By Kyle McCarthy
WASHINGTON – Strikers talk about rhythm all the time. They need to find the flow of the game and receive consistent service. One goal begets many, according to striking folklore.
All the scuttlebutt about strikers needing consistency conveniently obscures the fact that defenders also need rhythm. Settled partnerships, settled formations and settled coverage schemes all lead to the construction of a cohesive defensive unit.
In order to return to the playoffs, D.C. United will have to find that defensive rhythm to provide the foundation for its plethora of attacking talent. Based on the evidence on display in Friday's night's 1-1 draw with New England, that rhythm may not prove as elusive as some may have thought prior to the season.
“Defensively, our cover and our support in the first half was great,” United right back Bryan Namoff assessed. “We could have been a little bit better on the ball, but you can definitely see the development from a team perspective. We're defending as a whole group. It's great. We're intercepting passes.”
The two most important parts of that defensive group don't even play in the back. Defensive midfielders Clyde Simms (taken off ill at halftime on Friday night) and Ben Olsen provide the necessary shield for United's back three. Both Simms and Olsen are gap fillers of the highest order. Unlike many holding midfielders in the league, they combine frustration with economical passing. Former winger Olsen even cropped up at the far post to head in the tying goal, besting nemesis for the night Wells Thompson in the process. Few teams around the league boast two holding midfielders of comparable quality and much of their hard work relieves the pressure on a back line that is still finding its way.
While Simms and Olsen (if healthy enough to play on bad ankles) weren't question marks heading into the season, the composition of the back line merited more serious inspection. Namoff – a steady veteran who has taken on more of a vocal leadership role this campaign – was penciled in somewhere on the right side. The often erratic Louis Crayton had no reasonable challenger between the sticks, so he earned the nod in goal. After that, all bets were off.
Brazilian central defender Roger came into camp hailed as the central defensive savior, looked around and then decamped back to his homeland shortly thereafter. That left United to scramble to find a suitable replacement in time for the season opener. In Canadian defender Dejan Jakovic, they may have just found it. Jakovic has improved with each game and looked like a commanding force on Friday night against a rather blunt opposition. Sterner tests will arrive soon, but the early signs are promising.
Jakovic's emergence has left United with just one spot to fill. Marc Burch's best abilities are going forward in a four-man back line, which leaves him ill-suited to the primarily defensive duties of a three-man back line. Same goes for Rodney Wallace, who played on the left side of the three in the second half after Burch was yanked at halftime for spraying the ball all over the pitch in the opening 45. Greg Janicki could play there, but he's still shaking off the effects of a nasty head knock suffered in the season opener in Los Angeles. A pending deal for former Revs defender Avery John – with a conditional draft pick headed to New England – will soon provide a more robust option experienced in the three-man system.
Once that left back is crowned, it will be up to Namoff, Jakovic and the chosen third member to forge a compact unit. All the signs are there for a quick assimilation, Namoff said.
“Chemistry is a difficult, difficult thing to tame,” Namoff said. “It is something you can't force. It just has to come naturally. Sometimes, it doesn't happen with a group of guys. Sometimes, it does. You could see it from the start of preseason with this group. It's a close-knit group.”
Whether that nascent chemistry will lead to the defensive rhythm required remains uncertain. Six goals in five games represents substantial improvement over last season, but it's early days yet and the final personnel group isn't yet in place. What Namoff can say now with certainty is that the rhythm appears to be in development.
“It's not there yet completely, but it's definitely a work in progress,” Namoff said.
Dynamo assistant gets rise out of United
The primary topic of discussion prior to Friday night's match came not from the match at hand, but from a preview of it written by a recent United foe.
Houston Dynamo goalkeeper coach Tim Hanley writes a weekly preview column for Center Line Soccer, a San Jose-based Web site. His columns are insightful and interesting. Often, they provide a glimpse into a side of the game that few get to see.
In his role, Hanley previews the ESPN/ESPN2 game of the week. Hanley, who watched the Dynamo lose in D.C. earlier this season in one of the most dreadful games of the 2009 season to date, didn't mince words when it came to his thoughts on United and may have stepped on a few toes in the process.
The preview started with an anecdote – one I'd heard myself from a couple of different sources while at the SuperDraft with approximately similar details aside – about the complete and utter disarray at United's draft table as United picked in the first round. That rather unflattering story dovetailed into a scathing appraisal of United's roster. United has “one or two players that would start for the Revolution” and boasts a “wooden” back line, according to Hanley. Players weren't spared either. Louis Crayton “is poor and New England would be well advised to test him as often as possible,” while Fred “kicks people.”
Not surprisingly, the always-alert D.C.-area press corps linked to the column from a couple of its blogs. In its blog post linking to the story, The Washington Post noted that United management “is aware of the comments and plans to handle it privately with the Dynamo.”
