While United is not quite at the halfway mark of the season, I am taking this opportunity to look at what has gone right and what needs improving as they head towards the tough part of the season during the summer months. United is still very much a work in progress in trying to balance a team that is very old at the top of the team and very young at the bottom. How this meshes together will be the ultimate tell on how United will do this season
With very few exceptions through 13 MLS matches, United has taken the opening 45 minutes to their respective opponents. While the first half tally’s will read an 8-4 goals advantage for United, it really doesn’t tell the whole story. On the positive side of things it shows that United are coming out ready to play in most of these matches. With the exception of United trailing Chivas USA 2-0 at the half earlier this season, they have been nearly unscored upon surrendering only two goals. United have gone to the locker room with the lead in 7 of their 13 matches to date. However, they have only won two of them. Which leads to…
I know what you’re saying. “But United had all those miracle comebacks. How is that poor finishing?”. Good question. It’s poor finishes in the sense that United have let their opponents off the hook too many times with poor finishing and criminal mistakes with little to no pressure around. It has not been very often that an opponent has simply taken the match to United this season. If anything, it’s a question of simply having the ability to finish off matches. Take your chances and leave no doubt. United hasn’t done this very well this season and thus the miracle finishes and close losses. United has had a two-goal lead for only 18 minutes total this season. The rest of the time they are either tied, ahead by one goal or trailing by one goal. United also needs to tidy up their mistakes in the second half. 13 of the 17 goals allowed have come in the second half and teams feel that if they can simply contain United and stay close, they will have a chance to get back into matches, which is exactly what has transpired this season.
I Believe in Miracles
What can you say about United’s unprecedented one month stretch from April 17th to May 16th when they pulled four results out of the fire? In all four of those matches, United were within a whisker of losing before getting late help via Ben Olsen (90th minute header to draw 1-1 with New England), Luciano Emilio and Chris Pontius (goals after stoppage time in a 3-2 win at New York), Jaime Moreno and Pontius(Moreno with PK in stoppage time and Pontius with 85th minute equalizer only to see TFC come down and re-take the lead a minute later) and finally Emilio and Santino Quaranta (77th and 86th minute goals in two-goal comeback at league leaders Chivas USA). You could go back through the annals of United history and only find a handful of comebacks by United that rival that one month stretch of magic from the Black and Red.
As compared to last season, United is miles ahead in terms of goals allowed. They’ve given up 17 goals in 13 matches and have 3 league shutouts, including two in their last three matches. The addition of central defender Dejan Jakovic has been more than advertised. His calmness on the ball, his very good passing ability and his closing speed are all great additions to a United defense that was pathetic last season. Bryan Namoff has been his usual stellar self and has taken it upon himself to marshall the back line from his right back position. Throw in the added improvement to his offensive game and he is having an all-league type of season. Marc Burch has been the real wild card here. Recent weeks has shown a great improvement on the defensive side of the ball and a discipline to stay home and defend first, which had never really been seen before. However, his early season form was spotty at best and only until United made the move to bring in veteran defender Avery John had we really seen an improvement in Burch’ play. John will add some much needed grit and leadership to the United back line should any injuries or suspensions rear it’s ugly head. Central defender Greg Janicki has been solid in limited time but the emergence of Jakovic has relegated him to late game mop up duty. Devon McTavish has been a non-factor this season will only a limited amount of appearances due to the good play from both the defensive corps and the midfield.
As for the goalkeeping position, it looks like Josh Wicks has stepped up to the #1 spot. Two shutouts in three matches (with game-saving stops in both shutouts) is exactly what the team has been looking for since Troy Perkins’ abrupt signing overseas before last season. Louis Crayton did not take advantage of his being the #1 coming into the season and his poor play finally culminated in him being dropped off the 18 man game-day roster for the past 5 matches (4 league and 1 Open Cup). Crayton’s hefty contract (reportedly $180,000 a year) is simply too much for a third string keeper. Come to think of it, it might be too much for a #1 in this league.
