Someday, when he finds himself in the right tactical situation with the right pieces arrayed around him, when he regains his confidence and stops pushing so hard to prove himself, I have few doubts that Dax McCarty will show himself to be a quality player.
But for those of us who have suffered through his tepid, possession-wasting performances for United this year, it was a comfort to see him lining up to take set pieces or leading the break in transition for the Red Bulls. Comforting because you knew how the scene would end.
Yet while McCarty’s failings proved familiar, the larger pattern of the game bucked the trend of recent United outings.
United games in 2011 generally work like this: (1) United with possession and pressure is on top for the first 15 minutes, (2) the opposition comes into the game, often on the back of a goal against the run of play, (3) United makes one or two more bursts of sustained good play, often resulting in goals that pull them back level or put them ahead, (4) a late collapse and inability to resist sustained pressure results in dropped points.
More generally the pattern can be read as: United goes up, gets pegged back, goes up again, gets dragged back down. And that was what made this game so interesting. The normal order of events was flipped on its head. The Red Bulls looked rampant in the first 15 minutes of either half, creating a number of chances and half-chances, controlling the ball and barely giving United a sniff. But in both cases, Olsen’s men recovered to claw their way back into the game, even grabbing that most unusual of souvenirs: a goal against the run of play (class finish from De Rosario, long may he flourish).
But the most satisfying rejection of business as usual was the manner in which United secured the win. Too often we’ve seen the opposition seemingly flick a switch to create late pressure that results in chance after chance until one is finally bundled past a panicking back line falling all over itself. And yes, the Red Bulls did step up their pressure and did have some chances, but I, normally the most pessimistic of observers, felt strangely calm.
Did this have something to do with Dax taking many of their free kicks and corners1? Somewhat. But, and I say this having great concern for Benny’s diamond when it comes to defense2, this was one of those matches where the sort of creeping inevitability of the result seemed obvious, even to the players. There was danger, yes, but it was held at arm’s length, cooly regarded, and dismissed.
Strange feeling for a United fan (and player, I’m sure) in 2011.
Until the goal, this post was going to center around a feeling that United were not quite complete, that too many players weren’t quite what they needed to be to make the preferred tactical system hum. Though it wasn’t the story of the game (in fact there were notable exceptions that crept in to the contrary), I still think some of the points I considered for that argument remain valid.
I raised the point above (and expanded upon it in the footnotes) that Simms doesn’t quite hack it as a lone d-mid in the diamond, particularly with three attacking midfielders as his running-mates. To my mind, Simms has always functioned best as part of a two holding-mid set. He had a decent game here, but there was still far too much space waiting to be exploited. And that creates a dilemma despite the positive result last night.
Does Benny (1) persist playing Simms solo behind three attacking mids, (2) look for an enforcer-type in the transfer window, or (3) pull the largely superfluous Wolff in favor of a second holding mid? Wolff has his moments, and perhaps this is a terrible time to make this point given the role he played in setting up the winner, but he did precious little the rest of the game. I suppose you could claim that he popped up at the appropriate time and contributed to the game-winner. But I’d counter by arguing that a second defensive or holding midfielder would strengthen both possession and defensive solidity while freeing the trio of De Rosario, Najar, and Pontius to follow their more natural attacking tendencies.
Other mentions (by no means the complete list [he says, relishing the irony], though a decent representative sample) in my notes of seemingly incomplete players, often refuted by the match itself:
White’s recovery speed covers his lack of positioning/anticipation. While it’s true that you can’t teach speed and you can teach positioning, and therefore you might hold out hope that experience will make a better defender of him, it’s also true that some defenders seem to have an intuitive grasp of positioning and movement3 while others will never be more than athletes (hi, Marvell Wynne). Let’s hope White doesn’t fall into the Wynne camp.
Simms for all the reasons highlighted above.
Woolard has never seemed like more than a stop-gap solution at left back. He has USL writ large all over him. Watching the rookie Kitchen play both solid defense and get forward into the attack, it was often frustrating to see a lack of the same down the left flank. And yet Dane Richards was largely quiet on the Red Bulls’ right. Stop-gap indeed, but an effective one, at least on the defensive side of the ball.
Pontius is a terror running at defenders, manufacturing chances, and shooting from distance, but his composure and finishing from close range are often inconsistent. Witness the poor touch on the run behind Miller that took away a great chance and the open headed chance put wide from the corner. I suppose that’s why he’s playing more as a midfielder than as a forward and has been doing so quite effectively, but he still fits the theme under discussion.
Davies hustles and he gets chances, but he still feels a step slow and too wasteful, both in possession and with his chances.
Wolff has moments where you love him, but all to often I’m disgusted by a lack of passing precision or lack of attacking intent, both of which often serve to kill any danger that might exist in transition. At this stage of his career, he’s caught in transition himself. No longer blessed with a poacher’s quickness, he is assuming a more deeper, creative role. But all too often his technique, be it first touch or passing, isn’t good enough to execute the role, even if he has enough vision and experience to see the opportunity on the table.
Of course, all of those “incomplete” accusations could be leveled across the board at the great majority of MLS players and indeed players in general the world over. Complete players are the exception rather than the norm and there’s a school of thought that runs that complete, polished players have all the useful edges rubbed off. And it would be insane to think that you could assemble a roster of quality finished products on an MLS budget.
But that makes taking a tactical approach that exploits strengths while minimizing weaknesses a necessity. United’s strength is in the quality of its attacking midfield, while its weakness is centered on the inexperience of its back line. The logical solution would be to reduce exploitable midfield gaps, allowing the defense to focus on what’s in front of them rather than what might be slipping through, behind, etc., while simultaneously freeing the attacking elements of the midfield to do what they do best.
I can’t wrap my head around the 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield being the best approach, but then who am I to argue with the impressive result of blanking the conference leaders and the team topping the MLS scoring charts in their house and coming home with all three points4?
Granted Lindpere would have been at the poorer angle taking those with his left, but surely McCarty’s ineptitude with the dead ball has been adequately demonstrated this year? ↩
The diamond midfield feels too open. Simms has range, but not the bite or determination to plug the gaps left by three essentially attack-minded midfield compatriots. Maybe if Najar and Pontius pinched in more defensively those gaps would be addressed, but the Red Bulls attackers had far too much time and space to drop into the region in front of the back line between Simms and his wide men. Likewise, the back line, particularly Ethan White, were exposed by balls delivered through those same gaps. ↩
For MLS examples, see Tim Ream and Michael Parkhurst. In this match alone, Ream was outstanding in killing half a dozen chances through anticipation, positioning, and well-timed challenges. Does a Parkhurst-ian shuffle in to mid-tier Euro-obscurity lie in wait or will he mature into the finished product for the national team? ↩
It’s also tempting to look at the standings and realize that United is only six points behind the conference-leading Red Bulls with three games in hand and get carried away. But there’s a reason “Back to the Mean” is a recurring theme for this edition of United. Consistency is not our forte and even cautious optimism seems naive at this point. ↩