United coach Ben Olsen must figure out how his side will function and work with the pieces he has in place in De Rosario's absence in order to secure a playoff berth.
WASHINGTON – The sight of Dwayne De Rosario gamely limping out onto the field prior to D.C. United's 2-1 victory over New England provided a painful glimpse into the task ahead for the remainder of the season.
De Rosario managed to haul himself in front of the RFK Stadium crowd to accept an award for reaching 100 goals in MLS, but his hampered gait showed the wreckage of the season-altering clash in Panama City on Tuesday night.
The reigning MLS MVP will miss the next 10-12 weeks with a grade III MCL sprain in his left knee and will watch from the sidelines as United attempts to secure a first playoff berth since 2007 without him.
“I think you don't really try to replace him,” United coach Ben Olsen said when asked about how he thought about replacing his talisman. “You become a team without Dwayne. You ask everybody to do a little bit more.”
It isn't an easy transformation to make, particularly in the middle of a playoff chase. De Rosario weaves himself into the fabric of his teams. He operates in a free role and slides around the field to collect the ball wherever he pleases. His production over the years vindicates his theory that he operates best when handed the license to move about without restrictions.
No one player can replace De Rosario's particular movements or his prolific production (seven goals, 12 assists). This isn't the type of situation where a team can change around the edges and hope the issue resolves itself. Only a revamped approach can even start to compensate for the type of contribution De Rosario makes on a consistent basis.
Olsen made his first foray into this dangerous thicket by casting aside his empty bucket for a diamond in midfield as part of the usual 4-4-2 setup, handing the creative responsibilities to Branko Bošković and pairing Lionard Pajoy and Maicon Santos together up front.
“We had two major changes,” Olsen said as he pondered why his side lacked rhythm in its first post-DeRo outing. “We had two forwards together that have never played together. And then you throw Branko in the mix. That was part of it. Our balance was going to be a little bit off. We're missing a guy who played for us in every game. Now we're changing things up a little bit and there's that rust. And there's the rust of just being off a week. We haven't done so well with these breaks.”
Bošković merited most of the scrutiny as De Rosario's creative replacement. He floated between the lines, prompted Chris Pontius' opener with a clever backheel in acres of space and supplied several dangerous set pieces. He didn't freelance. He didn't rove. And, perhaps most importantly to his manager, he didn't run.
After one too many instances when United conceded possession and Bošković loafed his way back down the field to track his man, Olsen called for a substitute. Bošković expressed his disgust with the decision to remove him after 56 minutes by kicking aside several water bottles and trudging down to the far end of the bench.
“Well, one, he's not that fit, not 90 minutes fit,” Olsen explained. “We knew at some point that he was going to have to come off. It just looked like he was starting to fade. Branko, offensively, gives you some real magic from set pieces. Today, I thought they were very good. But there was starting to be a cost.”
Bošković's removal imposed no burden on this night after his industrious replacement, Lewis Neal, scored the winner seven minutes after his arrival. Such tactical decisions may exact more punishment in the future unless United commits to employing Bošković's services in a way that benefits his strengths and reduces his weaknesses or finds another way to produce incisive play in the final third.
The logical change in both scenarios would involve a change up front to interject some diversity in the final third. Pajoy and Santos assume similar spots on the field and function in somewhat redundant fashion. Pajoy works harder off the ball and Santos chips in with a goal more frequently, but neither player scores frequently enough to merit a certain place in the team. Other options might provide more menace and accentuate the qualities Bošković brings to the team.
(Note: This seems about the point where Hamdi Salihi should pop into the conversation. Salihi remains a peripheral figure under Olsen, though he did come off the bench against the Revolution. Olsen rather tellingly noted that everyone moved up a spot in the pecking order after De Rosario's injury when he answered a question about the Albanian international striker. The internal shuffling probably won't earn Salihi a run in the team or inspire Olsen to trust him after he struggled at the start of his United career. It is, all in all, a peculiar situation.)
