Photo: Michael Long
The United-Union-Red Bulls rivalry has become an intense laboratory for a common dilemma in US soccer tactics: how to control a game without a traditional central midfielder.
Early successful MLS teams were built around traditional playmakers such as Marco Etcheverry (DC), Carlos Valdarrama (Tampa Bay), Peter Nowak (Chicago), Mauricio Cienfuegos (LA), Preki (KC), and Robert Warzycha (Columbus). Many teams now use withdrawn strikers and slashing wingers to provide the offense, while a central midfielder with limited distributing ability holds in front of the defense. The axiom that ‘vacuums will be filled’ is apparently unheeded or disproven.
The relevant personnel among the three local teams: Michael Farfan and Freddy Adu in Philly, Chris Pontius and Dwayne De Rosario in DC, and Thierry Henry and some combination of Kenny Cooper, Tim Cahill, Sebastien Le Toux, Connor Lade, or Joel Lindpere in New York generally mark the point of attack. While Brian Carroll, Perry Kitchen, and Dax McCarty hold their respective midfields, there are no dominant conduits between them and the high and wide attackers. These teams can either (a) ignore the vacuum and play through the wings, or (b) push the defensive midfielder or a striker out of position into the traditional central role.
This is an interesting issue for local soccer academics, because it highlights the strengths and differences of the mid-Atlantic teams that comprise an already intense three-way rivalry. DC expats living in Philly (like myself) may also use this angle as a way to confront the difficult decision of whether to adopt the Union. Any dispassionate observer would have to appreciate the Union’s fanbase and stadium, and this tactical puzzle offers an excuse to appreciate the team by following two diplomats representing DC in the Union midfield, Adu and Carroll.
Philly Union: Go Fish (or spend)
Ex-United players, Freddy Adu (born in Ghana, raised in Rockville, MD) and Brian Carroll (Springfield, VA), play prominent roles in the Union’s playmaking strategy—if not always in the execution. Adu, still only 23 years old, was not the player to control the game at DC, Benfica, the US National Team, or any of his other clubs. Similarly, with the Union he tends to attack from the wings—particularly from the right to set up shots on his left foot. Michael Farfan often plays a complementary position, attacking from the opposite wing, but neither has been a consistent engine for the Union. Carroll provides the defensive anchor, but has never demonstrated the capacity to control a game for United or the Union.
The Union have long adopted option (a) with Justin Mapp, Roger Torres, Adu, the Farfans, and slew of other wide and advanced attackers, but no comparable central midfielder. When Carroll has tried to fill a more advanced role in the middle of the field, the unnatural positioning has only diminished his stronger defensive talents. John Hackworth, like Ben Olsen, has a young squad, but lacks some of the depth and leadership in the attacking half provided by Dwayne De Rosario and a half dozen other attacking players on United. If the club does have a pile of allocation money hidden under the Commodore Barry Bridge, he would be the most justified of these three coaches in spending it on an established central midfielder.
DC United: Withdrawn De Rosario
In DC, Chris Pontius has had a strong season, but with Nick DeLeon and Andy Najar now providing complementary pressure from the right, and Long Tan, Maicon Santos, and Hamid Salihi adding sufficient threats up front, De Rosario could withdraw into a more central position. Kitchen is a representative member of the youngest team in MLS, but positions himself with maturity and covers ground well. Branko Boskovic has returned from his injury and doesn’t dominate offensively or defensively, but he does provide De Rosario and Kitchen solid support in each direction.
This seems closer to option (b), with an improving cast of strikers and wingers allowing De Rosario to drop back and fill the vacuum. DC would prefer De Rosario in a striker role, but he has been more effective than most strikers in filling the withdrawn playmaker role. If Olsen takes this approach, he will have to deal with Kitchen’s growing pains and eventually succession planning for the currently irreplaceable De Rosario.
NY Red Bulls: Cahill Recast ?!
In New York, Hans Backe might adopt a similar solution as Olsen, but Henry has not appeared as effective as De Rosario from deeper in the midfield. DC tried option (b) with McCarty as a playmaker, and when it failed, New York repeated the mistake. McCarty has passing ability, but he cannot control and produce offense to the extent that role requires.
While Mikel Arteta—not Cahill—was the central playmaker at Everton, perhaps a combination of withdrawn Henry and recast Cahill could control the game in front of McCarty or Teemu Tainio. Houston’s domination of the Red Bulls last week, however, suggests the need for further tinkering (like Cooper and McCarty instead of Le Toux and Tainio). The wealth of attacking players on this roster highlights the dearth of available central midfielders. Backe has focused on finding new wingers, which may indicate that he thinks he’s already found that playmaker. Cahill is a dynamic and dangerous player, but would have to completely reinvent himself to fill this role.
Whether and how these three teams marshal their resources to fill similar, gaping holes in their midfields will be an interesting if not determinative factor in their contention for post-season spots. Even if you don’t (or can’t) support the Union, an objective observer would have to appreciate the competitive puzzle, and can always support the representatives from DC. Having to test their solutions in key head-to-head games may further increase the tension among these local rivals.