Milos Kocic is solidly in the #2 spot and might be the best keeper on the team but give credit where credit is due with Wicks. He has proven lately that he is capable of the job. Most people’s opinion of Wicks was formed from his play last season for the Galaxy. We have to remember that the Galaxy in 08′ was one of the worst defensive teams in MLS history and Iker Casillas would have looked bad playing between the pipes for the Galaxy. Wicks didn’t help his cause with a few blunders early on this season in terms of ball handling and positioning, but he seems to have risen in confidence as has his defenders in front of him.
Finally, A Draft That Pays Off
One of the loudest criticisms of United’s front office in recent seasons has been their lack of picks and subsequent lack of production from any young player they bring to the team. If it wasn’t trading picks away for older players or for allocation money, it was simply making bad draft picks. All that has appeared to have changed for United this season. Rodney Wallace (#6 pick in SuperDraft) and Chris Pontius (#7 pick) have been superlative through their first run through MLS. Wallace (2 goals, 3 assists) and Pontius (3 goals, 2 assists – 5 goals, 3 assists in all competitions) have given United an injection of speed, aggression andpassion that has rarely been seen around RFK for a long time. It doesn’t end with those two either. All of their draft picks have made an impact. 2ndRound pick goalkeeper Milos Kocic has stepped up to the #2 position ahead of Louis Crayton and has a win and two draws in all competitions. United’s other draftpick, 4th rounder Brandon Barklage has only managed to score in both of his U.S. Open Cup appearances and has shown a particular hunger that reminds a lot of people of a very young version of Ben Olsen in terms of tenacity and energy. This particular draft class could go down as the single best class United has ever produced rivaled only by the 2001 class that included Ryan Nelsen, Bryan Namoff and Santino Quaranta.
Rotation, Rotation, Rotation
Head coach Tom Soehn is bearing the fruits of having a deep roster. Not only has his team been relatively healthy (Olsen being the only long-term injury and it hasn’t been THAT long) but getting productive minutes from thier rookies has made United easily the deepest team in MLS to this point. How many other teams can bring players like Moreno and Gomez off the bench into the second half of matches? How about Fred, Emilio, Quaranta, Pontius and Wallace? Not too many. United has done that in recent weeks. Quite the luxury if you ask me.
While there are certainly critics of rotating too many players, it bears reminding of the horror show that was last season that saw Soehn field three reserve teams for their last 3 CONCACAF Champions League group matches last September. Nothing like trotting out Craig Thompson, Ryan Miller and James Thorpe as opposed to Moreno, Gomez and Fred.
The added benefit of rotating players (specifically the older gentlemen) is that United just might have a team that won’t fall flat on it’s face in October when the real pressure hits. It definitely will help that United isn’t playing in 47 different competitions like last season. Therefore I feel that if United can stay relatively injury-free for the remainder of 2009, there is no reason not to expect a good effort advancement in the MLS Cup playoffs and in the CONCACAF Champions League group stage later this summer.
By the time late September rolls around, I do feel that Soehn will finally pick his best X1 and ride that team through the playoffs. I would expect to see the Moreno, Gomez, Fred, Olsen andEmilio getting the majority of minutes with Pontius, Wallace and Andrew Jacobson ready, willing and able to step in should the need arise.
Obviously with only 2 losses in 13 matches so far this season, it’s a great improvement over the 7 losses at this time last season. However, a closer look at the records would reveal that United is only 3 points ahead of last seasons pace. It’s plain to see though that this team has a chemistry that was non-existent last season and quite simply they have better players with the additions of Pontius, Wallace, Olsen, Wicks and Jacobson. United is also on the verge of taking over first place in a highly competitive Eastern Conference should they win their home match versus Chicago this weekend. I feel it’s only a matter of time before United can get past letting teams stay close to them and start to really gel as the summer heats up.