If Bošković plays, then he needs someone like Pontius to do the running for him in dangerous areas. The blossoming attacker's overall performance against the Revolution (one goal, one assist) suggested he understands the burden he must carry with De Rosario sidelined. Pontius' current deployment on the left works well enough, but a central role would fit more snugly if Olsen can bring himself to trust Bošković enough to hand him the keys.
(Note: Fortunately for Olsen, he does possess some options to accommodate Pontius' shift to the middle if he decides to go that route. Robbie Russell's return to fitness could and probably should permit Andy Najar's return to the right side of midfield. If Najar slides into his natural role, then Nick DeLeon can flip to the left side and Pontius can replace one of Pajoy or Santos up front.)
Bošković represents the most likely replacement for De Rosario in terms of natural creativity (and his set piece prowess would help significantly if the cadence fails to appear), but there are other ways to build a starting XI that might suit this coach and this group more appropriately. Maybe Olsen can devise another way to create enough attacking opportunities to survive and maintain a shape more suited to protect the back four.
Finding the right balance to suit all parties remains an ongoing project. Unfortunately for Olsen and his players, the conundrum requires an effective and speedy resolution to ensure United spends the winter discussing a first playoff berth in five seasons instead of reflecting upon the disappointing fallout from De Rosario's untimely injury.
“We're not going to replace Dwayne,” Olsen said. “It's just not going to happen. I have got to find the right group now that makes us perform at our best. Was that the group? I don't know. Maybe we stick with that. Maybe we tinker with some things. I'll look at the film and we'll make some adjustments.”
Five Points – Week 26
1. Dearth of sharpness once again haunts Sporting Kansas City: By just about every measure, Sporting should have come away from Friday's 1-1 draw with Houston with all three points. The home side carried most of the game and created plenty of chances (27 attempts, nine shots on goal). Dynamo goalkeeper Tally Hall deserves credit for another fine performance in a season already filled with them, but the iffy finishing played its part, too. Maybe C.J. Sapong's first goal in 13 appearances (a powerful header from a sumptuous Graham Zusi chip to rescue a point in second-half stoppage time) will prompt a revival in the final third in time for the postseason.
2. Diversity makes Los Angeles dangerous in the postseason: Few teams can employ a variety of approaches in the final third. Need a long ball over the top? David Beckham (and Marcelo Sarvas, according to evidence supplied in Friday's 2-0 win over Colorado) can provide it. Require some width? Christian Wilhelmsson offers plenty of it on either the left or the right (his spot in his first start against the Rapids). Want neat interplay? Wilhelmsson joins a group of players capable of clever one-touch football to create goals like the opener scored by Robbie Keane. All of those routes to goal – plus the hold up work provided by Edson Buddle when he returns to full fitness and the usual set piece wizardry from Beckham – could prove crucial in the Galaxy's quest to retain MLS Cup because they provide viable alternatives when the first and second choices start to falter.
3. Portland and Seattle offer up a great advertisement for the league: The amount of hype surrounding the first broadcast on NBC could have crippled this game. It didn't. There were plenty of opportunities and talking points for both sides in an atmosphere that made for wonderful television. The only thing missing: a late winner (though Bright Dike sure came close) to add even more drama to the 1-1 draw.
4. Pure class from Thierry Henry: Just watch the replay of Henry's Olimpico in the Red Bulls' 3-1 win over Columbus over and over again.
5. Julian de Guzman finally comes good: The Canadian international displayed his ample skill by settling a clearance off his chest and tucking his full volley inside the near post to hand FC Dallas a critical, last-gasp 1-0 victory over Vancouver. The stoppage-time strike moved FCD to within one point of the slumping Whitecaps for fifth place in the Western Conference and piled the pressure on Martin Rennie's side to snap its five-game losing streak against Colorado on Saturday.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.Follow GOAL.COM USA on