DC United’s “worst to first” story is over. After 34 games, it’s time for second season. That’s right, playoffs.
During the dog days of the season, the major question for the Black and Red heading into playoff time was the striker position. Would it be an in-form Luis Silva, or the designated player Eddie Johnson starting alongside Fabian Espindola? Due to an ill-timed injury in Houston, it is Eddie Johnson that will lead the line on Sunday next to Fabi. Photo: Martin Fernandez.
Now, the major question in DC’s lineup comes from a position that has been locked down for the majority of the season: out wide on the wings. For most of the 2014 season, Chris Rolfe on the left and Nick Deleon on the right was the go-to pairing for DCU. However, Rolfe’s broken arm and the emergence of several other contenders for the wide position raise an interesting selection dilemma for Ben Olsen.
Heading into Sunday’s game against either Sporting Kansas City or the New York Red Bulls, Olsen can choose between Chris Pontius, Chris Rolfe, Nick Deleon, Sean Franklin, or Samuel Inkoom to provide width in DC’s attack. This depth could be key to a long postseason run, especially if they continue to deal with nagging injuries. Let’s narrow down the field to the two players that give DC the best option of winning over a two game series.
Rolfe has been a lynchpin of DC’s chance creation this season, a revelation that arrived three games into the regular season. From his favored position on the left, Rolfe has 6 goals and 6 assists in 21 appearances. His linkup play and decision making, especially on the counter attack, has been crucial for DCU.
However, the selection of the Magic Headband is not guaranteed. Coming back off of a broken arm, it is unclear whether Rolfe is ready to jump back into the starting lineup, and a playoff matchup may not be the best time to test the waters.
The return of CP13 from a series of devastating injuries feels like a new late season signing for DC. Since his return to fitness, Pontius continues to impress, especially as he continues to regain match form, fitness, and confidence- crucial for a goal-scoring player. Pontius looked shades of his old 2012 form at home against Chicago, heading home an inch perfect cross from Eddie Johnson for his first league goal of the season.
Should Rolfe not be 100% ready to go out on the left, it is very possible that Pontius will get the nod. However, should Rolfe be ready to play, it is hard to ignore his form in the 2014 campaign. Rolfe and Pontius have yet to see the field together in 2014, or ever, so it is hard to say which player would play on the left, and which on the right.
In 2014, Deleon has at times looked similar to his outstanding rookie form, and at others has been a bit frustrating. The right midfield spot belonged to DeLeon pretty much all season, and it may be harsh to drop him heading into the playoffs. So far this season, DeLeon has 2 goals and 5 assists playing out on the right.
Compared to Rolfe and Pontius, DeLeon looks a far less menacing player to opposing defenses. However, NLD also has a history of crucial postseason goals, as everyone will remember from his 2012 strike at Red Bull Arena that propelled the Black and Red past their biggest rivals and into the conference finals.
All-star right back Sean Franklin shut down Bayern Munich (along with Bill Hamid and Bobby Boswell) in this year’s MLS All Star Game. Franklin has been outstanding at the right back position this season, but Ben Olsen has been pushing him up to right midfield and slotting Chris Korb or Samuel Inkoom into the right back slot on several occasions.
The switch to right back has mostly occurred when either Perry Kitchen or Davy Arnaud is unavailable in the middle of the field and Nick Deleon is pushed into the center. While Franklin has filled in fine out wide, he has yet to look particularly menacing in the final third. With both Kitchen and Arnaud healthy and ready to go for Sunday, we should see Franklin return to his preferred spot at right back.
DC United’s late summer acquisition is a curious case. A young right back and right mid that saw action in two World Cups for the Black Stars of Ghana, as well as Champions League experience with Swiss powerhouse FC Basel. Olsen appears intent on playing Inkoom out on the right, and he has looked dangerous with his speed and crossing abilities. These crosses could come in handy with Eddie Johnson lurking in the box.
Despite Inkoom’s impressive CV, he hasn’t appeared to feature regularly as of yet in Olsen’s plans. As many a player will tell you, adjusting to the MLS can be difficult, and Inkoom is probably not ready to be thrown into a playoff matchup as a starting player.
It’s Down to Olsen
Ben Olsen is one of the clear frontrunners for the Coach of the Year award, and has hardly put a wrong foot forward this season with his decision-making. In the end, whoever we see on Sunday in the wide positions will come down to the man who just recently signed a new long term contract.
The enticing option would be to throw Rolfe and Pontius out for the first time and see if they can both hit a run of form at the right time. However, as previously mentioned, Rolfe and Pontius have yet to play together for DC. On top of that, they have both been used out on the left. In order to play together, one of these attacking players would have to shift over to the right, where Nick Deleon has seen the majority of the action this season.
On Sunday, I expect to see either Rolfe or Pontius in their usual left midfield position. Due to recent form, I would give Pontius the nod on Sunday- with Rolfe likely to be used as an impact substitute. On the right, expect to see Franklin back at the right back position with Nick Deleon playing in front of him.
This is a good problem to have, and none of these players are bad options. But this is playoff time, and Olsen has to go with what is currently working. There is very little time to experiment in this phase of the season. Should a new experiment go wrong, DC could find their worst to first run ending in an early playoff exit.