Young United learning to get results

It wasn’t too long ago that there seemed no hope for D.C. United’s short-term future. That includes on the field problems as well as off. We’ll leave the off field issues for another day, instead looking at what Ben Olsen (pictured) and the much maligned front office of United has put together so far this young season.

It started at the SuperDraft when United “got their man” in Perry Kitchen with the third overall pick, according to Technical Director Dave Kasper. His Akron team mate Chris Korb (2nd round pick) soon joined the fold and unheralded South Carolina striker Blake Brettschneider followed the next day as a Supplemental draft pick, a throw-away pick if you like. So few of those picks pan out in MLS, it was worth it for United to trade Adam Cristman and a higher Supplemental pick for the opportunity to grab Brettschneider.

All of this plus the signing of Ethan White from their Academy Team (White played his freshman year at the University of Maryland) resulted in a marked improvement over years past in regards to the SuperDraft with the lone exception being the 2009 Draft when United snagged Chris Pontius and Rodney Wallace in back-to-back picks. Wallace has since been dealt to Portland for Dax McCarty. Portland seems the winner right now in that deal, but McCarty will come around soon enough.

And last, but not least was the signing of U.S. International Charlie Davies from Sochaux FC in France on a one-year loan with an option to buy at seasons end. All of this has added up to a solid, if not reasonable start to the 2011 MLS campaign with the team going 4-4-4 through their first 12 matches of the season.

Last season’s disastrous squad was a wretched 3-8-1 through 12 matches last season on their way to their worst season in history finishing at a woeful 6-20-4. Now of course anything United did this season would have to have been any kind of improvement over last year, right? Well, yes and no.

Yes in the sense that essentially anything would be a major improvement over last season and no in that one simply has to measure themselves at a higher level than the worst offensive team in the history of MLS. All that being said, let’s take a look at where the improvements have taken place and where some work still needs to be done.

Letting Go Is Very Hard To Do

For years D.C. United has played to a philosophy that nowadays in MLS is almost a thing of the past. Ball possession and maintaining control of the tempo was the highest priority and walking the ball into the goal was the right way to play for so many years at East Capitol Street. However, much like anything else in life, the game has evolved in MLS over the past few years and United’s predictable mantra was getting figured out too easily by their opponents.

In other words, United got old very quickly. Jaime Moreno, Christian Gomez, Luciano Emilio and a number of South American failures soon followed suit and even though some of the aforementioned players actually lit MLS up in goal scoring and in prowess, it became very evident very quickly that their style of play had past it’s sell by date in MLS circles.

United went from back-to-back Supporters Shield winners in 2006 and 2007 to being left at the rear of MLS for a third season running heading into 2011 and things had to change. United’s 2010 season will go down in league history as a low water mark for the franchise and the league to be honest. Do you really think that MLS wants D.C. United as a bottom feeder in MLS? No way..

Getting Younger Quickly

United got to work right away after the 2010 disaster and formulated a game-plan to improve the squad and move forward in 2011. However, their was one big issue to resolve first. They needed a Head Coach. Ben Olsen fell on his sword and took over the reigns after Curt Onalfo was fired at mid-season and Olsen did well as could be expected trying to turn around a sinking ship.

United management, specifically Team President and C.E.O. Kevin Payne, had said that Olsen would not be a candidate for the job during the off-season citing a need to find a more experience candidate. When it was clear late in 2010 that no candidates were sending a positive enough vibe for the job, the front office turned to their loyal servant Olsen and offered him the job full-time.

Olsen didn’t hesitate to take the job and likewise didn’t hesitate to start making moves beginning with their releasing a number of players who contributed very little to the cause in 2010, Danny Allsopp, Adam Cristman, Pablo Hernandez and the iconic Jaime Moreno all were ushered out. Next up was the SuperDraft in Baltimore and the haul that day combined with the signings of White and Davies plus the already established youth on the squad (2010 MLS Rookie of the Year Andy Najar and goalkeeper Bill Hamid)  has not disappointed yet for the Black-and-Red so far in 2011.

United is now putting out lineups that are amongst the youngest in MLS history and still getting good results as evident by their current 5-game unbeaten streak which has seen the team settle nicely into 3rd place in the very crowded MLS Eastern Conference.

With Youth Comes Joy and Frustration

There are two sides to enjoying an infusion of youth into a once-too old squad. For one thing, the effort and stamina on display is miles ahead of what it has been for the past three seasons. However, one has to put up with youthful mistakes and there have been plenty this season as a number of big losses started to pile up early in the season as United struggled through April with a record (during the month) of 1-3-1. Even worse were the blowout losses to Colorado (4-1), New York (4-0 at home) and Houston (4-1).

Since then however things have improved greatly as they are currently on a 5-game unbeaten streak since their loss to Houston on April 29th.  The key to United’s turnaround in defense is a solid commitment to defend as a unit and keep the silly mistakes such as fouling in and around the penalty area, freeing up the opposition to score on set pieces which United has been generally poor at defending.

Olsen has thrown caution to the wind by inserting rookies Ethan White and Perry Kitchen to the backline on a full-time basis and the results have been very good. After giving up 16 goals in their first 7 matches, United and their kiddie-corp have given up only 5 goals in 4 matches, including two shutouts from Bill Hamid. United is now continually putting out a squad that has as many as 7 players 25 years old and younger out on the field. No one else in MLS is doing that and still getting results.