One can only hope the “handling” doesn't include the end of Hanley's columns. Ruffling a few feathers certainly isn't a bad thing. Hanley's refreshing honesty – regardless of whether you agree or disagree with his commentary – represents a much-needed voice in the often bland MLS universe.
Week Five – Questions, Thoughts, and Answers
Monday MLS Breakdown Player of the Week – Macoumba Kandji, forward, New York
The Red Bulls needed a goal. An honest goal that didn't include a deflection from an opposing defender. Kandji supplied this to his goal-thirsty team in the second minute of Saturday night's 2-0 win over Real Salt Lake. “This is a dream start to the game for New York,” Red Bulls color analyst Shep Messing exclaimed after Kandji tapped home a loose rebound. Kandji followed it up with another active display, including the assist on Juan Pablo Angel's first goal of the season. Better wide play helped the Red Bulls' attack, but Kandji provided the much-needed sharpness.
What was he thinking? Kevin Hartman, Kansas City goalkeeper
Returning Chicago playmaker Cuauhtemoc Blanco lofted a ball towards the Wizards' penalty area in the 13th minute of a scoreless contest. Wizards defender Jimmy Conrad backtracked to clear the innocuous ball and Hartman rushed out to punch it. The ball popped out and Fire striker Brian McBride tucked away the first of his two goals in a 2-2 draw on Saturday night.
“It is my job to call Jimmy off, and I didn’t call him off, so we collided and the ball [came] free,” Hartman told the Kansas City Star.
To his credit, Hartman later redeemed himself with a fine second-half performance as the Wizards escaped from Toyota Park with a draw.
Eleven observations to start the week
1. “It was a game time decision,” New England midfielder Jeff Larentowicz said about his participation in Friday night's contest as he struggled with a troublesome hip injury. “I've felt pretty poorly for about a week now. We went through the MRI and the x-ray stuff and I didn't train all week. We got the results back [on Friday] and there was no tear. I knew what it was, so I was able to feel a little bit of piece of mind and play.” Larentowicz's contribution in the face of United's constant pressure and in light of his injury troubles was nothing short of immense.
2. David Horst probably deserved a foul when Dane Richards bundled him over before setting up Kandji's opener. But it's tough to argue that RSL deserved much of anything out of the game even with that fact stipulated.
3. Real Salt Lake is 0-4-6 all time (including a 1-0 defeat in the Western Conference final last season) against New York.
4. “We always talk about playing for 90 minutes,” Kansas City coach Curt Onalfo told the Kansas City Star after his side stole that point in Chicago. “The game is not 45 minutes, it is 90 minutes. You can play a terrible 80 minutes of soccer and find yourself a rhythm for 10 minutes and get yourself a couple of goals and get yourself back in the game. That is kind of what happened tonight.”
5. “We needed to be better closing out the game,” Chicago coach Denis Hamlett said after his team coughed up a pair of late Josh Wolff goals to chuck away two points. “For 75 minutes, we had control of the game. We then got caught up in the last 15 minutes in an open game, trying to get that third goal.”
6. “Unfortunately, the two good chances they had on us resulted in goals,” stand-in Seattle Sounders FC goalkeeper Chris Eylander told the Seattle Times after Chivas USA cemented its place atop the Western Conference with a 2-0 win at the Home Depot Center. Not that Seattle mustered many chances either. The two sides combined for five shots on goal.
7. Los Angeles midfielder Chris Klein's 118-match consecutive starts streak fell by the wayside in Saturday night's 1-1 draw in San Jose. Sean Franklin patrolled the right wing in Bruce Arena's 3-5-2 formation while Klein sat. The move surprised me. Even after a poor outing the week before in an unfamiliar left wing role, Klein still remains among the five best midfielders on the Galaxy roster.
8. “A lot of our guys are not playing as well as they can,” San Jose coach Frank Yallop said after that disappointing 1-1 draw. “Especially defensively. We seem weak and scared to make a decision. We're working hard to make it right. The players have to take some responsibility and play better. I think we're playing nervously and apprehensively. We're not like that.” The 'Quakes have five points in four home matches this season.
9. Massive, massive double save by Pat Onstad to ensure Houston emerged with all three points against Colorado. Onstad saved Conor Casey's penalty kick with a dive to his right before popping up and denying Jordan Harvey on the left side of his frame. Pretty chipper for a 41-year-old 'keeper.
10. How can FC Dallas expect to climb up the table with such a meager contribution from the right side of the field? The vast majority of the worthwhile FCD attacks come through Dave van den Bergh on the left flank. The lack of balance will hamper the Hoops in the future, despite a much-needed 3-2 win over Toronto FC on Sunday night.
11. TFC striker Chad Barrett really needed his second-half goal against FCD. Barrett looked like a striker low on confidence in the first half when he smashed a gilt-edged chance into the side netting. Maybe his gift-wrapped goal will get him firing over the next couple of weeks.
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 MLSnet.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at email@example.com.