By Gabriel Zitrin
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D.C. United Midseason Report
Gabriel Zitrin, Screaming Eagles
It would be too easy to call D.C. United's first half a tale of two seasons, but sometimes too easy is just the way to go. The first inklings of a confused, disjointed attack and a speedy and athletic but mistake-prone defense all showed up in the season opener in Kansas City, then blossomed into full-blown catastrophe over the dark days of April and May.
Head coach Tom Soehn was crippled from the get-go by the ankle(s) injury to Ben Olsen, the face of the franchise, and no one knew whether switching out attacking Argentine midfielder Christian Gomez for attacking Argentine midfielder Marcello Gallardo (after missing out on attacking Argentine midfielder Juan Sebastian Verón) would work, and if so, how fast. Three fifths of the defense was different, too, and captain Jaime Moreno was a year older than he had been the year before. So were the rest of us, of course, but in Moreno's case it was a bit more noticeable. His days of blowing past defenders long gone, he now fills a key role in holdup play, allowing his more youthful cohorts time to join the attack.
Losing Olsen was a crushing blow, and getting him back for 15 minutes against the Galaxy on Sunday was a much bigger lift than the win they picked up, which was not lost on the crowd. Santino Quaranta, against remarkable odds, has been a decent fill-in, but this is a different and a worse team with Ben Olsen on the sidelines, and the entire organization knows it.
The number of experiments Soehn ran in the early going trying to get the offense untracked (Francis Doe, Dan Stratford, Franco Niell) points to how dire things really were. On defense, well, he didn't even have the personnel to run experiments. Newcomers Gonzalo Martinez and Gonzalo Peralta are among the best in the league at last-ditch tackles and dominant penalty-box presence, respectively, but both have also been guilty of silly mistakes that led directly to goals. The team has played the entire season with almost no defensive depth, which still shows even during United's current six-game unbeaten run to close out the first half of the season. That run has seen them out of the cellar and into a crowded field in the middle of the power-packed Eastern Conference. To long-time followers of MLS, this looks less like an exciting midseason rally than it does equilibrium being restored.
No one needs to be told what these guys can do. When everything is clicking for the DC attack, by the end of the game they're basically scoring for fun. This team doesn't grind it out to win 1-0: they've scored more than two goals in five of their seven triumphs. During the current six-game unbeaten streak, they're back to bouncing the ball around like a pinball as they race down the field, attacking the way it was meant to be, the way only they have been able to do since the league was founded. Of course it helps that reigning league MVP Luciano Emilio has suddenly found his scoring touch in a big way after a start to the season so awful he was being labeled the first to go during the summer transfer window. Now he's scored nine goals in the last six games. So much for that idea.
The biggest problem, whether or not the offensive train keeps rolling, remains at the back. And man, is it ugly back there. In their first league 15 games the black-and-red have recorded exactly zero clean sheets, the only team in MLS that can make this dubious claim. This team has scored 18 goals in their last six, but they always feel obligated to spot the other guys at least one. Unlike United themselves, their opponents don't generally deserve a lot of credit for the goals they score, as those goals don't usually come by way of creative attacks, sharp approach play or clinical finishing: they come from United's defensive lapses, balls missed in the box, clearances botched, markings lost, and occasionally, goalkeeper Zach Wells being way out of position or too timid to get off his line in time.
MID-SEASON MVP: Bryan Namoff
That's right, I said Bryan Namoff. This was an easy pick. Namoff, the only consistent face on defense since the start of last season, has quietly been the one solid man at the back, at times holding the defense together by himself, beating every opposing winger to the ball, toughing out every play game after game, and springing a surprising number of attacks up the touchline. He has supplanted quite a few guys to become the first name Soehn writes down on the sheet. There are better-known, better-paid candidates who are perfectly worthy of this honor – if you only pay attention to the last six games, that is.
MID-SEASON MESS: Tom Soehn
Management is usually where to look when one disappointing loss by a talented team somehow snowballs into three or four or seven. When the replacement of Gomez with Gallardo clearly was causing jitters in the attack, the lack of a contingency was glaring. The in-game strategy became insanely risk-averse, as timid as it was supposed to be electrifying. One-goal leads became excuses to withdraw into a brittle defensive shell that invariably cracked, and one-goal deficits suddenly seemed demoralizing and ultimately insurmountable. Old rule that holds true in every sport: if you play not to lose, you will lose. Where have you gone, Bruce Arena?
SO GOETH HE, SO GOETH WE ALL: Marcelo Gallardo
Emilio is a tempting pick here, but even though his scoring numbers have had perfect correlation with United’s spot in the table this year, it’s pretty clear that he’s the effect in that equation, not the cause. This team doesn’t have a target man and never did. They win with flowing attacks, ball movement, and sheer élan. Gallardo must be the man in charge of the main course so Emilio can continue providing the dessert. If he can’t keep the machine oiled, United could be in for a nasty crash-out.
SECOND HALF SLEEPER: Marc Burch
The left back/utility man just can’t seem to nail down a full-time spot in the starting eleven. He’s also been guilty of the occasional defensive blunder, but can he ever put on a show at the other end. He has great confidence on the ball going forward, he’s the best crosser of the ball on the team, hands down, and on free kicks he has a missile launcher for a left foot. With Gomez plying his trade up in the mountains, it’s probably just a matter of time before Burch pushes Gallardo completely out of the set play picture.
Second half best-case scenario: The pinball attack continues to make opposing defenses look like flocks of disoriented geese, Emilio poaches himself another Golden Boot, Gallardo starts taking defenders off the dribble, Olsen gives 70 minutes a night, Wells takes command of his penalty box, the team scores more than enough goals to overcome the defensive lapses (even in the best-case scenario there are plenty), and United hit the playoffs with a third straight Supporters' Shield in the trophy case. It could happen.
Second half worst-case scenario: Olsen's ankles can't hack it after all and he retires, Wells completely implodes, Peralta and Martinez up their rate of error a few notches, Moreno gets even older, the quick-draw attacks jump the tracks again, Emilio stays hot but the throughballs from Fred and Gallardo dry up, a defender – any defender – gets injured, and United barely miss out on the playoffs. Tom Soehn is fired, then tarred and feathered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
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