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DC United paying for battle on three fronts?



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DC United is Major League Soccer’s most storied and most successful club. Since becoming a founder member of MLS in 1996, United have piled no fewer than twelve pieces of silverware into the RFK Stadium trophy cabinet, including four MLS Cups.

Many of United’s finest players are still in the team, from habitual record breaker Jaime Moreno and creative ace Christian Gomez to legendary midfielder Ben Olsen.

But all is not well at RFK currently. Coach Tom Soehn has faced the challenge of empowering a squad limited by MLS restrictions to fight for honours on three fronts. The great desire was MLS Cup, but through his team selections in 2009 Soehn has made it clear that he intends to compete for every match.

The CONCACAF Champions League has represented a significant challenge by adding a busy midweek schedule to United’s fixture list, and the results in the group stage have so far not been up to scratch.

The third target was to retain the US Open Cup, a quest ultimately doomed by a dramatic defeat at the hands of Seattle Sounders in last week’s final at RFK. Again, midweek matches became a regular feature of life at United and two matches a week has been the norm for a while. Premier League managers have created a new genre of discourse based on this kind of fixture congestion, but with a Major League Soccer squad it becomes even more difficult to succeed across multiple tournaments.

So, with the team now playing catch-up in MLS too, have DC United spread themselves too thin this season?

DC United have played 11 matches since the beginning of August. As with most fixture congestion it has been partly self-inflicted, partly a product of the club’s success. A friendly against Real Madrid on 9th August is unlikely to have done the side any damage, but a pile-up of fixtures thanks to qualification for the CONCACAF Champions League group stage and another run to the US Open Cup final appears to have taken its toll.

Squad strength

It’s only natural for a squad restricted by MLS regulations to suffer just before the business end of the season. In fact, United have a very strong squad with plenty of depth for Tom Soehn to dip into. The reliable old heads have continued to produce this season. Midfield legend Ben Olsen hasn’t played as many minutes as he would have liked but hasn’t disappointed when selected. Jaime Moreno is the same old Jaime, knocking in penalties for fun and as reliable as ever. It’s a shame he doesn’t have the legs for 90 minutes every week anymore.

And in an ideal world, Soehn would be able to play an in-form Christian Gomez from the start of every match. The Argentine playmaker has started only 17 matches this season since re-joining DC from Colorado, but his return of six goals and four assists hints at Gomez’s often lethal creative edge. He has a range of passing to rival anyone in MLS, but United can’t rely on him delivering week in, week out over a whole season in league and cup.

The real highlight of United’s season has been the form of two rookies, room-mates Chris Pontius and Rodney Wallace. Pontius has made a name for himself with 24 league games under his belt in his first season and a string of eye-catching performances. His versatility has gone a long way towards his burgeoning reputation, allowing Soehn to play him as a striker, attacking midfielder and holding midfielder this term. Pontius has faded somewhat, but his friend Wallace has suffered from a serious case of hitting the rookie wall. Regardless, both have made valuable contributions to DC’s assault on three fronts.

It even seems as if Soehn has cracked the goalkeeping conundrum. The terrifyingly sub-standard Louis Crayton was shown the door in June after a disastrous start to the season. Miloš Kocic, United’s number one, is not quite up to the job and neither, it appeared early on, was former Portland Timbers goalkeeper Josh Wicks. Luckily for the capital’s soccer team, Wicks has come into his own over the last couple of months – with a couple of exceptions – and has spent over 2000 league minutes between the sticks for United this season.

Tactically, Soehn has been able to switch his three-man backline to a four for several games this season. Marc Burch, Dejan Jakovic and Bryan Namoff would be my preferred trio but Greg Janicki has stepped into the back three for some of the team’s cup games and, largely, disappointed. The acquisitions of Avery John and Julius James have allowed tactical changes at the back but the first choice back three remains noticeably more robust than any other combination.

Open Cup heartbreak and Champions League disappointment

Despite their deep squad, United’s dream of retaining the US Open Cup was brought to a dramatic and abrupt end on September 2nd at RFK. In the final, Wicks lost all sense of discipline, stamping on Seattle Sounders’ goalscorer Fredy Montero after he’d broken the deadlock. Down to ten men, United couldn’t cope and the Sounders secured their first silverware as a Major League Soccer club. And while it’s certainly positive that the Cup has come to an end and United can focus on MLS, the club would have much preferred to be doing so with a second successive Open Cup on the honours list.

The CONCACAF Champions League has been a fairly destructive distraction this season. DC scraped through the preliminary round against LA Firpo, but defeats to Marathón and Toluca have given them a mountain to climb. San Juan Jabloteh complete the group and are up next in continental play. But with a trip to Mexico to come, I don’t fancy United’s chances.

As I write, things are looking up at RFK. With the Open Cup out of the way United can concentrate on stockpiling points during their five-game homestand. Match one took place last night and the expected victory against Kansas City Wizards was realised thanks to a single goal by Luciano Emilio. That leaves DC four points behind the leaders for Supporters’ Shield and firmly in the playoff race. In truth, it’s in ther own hands and they’ll be determined to avoid the ignominy of failing to qualify for the post-season.

Chris Nee writes at twofootedtackle and co-hosts The twofootedtackle Football Podcast.