D.C. United pushed themselves within one positive result of sealing a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League knockout round on Wednesday by defeating Jamaica's Montego Bay United 3-0. Miguel Aguilar, Kofi Opare, and Conor Doyle bagged the goals, while Michael Farfan provided 2 assists (taking him up to 3 in 2 CCL games). The Black-and-Red will clinch a spot atop Group H by simply avoiding defeat at home against Arabe Unido on September 15th.
Rather than do the normal TLW format, I'm going to narrow things down this time and focus on Farfan. Here's the relevant quote from Ben Olsen on a player who missed almost the entire summer:
Michael makes it look easy out there, his instincts are so good and he’s so technical. He helps us connect the game, and he’s going to be a real piece for us for the rest of the year in the league. Where exactly he fits in is still something we’re all working on, but we know he fits, and that’s a good thing. We have the weekend game against New York, which is a huge game for us and them as well, then we have a little bit of a break. Hopefully, after that break, we’re going to finally get our best XI on the field, have health and go from there.
In Olsen-speak, "a real piece" means a very important player to the team. It's worth noting at this point that "very important" and "starter" are not synonyms. Olsen repeatedly said Branko Boskovic was "a real piece" too, because in terms of overall strategy he was: The Montenegrin was used to swing games in the final half-hour many times during his time here despite clearly being better with the ball at his feet than anyone on the team not named Dwayne De Rosario.
In watching Farfan's games this season, I think he's been more effective playing in central midfield in a 4132. We've seen it in the CCL - where he dominated the game as a starter against MBU while coming in to make the decisive play in the win against Arabe - and we've seen a version of it in MLS. Remember that win over Vancouver back in April? Olsen outwitted Carl Robinson by playing a 4132 on paper that defended as a 4141. United normally scrapes by even at the best of times on the road, but they went to the Pacific coast and baffled a fellow Shield contender in the opening half-hour before a red card for the Whitecaps gave the Black-and-Red a path to win the game in the 2nd half.
I've been thinking about that game a lot lately, and this chart is just adding to it:
These are Farfan's missed passes against Montego Bay. The thing that jumps out at me is that every single pass is a positive one; four of them are attempts to break at least one line of defense. Obviously there's a level of opposition concern here, but Farfan did what good players are supposed to do against weaker sides: 50/55 passing, 3 key passes (not including the aforementioned 2 assists), and he threw in 4 defensive recoveries just to help out.
The single most common thing I hear as a solution to whatever complaint United fans have about the current team is some version of "United needs to just sign a #10." I see it in the comments here, I see it on other sites, I see it on Twitter, and I hear it in Lot 8 and in the stands at RFK. It may be the most oft-repeated phrase for United fans these days.
If you find yourself saying that phrase, pay attention: The above diagram is the diagram of a #10 having a good day at the office. Farfan completed plenty of sideways and backwards passes, to be sure, but there were plenty of aggressive forward passes in there too. And even the missed passes are worth something: With a player like that in the game, teams have to show a bit more caution going forward. They have to dedicate resources that otherwise might go towards attacking into the effort to prevent these attempted passes from being completed.
Farfan is good enough that he'll push for playing time on either wing, and Olsen is clearly impressed enough to attempt last weekend's ill-fated Farfan-as-withdrawn-forward experiment. This, however, was Farfan showing on the field that his best spot for United is in central midfield, underneath two forwards and in front of one anchor midfielder.
There's only one way for us to find out how much of this was just Montego Bay being a weak opponent and how much of it was Farfan being really good at soccer. I'm not yet endorsing a "start Farfan against everyone" position, but if it was good enough to win in Vancouver - without Bill Hamid and Steve Birnbaum, no less - then it can't be dismissed easily. We need to see United play Farfan with Kitchen and two forwards from the start of more MLS games, in other words.
Wouldn't that be the most Olsen's United solution to the issue possible? We aren't going to see a big-name star from Europe any time soon, and the days where United had MLS's best connections in CONMEBOL are long gone. If United is going to play with a #10, it's going to be a player with a proven CV in MLS, and it's not going to be a player who makes more than "just barely a DP" money. Since KC isn't about to send Benny Feilhaber our way, and Collin Martin hasn't yet proven that he can be that player, a guy like Farfan is the sort of solution we're looking at if we want to see United be more dangerous from the start of games.
One last thing on this idea that bounced around my head all day yesterday: United would probably have to do some hard work in training on transitioning from 4132 to 442 on the fly. If United were to start Farfan regularly, and start to get leads in those games, the first sub we'd likely see a lot of the time would be Farfan coming off for Davy Arnaud. And that's fine as a theoretical idea, but changing formations in-game for defensive purposes can backfire. There's a reason MLS teams tend to do so less often than coaches in Europe or Liga MX (save the 89th minute "send on a big ol' center back for a forward or midfielder" sub that we see about once a week on these shores).
Looking over the schedule, I see three games that are practically begging for Farfan to be used in central midfield: at Colorado, and the last two home games (Chicago and NYCFC). I'd also like to see the 4132/4141 used against the Whitecaps deployed against the Red Bulls this Sunday, as I think it would throw Dax McCarty and Felipe off their game. It might be coming a little early for United in terms of the work they'd have to do on team shape, but I really hope that win from April has stuck in the coaching staff's mind like it has in mind.
Whether or not Fabian Espindola is unable to start, United is going to need to do something to beat NYRB other than defend stoutly. Even with their loss in Chicago, NYRB is in great form while United is not. Based on current performances, I'd expect the Red Bulls to win what is the biggest game of the season for United since they went down to Costa Rica in February. United is going to have to do something to throw the Red Bulls off of their game and cause them to question themselves. A lineup that looks surprisingly positive in paper while also meeting United's defensive needs in midfield might just do the trick.