Offense is Better, But Still Needs Improving

When you’re coming off of a record setting season of futiilty, almost any move you make during the off-season simply has to pay off. The addition of Davies and MLS veteran Josh Wolff have boosted United as they have scored 6 and 3 goals respectively through the first third of the season. In fact, Davies total at this point exceeds Andy Najar and Danny Allsopp’s team high of 5 goals from last season. Additionally Chris Pontius has come back from a lost season of injuries during 2010 to chip in 4 goals himself. The team overall has scored 16 goals through 12 matches and incredibly only needs to score 6 more goals to surpass the season total of 21 from last year! Methinks they will surpass that amount by the time July rolls around, if the good play continues.

This isn’t to say however that the offense couldn’t use some improvement. While Davies, Wolff and Pontius are living up to their billing, Najar, Santino Quaranta and everyone in central midfield (Dax McCarty, Fred, Stephen King, Clyde Simms) are still a bit slow to support the offense and are lagging behind. If just one of those players can step up and help with goal scoring and more importantly the setting up opportunities for their chief goalscorers,  then United really could set their sights on their first playoff appearance since 2007.

McCarty in particular has struggled the most of the players that were expected to make major contributions this season for United. McCarty is a tweener player and isn’t exactly a full-time defensive midfielder nor a full-time attacking midfielder. He’s simply a central midfielder that is capable of playing both ways. For whatever reason, United hasn’t seen the best of McCarty yet.

United was hoping to add their DP player Branko Boskovic into the equation but just as he started producing his best play since coming over to United late last summer, he suffered a season-ending knee injury during their Open Cup play-in loss to the New England Revolution in late April. A Boskovic/McCarty midfield pairing might have been capable of supporting Davies, Wolff, Pontius and Najar. As it stands right now, the team is struggling to provide a spark from central midfield and must rely on it’s outside midfielders to spark the attack.

Pontius has been in fine form and Najar has seemed back to his old self after early season struggles which saw him on the bench for a number of matches. If Najar can get on track and start scoring a few goals, it could be very beneficial to Davies and Wolff who no doubt are starting to get marked closer and closer each match.

Santino Quaranta is currently out with concussion symptoms, but even he has been a bit of a disappointment this season with only 1 goal to show for his efforts. I’ve always maintained that what you see is what you get with Santino. A lot of potential that is unfulfilled. Others think that putting him up at forward will jump start his effectiveness but I just don’t see it. I think his best and most effective position for this team is at outside midfielder but unfortunately for him, those positions are occupied by better players at the moment.

Charlie Davies has clearly been the most pleasant surprise to date for this season. However, to me I still haven’t seen the pre-accident Davies and perhaps we never will. I would take 80% of what Davies was prior to the accident (and we essentially are seeing that) for the entire season and I think 1/3 of the way through the season he has exceeded anyone’s expectations. Now comes the moment where we need to see Davies take over matches and free up team mates to be just as dangerous. His late game breakaway against the Galaxy last weekend would have been such a great and definitive moment had he had a little more composure instead of rushing his attempt well wide of an open net. Davies is coming off an injury and we very well could blame that slip-up on that, but I don’t want him to take the easy way out and blame it on that.

Josh Wolff has been about what you would expect from him. In fact, he’s on pace for double digit goals which he did in 2009 with Kansas City, sorry Sporting Kansas City. Wolff will always bust his hump 100% in each match and has shown a pretty decent touch on the ball that has freed up team mates recently, most notably the game-winning opportunity in Los Angeles that Davies rushed past the net. I would continue to see Wolff help this team but to expect him to be a big goal scorer might be too much to expect from him. Steady as she goes with Josh and he’s helping out just fine at the moment.

Rookie Blake Brettschneider has been a pleasant surprise for Olsen’s troops this season and though he has yet to score for United on the season, his two-assist effort in Portland two weekends ago only shows what his potential contributions can be for this team. United has long played without a target forward in favor of moving the ball on the floor and combining for goals.

However, as mentioned earlier, this is a different league from back in the late 90’s when United teams could play that way almost effortlessly. Brettschneider is a banger and non-stop hustling machine that United has been thirsting for for years. No one is suggesting that he is the next Taylor Twellman or Brian Ching, but he does give United something they’ve been missing in recent years and that is a Route 1 option to bypass the midfield in order to set up quick strikes (the game-winning goal off of his head to Josh Wolff against Portland to wit). Brettschneider could be used as a tactical option depending on the types of teams that United face during the season. He’s not a starter per se just yet, but he’s doing alright for himself.

Help On the Way?

The front office has repeatedly said that they will look to the July transfer window to help bolster a thin and inexperienced defense as well as looking for some help in central midfield. With the injury to Boskovic, his spot on the roster can be replaced but his hefty DP salary is still on the books and that will most likely hamper any real impact signing this summer. Look for the team to make a few minor moves to improve the defense and hope to get fortunate with an offensive signing that could make an impact for very little price. Good luck with that..

Is the P-word a Little Too Soon to Bring Up?

It’s been a while since United have been in a playoff position and naturally, giddy thoughts tend to take over. However, one thing that has been constant this season is Olsen’s message of preaching patience with this squad. This is absolutely the way to go for United at the moment and you just hope that this young team can continue to get results and stay within arms reach of the playoffs when Autum comes rolling around.

One thing is for sure though, it’s nice to actually see a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel after having to sit through the past three seasons and last year in particular. Just 12 months ago there seemed no hope in sight for United for either the season or their future. Fast forward to today and it indeed does seem brighter.

At least on the field..

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