Undeniably, United has tightened up the defense in its last five games at least in terms of actual goals given up, and the attack has been much more effective in terms of goals scored for sure, but does that really tell the tale? The defense might seem more solid overall despite giving almost a goal a game, and DC finally got a shutout in its latest match against LA, but that could well have had a lot more to do with them than us. And while the offense is scoring more, it's not been from the run of play for the most part. Still, DC has 11 points in its last five games, which certainly beats zero for the first three. However, does that really mean the proper order of the universe been restored?
While the offense has been more effective, it’s tough to say it has actually been more dynamic or threatening. In fact you could argue easily that the offense against both LA and Houston has gone walkabout once again and that the defense is still making similar mistakes, but just not getting punished as mercilessly as they were before. When you analyze these last five games a bit more critically you might well see that this short term success might not translate into a team that will threaten to go deep in the playoffs, which leaves troubled Tommy with some hard decisions to make if United expects more hardware from this season in their bulging trophy case.
To begin with, the defense has cut out virtually all the mistakes by Boswell, Erpen, and Namoff, but it has added the mistakes that Josh Gros will inevitably make. God Bless Gros for his heart and determination, but he’s simply not a defender. Of the four goals given up since this undefeated streak began, Gros is arguably at fault for all of them. Against NE he’s not goal side of his man so Dorman stuffs in a rebounded shot virtually uncontested. Against Chivas he took the wrong angle to contain against Galindo and was punished for speed easily. Against Toronto, he hung back for no reason when the entire defense pushed out and kept Alecko onside to be in position to score. And against Houston he swatted a ball for a PK that was saved, but slid right by DeRo in failing to block their goal on the ensuing play.
So, the Josh Gros as a defender experiment is not exactly off to a flying start as it’s simply not his natural position. He may well learn the position over time, but for every Albright who succeeds at the switch to defense, there’s a Bobby Rhine who doesn’t. And Josh’s growing pains are not even the worst sacrifice made by switching to four in the back.
For all the help Gros gives Boswell and Erpen, his being pulled back hurts the play of Olsen, Carroll, and Gomez in midfield. Olsen is not athletic enough to cover the left side well enough despite his one good half and game-winning goal against Houston. Nor is Benny able to hold down the center on his own as that appalling first 20 minutes against a weak LA midfield showed.
Carroll has also struggled to clog up the middle by himself as well. Brian relies on fitness and savvy to cut off plays before they develop, but with two options coming at him, he can simply be beat by guessing wrong, or by getting pulled away by a decoy which leaves room for a late runner to exploit. Of course, those plays should be covered by Gomez, but this is the first time Christian has ever had defensive responsibilities and aside from the Houston game he as struggled to help his midfield partner. Arguably, Simms seems to be able to hold down the middle well, but he’s only proven that for 60 minutes against a demoralized and depleted Galaxy.
Bottom line is that since the switch to four in the back, DC has yet to really win the midfield battle of any match with any kind of convincing play. For three years winning the midfield, especially right down the middle, was the key to all United’s fourth MLS Cup and Supporter’s Shield last year. Now, they have to learn a whole new way to play by pushing the ball wide a lot more than they have in the past, and using more longer, less reliable passes to unbalance the opposition.
Jaime Moreno and Christian Gomez in particular have struggled the most with this shift in philosophy. Gomez bulls ahead and forces plays down the middle far too much for this system, and Moreno drops back way too much to try and give Gomez some help, but only succeeds in clogging the middle even more. And this has the added bonus of stranding Emilio so the defense can collapse on him making him even less effective.
The maddening thing is that they know how to correct the problem, but they simply can’t do it. After the LA game, Moreno’s quote hits the nail right on the head. “It was more us trying to go through the middle a lot. We knew they had a lot of guys in the middle, but we weren’t smart enough to play the ball wide and try to cross some balls and try to create chances.”
However, even if they do sort out where the ball should go, they might not have the players to make the system work anyway. Fred has shown flashes of brilliance, but loves to slot inside more than he should. He’s probably just trying to find the ball more since he’s no doubt feeling neglected out wide where he’s seldom had runs rewarded, but even aside from that, he doesn’t really stretch the field enough in the offensive third. Now, that would be OK if Namoff was more aggressive going forward, but he has been far too tentative in picking his spots to attack, so opposing defenses have been able to contain DC by stacking the middle of the defense.
On the other side of the field, it’s a complete nightmare offensively. Olsen has been inconsistent to say the least and while he has the skills to cross and contribute incisively to the attack, he doesn’t have the lungs to be a consistent option up there. On the other hand, Gros has the lungs and has gotten into great positions fairly well overlapping Benny, but doesn’t have the skills to cross well enough or combine in the attack creatively.
So, United’s attack is still a long way from the unstoppable force that was expected heading into the season. Gomez has made teams loathe giving away freekicks anywhere near their goal and Jaime has made referee decisions the decisive element in games, but neither has shown much from the run of play. Fred has looked lively and some youngsters have sparked some nice plays, but overall United’s attack hasn’t exactly struck fear in anyone.
Now, it’s important to note that lineups and tactics are pure and simple based on covering areas of the field offensively and defensively and it’s easy to point out that United’s normal 3-5-2 and the new 4-4-2 have exactly the same starting eleven. So, this tactical change might not seem like a big deal. Yet, the way they play on the field is very different and United could well be staking its season on a losing proposition.
The biggest flaw is that it pulls Benny out of the middle where he’s the scrappy heart of the team, and pulls Gros back away from the long stretches of sideline where his athletic gifts can shine. The new system takes away from Gomez’s all out attacking mentality, and helps to pull Jaime further back into midfield compromising his and Emilio’s play.
At the end of the day, if your new tactic hurts players more than it helps and doesn’t seem to have the prospects to succeed, then no matter what the results, the lineup has to go. DC was built this season with the three back system in mind. This switch to four might strain the roster beyond its capabilities. Or might well spell the end of playing time for two icons in United history as well as the most consistent starter over the last three years. Arguably, United has looked better when Moose and Casal, even deRoux has played for Olsen, while Kpene has clearly helped Emilio more than Moreno, and Simms might well be the default replacement for Brian Carroll if Soehn stays with the new system. You could even argue further that Gros heads to the bench as well once Wilson becomes healthy as he’s more naturally a wide left back than Gros ever will be. Is it really time to essentially purge four starters from last year’s team if they can’t adjust to the new system?
Any system has to put players where they naturally play if it’s to be successful. This system puts Erpen and maybe Boswell into more natural positions, but compromises Gros and Olsen for sure, as well as Carroll and Gomez more indirectly. The 3-5-2 only compromised Erpen and maybe Boswell. Now, the team was struggling early on, so by all means shake things up to break out of a funk, but don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Sacrificing some players for a stretch of games one thing, but abandoning ship for the season is another.
The problems with a leaky defense and pitiful attack early in the season were way more a symptom of individual poor play and shaken confidence than a systemic flaw. This undefeated streak should have boosted the confidence enough and quelled the individual flaws, so it might well be time to go back to the original plan for the season and see where the 3-5-2 that takes you. Its one thing to play a few guys out of position for a game or two, but to stake your season on a new formation created on the fly seems to be too much of a gamble especially if the results lately don’t seem to be backed up by the play on the field.