In 1999, DC United went the first three matches of the MLS season unbeaten. They started out with three wins, though one of them came through the dreaded shootout. Their 2006 start, thus, equals that same mark, with seven points from three matches.
By now, most fans would have relegated some poor stiff to the bench due to poor overall play, or because of a ghastly error costing United a win. It’s strange to hear about an almost unified satisfaction with this start. I guess winning cures all ills.
However, let me take a page from the Ian Plenderleith book of pessimism. While it’s been fantastic to run out to such a good start, this team hasn’t exactly played beautiful soccer to get to this point. In some cases it’s been rather pedestrian. For now, though, I can live with that.
Let’s examine the first three games a little closer. Here’s some key things I’ve noticed:
1. Nowak Shows Flexibility – This to me is the biggest surprise of all. The Peter Nowak coach I have grown accustomed to in recent years is steadfast in playing this formation on his terms. It’s 3-5-2 or death. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a full fledged card carrying member of the 3-5-2 club, but it was apparent at times last season that in some cases, changes needed to be made to preserve results (the match in Santiago, Chile) or more importantly changes in personnel to keep them fresh for the stretch run of the season (Jaime Moreno and Christian Gomez played way too much). This season, however, we’ve already seen a number of different formations (4-4-2, 4-3-3 and 3-5-2) and players adjusting to new roles. This past weekend, for example, United trudged out a 3-5-2 with Facundo Erpen playing left back (United had never done this) while the left-footed Brandon Prideaux was on the right. Equally baffling was having right-footed Josh Gros on the left flank and left-footed Freddy Adu on the right. I think the last move was purely defensive, matching Gros up with the dangerous–at times–Brian Mullan, who, by the way, wasn’t heard from all night.
It’s changes like this that give me hope that Nowak is, indeed, learning on the job and will be more flexible in his future tactics. Having said all that, the team has been less effective, hence my next point.
2. What’s Up With The Slow Starts? – They’re not exactly firing out of the gate, getting just one first half goal in three matches, and that from what amounted to a goalmouth scramble. The first three first halves of United’s games have been in a word: boring. And that is not an adjective that I usually associate with United teams. Even though the Thomas Rongen/Ray Hudson teams of 2000-2003 were really bad at times, they were hardly ever boring. I think the weekly changes to the lineups, along with the formation changes, are likely culprits here. Once the players start getting comfortable in doing this, I have no doubt we’ll see better starts from this team. Which leads me to my next point. …
3. United Returning RFK Into A Fortress – This one falls squarely into the duh category. Having three home matches to start a season is a nice thing. Who wouldn’t like to have that? You think the Chicago Fire (two draws and a loss on their nine match road journey) wouldn’t give almost anything to have a home match in the next seven weeks? Playing at home, especially in MLS, should be a safe haven for most good teams. United lost nearly a third of their home matches last season (taking 29 of 48 home points), something they hadn’t done since 2002; with their 2-0-1 start, they’re on an early pace to have their best home record since 1998. Nowak has made it his personal mission to reestablish RFK as the toughest place to play in MLS, with United definitely back on track in that regard. They did not play particularly well in either of their three opening matches, yet came from two goals down in the opener, then followed up with a pair of 2-0 shutouts. I’d hate to see what would happen had United actually been playing well and clicking.
4. United Have A Healthy Dose Of Sick Offensive Weapons – This, to me, is the biggest revelation so far. How do you stop this team? Moreno, Gomez, Alecko Eskandarian, Adu, Lucio Filomeno, Gros, Jamil Walker, Santino Quaranta. Just watching these guys play over the past three weeks–ok, so Quaranta hasn’t been healthy to play with the first 11–has me thinking that if some sort of consistent rotation can be worked out over the season, there’s no reason why this team shouldn’t, again, run away with top goal scoring honors in MLS. If teams going in against United gameplan to shut down Moreno, they’ll get hit with Adu-Gomez or Eskandarian-Walker or Filomeno-Gomez. Hell, I could go on all day with the possible combinations that Nowak and Co. could put out there from game-to-game.
At this point, as long as Troy Perkins stays confident and catches everything crossed into him, and the defenders can hold their shape, there is no reason why United can’t keep up this pace. New England did it for the entire season last year and, with just one player, at most, being turned over to the US’s World Cup team (in my opinion, Ben Olsen is going) during that time, United will have a huge advantage over teams like New England and Kansas City, for example.
Of course, it’s my duty to qualify what I’ve said with the following: if United lose their road opener in New York this Saturday in the toxic waste dump known as the Meadowlands, everything above is null and void.
Someone will then be cut from this team.