DC United: Managing Minutes or Making Excuses?

“Disappointed!” Howled Otto staring into an empty safe with the dawning realization he’d been double crossed. Well, I know how he feels after the bait and switch United pulled last night in that pathetic draw with Firpo. DC United claims to take international competition seriously, yet that lineup Soehn trotted out there last night was a complete slap in the face to anyone stupid enough to believe it when the team speaks about the importance of doing well in CONCACAF.

So, the team wanted to prove they were better than last year’s winless performance? I’m not sure how anyone could think going in that playing all reserves except for one rookie starter, another starter playing out of position, and one legendary, but aging part time starter was going to accomplish that. Even more confusing was inserting Szetela into an attacking midfield role, a position he hasn’t played since he was in short pants, not to mention he’s only been here just over a week. Even the Firpo players and coaches were surprised, and actually inspired by United’s spectacular lack of talent running around aimlessly.

Now, just to get this out of the way for the glass half full hopeless romantics out there, yes as bad as it was, DC did nearly pull out a shutout win if not for an appalling mistake which gifted Firpo a goal. And yes, it’s also within the realm of possibilities that Soehn will trot out a respectable lineup in San Salvador and pull off a miraculous win. Right.

Let me just point out the much more realistic interpretation of this situation from the half empty brigade. DC United, in midseason form and long knowing about this particular set of circumstances on its schedule was outworked and largely outplayed by an El Salvadoran team barely into its pre-season, and who didn’t even know they’d be playing in this tournament until three weeks ago. Plus, they tied Pumas and Houston at home in last year’s tournament and actually improved their roster since then, so expecting anything other than a humiliating exit from the biggest tournament in the region is almost pie in the sky idiotic.

Now, once again half full or half empty misses the point that the United is not playing with a full glass at all. The bottom line is that there is no way DC United should ever get outplayed by a second tier team in preseason form at home in this tournament ever. The fact they did just that speaks volumes about the team overall.

This United team was built specifically to address the biggest flaws in the team over the past few seasons. In 2005, 06, and 07, DC had dynamite regular seasons, but ran themselves into the ground come crunch time, so reserves had no experience when injuries and fatigue kicked in late which crashed them out of any postseason hardware. Then in 2008 the team rebuilt with mercenaries, but took forever to find a system only to again be undermined by a wafer thin roster and some seriously bad chemistry over the range of salary disparities.

But 2009 is supposed to change all that. This team was built, and has been managed in direct contrast to those years with the expectation that they would be able to survive congestion and multiple competitions. System in place right from the get go, aging and fragile veterans with promising up and coming understudies, and those understudies have got a ton of minutes as well as reasonable success in all competitions leading up to this point.

So what has gone wrong? And don’t think I’m just ranting because of one arguably unluckily bad result. Oh no, that travesty last night is only the tip of the iceberg, there’s been the vague signs of festering rot all year long! Despite being relatively high in the table and having squeaked into the Open Cup final, DC has already played the easiest part of their schedule and arguably if it wasn’t for the startling play of a couple rookies and the occasional cameo performance from an aging superstar or two, DC would be barely holding at lower middle class in the standings.

I think there’s really two issues here that need to be addressed. First, why aren’t our starters able to play in midweek games, since they supposedly have been “managed” up to this point so that they should be able to grind out this two week stretch of tough matches and travel. Or failing that, point two, why aren’t our reserves better prepared to handle these types of matches considering they have had quite a bit of real playing time up to this point in the season.

So, let’s first try to understand why United’s veteran starters just couldn’t manage to stagger out there against Firpo until it was too late. United has played 1710 minutes in MLS, plus Open Cup matches largely played by the reserves. Only Namoff has played every minute, with Simms, Pontius and Wallace close at over 1500 minutes, Burch and Jakovic just behind at over 1400 minutes. Of the rest only Emilio and Gomez have over a 1000 minutes at 1294 and 1157 respectively. That’s upwards of five games out of 19 of in MLS play, not to mention most with very few minutes in the Open Cup(except for Namoff, he’s excused from this rant). But, there’s no chance these other guys should be too “tired” to play in freaking July after the easy start to the year they’ve had!

And don’t give me the specific schedule congestion this week with a long plane flight, short rest, etc. etc. Don’t you find it strange that other teams manage to motivate their big time players to suck it up and perform at crucial times? Toronto also had their preliminary matches scheduled in between two away matches, yet they fielded their full starting lineup tonite in their CCL preliminary, aside from a teenage defender they’ve been dying to find minutes for. Oh, but then again, they have the embarrassment of last year to make up for….er, hmm.. let’s move on from that to point out they lost at home anyway, so doesn’t that prove the point that “tired” starters would do no better?

I say it means Puerto Rico, who beat them, is being managed better than both Toronto and DC United. They fielded their starting 11 too, and they just played a match three days ago in Vancouver! In fact, Puerto Rico made the semi-finals of this tournament last year and they have huge plane flights for virtually every away game because they play on, you know, an island in the Caribbean! And the USL schedule is even harder with games almost any day of the week, sometimes two a weekend, not too even mention their far smaller payroll. Colin Clarke got those guys to produce in CCL play despite similar problems, must be magic.

Now, as to the reserves being unready for primetime, that’s a bit easier to understand, even if it is a tough pill to swallow right at the moment. It’s easier to understand because in some ways Soehn is a victim of their relative success in the US Open Cup where mostly reserves have clawed their way into the Cup final while playing at home, so it seems somewhat reasonable to think they might be able to squeak past a regional team in preseason form. However, that gamble crapped out as soon as they gave up the crucial away goal in the first 30 minutes of the game, and in a lot of ways, Soehn’s tinkering with player positioning is a huge part of that failure.

