pressure MLS teams tend to punish people who linger on the ball.

Naturally there are also more traditional intangibles involved here as well. Parke made the playoffs in every single one of his MLS seasons until 2013. United, meanwhile, has one playoff appearance (2012) in the previous six seasons. Emotions about this trade aside, successful teams very rarely hide poor center backs, and Parke has been on teams that are at least moderately successful. At the very least, they've been teams that know how to avoid defeat, which for our purposes can be translated to "teams that don't concede goals that make you wish you were dead."

The downside here is the issue of compatibility. After all, United supposedly dealt with the need for a "he's a winner" sort of player in Bobby Boswell. The thinking of just about all observers was that United took Boswell in the RED at a cost Houston found prohibitive to be the source of experience, soccer IQ, vocal leadership, and general organization. The next step was pairing those qualities with someone who could make up for Boswell's lack of agility and straight-line speed.

While Parke's overall quickness is underrated, the fact is that he's not as fast as White and will have a hard time covering for Boswell.

While Parke's overall quickness is underrated, the fact is that he's not as fast as White and will have a hard time covering for Boswell, who can safely be called "slow." Boswell was exposed on occasion playing alongside Jermaine Taylor in Houston, and Taylor is a bit faster than Parke. For United, Boswell will be a year older, and I can state from experience that you do not get faster with age.

A lack of speed puts United between a rock and a hard place. Withering high pressure would mitigate the problem by denying teams the chance to line up the kind of through balls that can expose that speed, but that requires a high line from the back four. If teams caught us playing a high line, they'd have a laughably simple adjustment to make. One well-timed run from a winger or striker and one alert defensive midfielder or center back playing the ball in behind early is all it would take for a breakaway.

After that, the dominoes start to fall: To prevent future breakaways, we drop back. Dropping back ends our pressure on the ball, meaning more time to line up through balls. It's basically a defensive death spiral.

So fine, we play a deeper line and eschew the Peter Vermes school of pressuring everywhere. Problem solved, right? Well, not so much. If we win the ball deeper in our end, we have that much further to go to mount successful attacks. Keeping possession is very difficult no matter how good you are at it. As Devin Pleuler pointed out last year, the average MLS possession consists of less than three passes.

Playing a deep line means you had better be able to string together passes at a higher rate than your run-of-the-mill MLS side, because you'll have an extra 20-30 yards to cover going forward. It's by no means impossible - the New England Revolution, for example, regularly played deeper than most in 2013 - but it requires both the mindset to be a possession team in good times and in bad as well as the ability to follow through on that.

United will also need players capable of winning the ball on their own at a higher rate than average. Teams that high press get the luxury of having their forwards more often involved in the harrying of opponents, which broadly translates to more numbers around the ball all over the field. Playing deeper means your forwards are doing less pressuring, with the focus instead on angling the opponent's attempts to start attacks to where you'd like them to attack from (e.g. If you're playing Real Salt Lake, your forwards make sure there's no easy pass from defense to the feet of Javier Morales).

Fewer numbers around the ball means a higher reliance on 1v1 defending. Instead of seeing opponents losing the ball in a sea of black shirts all the time, we're going to need individual defenders and guys like Perry Kitchen to win tackles or outwit their man with less help. Fortunately, Parke is a very good tackler who avoids fouling (his career average is just 0.92 fouls per 90 minutes played), and we've improved elsewhere with Sean Franklin, but the midfield beyond Kitchen - especially if Luis Silva plays at the head of a diamond, as surmised by Steve Goff yesterday - might not be so comfortable with the level of help available defensively.

There's also a problem involving styles of play succinctly stated by our friends from SB Nation's Chicago Fire blog Hot Time In Old Town:

What this means is that United will have two center backs who are comfortable with solving problems through mental sharpness and anticipation, which often means stepping forward (or at least, not dropping deep) to intercept a ball or cut off an angle. That's all well and good, but when teams play in behind early enough to bypass that your problem becomes winning a footrace to the ball. As in Chicago, we'll have two players that aren't comfortable in that role and have spent their whole careers being more stopper than the sort of player who covers the space behind. That brings us back to the many breakaways and the sadness that will follow (no matter how many big saves Bill Hamid makes by charging off his line and being enormous).

In a vacuum, Parke is a good player. He's better than White today, and one suspects he'll be better than him at this time next year too. The issue is that soccer isn't played in a vacuum; players need to fit together so that one man's flaws are covered by another. Barring the sort of beautiful soccer alchemy that occasionally happens for no apparent reason - see: Jaime Moreno and Christian Gomez instantly having a supernatural understanding back in 2004 - teams need to plan around these things.

Parke and Boswell are both good players in MLS, but as a duo they can be had for speed. We've talked about United's 3-0 win over Chivas USA back in 2011 repeatedly on this site. Mostly, it's been about whether Chris Pontius belongs up front after he had three assists, but to me that's never been the most valuable lesson in that game. Chivas fielded a big, powerful, slow center back combo that night due to injuries and suspension, and the obvious move was to cobble together our fastest forward pairing.

However, Ben Olsen's smartest move on the night was to order Dwayne De Rosario and others to look for the early ball in behind. All three goals came after Pontius ran onto a long early pass. Chivas simply had no answer. United's back four will be a lot smarter than the Goats were that night, but they won't be much faster. Are Parke and Boswell going to be savvy enough to prevent this sort of simple tactical victory from happening? The answer to that question and to a more comprehensive query - "Will United make the playoffs?" - are probably the same.