So, as much as I think results are largely on the players, Soehn and upper management has to take a lot of the heat on this abject failure. That lineup was appalling, but more than that Soehn has failed to help his team by putting players in positions where they can succeed. He has had a system in place and seemingly has competent backups for every position on the field, yet they are mixed and matched all the time, played in unfamiliar roles like Szetela last night, or even moved around to multiple positions, sometimes three times in the same game. McTavish, god bless him had a horrible game, but he never got a chance to get himself together as he had to adjust to three different positions against a team he probably knew next to nothing about.

Soehn even alluded to this in his post match comments. The lack of chemistry, the long time it took to find any rhythm. Well, putting Szetela in that attacking role not only screwed up his game, but it had a domino effect on everyone else as Moreno felt compelled to drop back too far into midfield to help out, which only stranded poor N’Silu up top alone where he was already struggling to do well even when he had a partner. Certainly without one he was lightyear’s worse, and anyone think that early yank helped his confidence either?

Seriously, that lineup had tons of problems. Jakovic at right back when he hasn’t played there since opening day, and moreover hadn’t even practiced with DC in over a month due to Gold Cup was mystifying. And as good as he is he only saved face because poor Janicki was having an even worse howler in the center, plus the Canadian’s early exit helped keep much of the blame from sticking to him. Jacobson has had so many partners in that crucial central midfield hub that he’s gone form very promising early in the season to downright dazed and confused lately.

Now here’s a thought. What if Soehn had actually established a first team and each position had their own understudy? You know picking a pecking order so that players know their roles and responsibilities down to the nth degree and can be absolutely ready to slot in seamlessly when called upon. Something that most team’s do right from the get go, but certainly do before the first third of the season is over. Surely, that would have been far better than this continual hunting and pecking and possibly overworking some versatile players, while underworking or hampering others by changing their positions, wouldn’t it?

Other successful teams do this. Think Houston consistently pulls results out of their ass by hunting and pecking for players and continually tweaking their system to adjust to different playing styles? No chance. Kinnear says these are my roles and this is where you fit in. Even if he is forced to play someone out of position, like Cameron, he sticks with them and makes it easier by that guy being the only player adjusting to a new role at any given time, not higgly piggly moves all over the field. Nicol too, pulls absolutely magical results for NE the same way over the years.

Soehn should be doing such things instead of always relying on versatile players moving all over the place. For example, pick four forwards and rotate them as necessary. Only play them in midfield when absolutely desperately necessary. That would mean telling either Pontius or Quaranta, sorry mate, but one of you is a midfielder this year and the other one will spend time on the bench because of platooning with Moreno, but so be it if that means fresher players down the road.

Midfield, too. Establish that crucial central three, then play backups for each specific role. Don’t assume each player can play any of the other two roles. Same with defenders and wing players. McTavish is Namoff’s understudy and only plays somewhere else on the field when things get desperate. Old guys get platooned with younger guys, everybody plays a specific role even if it means the last guy on the bench gets played instead of a top 15 player, who would be playing out of position.

That way things don’t get desperate like they were last night because players would have an established rotation and know exactly when and for what role to be ready to go. The maddening thing about last night and these sketchy results this season have been exactly the fact that if players would actually have been “managed” better, the team would very likely be doing markedly better. If anything, it could easily be argued Soehn has taken the consensus deepest team in the league and run them into that rag tag bunch of underachievers on display last night!

Good teams don’t just have a lot of versatile players, they have established roles and replacement patterns. Their aging veterans have younger understudies learning and ready to step in at any time, as well being stiff competition right behind them on the bench licking their chops, not playing tons of minutes somewhere else on the field, so they’re too tired to play their best position when they are needed.

Maybe Moreno, Emilio, Fred, and Gomez could have played the full 90 last night if that was the case leading up to this match. Maybe McTavish and Jakovic and Jacobson would be playing their true positions, and Szetela fit into that scheme to much greater effect if the roles had been defined much more specifically in the earlier part of the season.

But, that hasn’t happened and it just makes a mockery of statements like international play is important to the club. Please, clearly international success isn’t important to those starters that took the night off or who got outplayed by a Salvadoran team in their preseason! It smirches the value of that Open Cup they won last year I part due to the obvious desire to get back into international tournaments like this. Ironically, that hideous display last night probably means a good chance the Open Cup champion will not get a bid next year, so DC being in the final this year is even less important, although collecting trophies is always important intrinsically.

Before the season started, it was easy to predict that DC would be pretty inconsistent given their overhaul toward a youth movement for the future, and that has indeed played out in MLS as their play has at times been inspired and valiant, as well as frought with hideous breakdowns. But to be slapped upside the head with that dead fish last night is really too much when you consider that being able to play in specific games like that one is the reason this team was built.

Well, at least they aren’t likely to have CONCACAF matches hanging over their heads too much longer. The schedule should free up nicely after Tuesday. That’s another lesson learned hopefully, although I have my doubts as Soehn mentioned in his postgame that they’ll do their best in Houston “then pick up the pieces” for the return match in El Salvador. That doesn’t sound too promising now does it?

No question, DC has good excuses to use, but at the end of the day Soehn and United management has to back up what they say, not make statements that are belied by their actions.

2 replies
  1. Mike Martin
    Mike Martin says:

    Whew! That got a bit long winded! Sorry about that. Oh well, that was building for a while and I needed to vent. Mom says I never really rant anymore anyway, so this one is for her, even though it’s not one of my better rants.

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