D.C. United searches for perfect formula for its versatile attacking options
D.C. United coach Ben Olsen spent most of last season rummaging through his squad to find someone capable of producing a spark in the final third. It never arrived. Dwayne De Rosario, Kyle Porter and Luis Silva tied for the team lead with three goals apiece. The entire group mustered 22 goals in 34 games, a mark perilously close to the MLS record established United's 21-goal haul during the 2011 campaign.
The inability to threaten with any regularity forced wholesale changes during the close season. De Rosario decamped for Toronto FC during the re-entry process after United declined to exercise his option. Lionard Pajoy and Carlos Ruiz departed after slipping down the pecking order. Conor Doyle earned a permanent move from Derby County after his displays on loan last season, but his retention constituted the exception to the emerging rule.
Olsen and general manager Dave Kasper took decisive steps to address the situation. Eddie Johnson arrived from Seattle to lead the line. Fabián Espíndola joined from New York through the re-entry process. Christiano Francois even supplied an option for the future when he made the short trek down I-95 from Maryland through the waiver draft.
The reinforcements – plus holdovers like Doyle, Porter, Nick DeLeon, Jared Jeffrey and Chris Pontius – provide Olsen with the sort of choices he simply didn't have last year. The problem now: devising the best way to use the options at his disposal.
“That's the real challenge right now: from a formation standpoint, how do all of these pieces start to fit together,” Olsen said during an interview last weekend. “That's been a challenge, but it's a lot of fun as well because of the fact I have some good options. I have some real players who are adaptable and who are looking forward to playing with each other.”
Johnson looms as the most likely touchstone, the deft player capable of leading the line and surging through it. United did not acquire his services from Sounders FC and promise to revisit his contractual situation to sit him on the bench. His availability remains in some question through the spring with the World Cup looming, but his production over the past two campaigns (23 goals, including nine last season) ensures he provides a foundational piece moving forward.
In order to extract the best out of Johnson, Espíndola will need to hit top form. The former Real Salt Lake forward never truly settled in New York, but his qualities – his grittiness, his incessant running and his selfless work in the attacking half – dovetail nicely within this group. His approach to the game – and especially those drifting runs out to the left – requires a bit of an adjustment period for his teammates, though.
“The fact that he was here early is big,” Olsen said. “I think he's a player guys need to spend time with to figure out how to have him have success on the field. His runs are real. I like him as a person. I'm looking forward to the guys starting to play with him a little bit and make it easy on him.”
Everything should come a little easier for United in the attacking third this season, particularly if DeLeon finds his best form with more support and the seemingly hexed Pontius recovers properly from left hamstring surgery. Davy Arnaud's calming presence in midfield should help the cause. So will the presence of a multitude of players capable of contributing in different positions.
It might, however, take some time for this group to find its footing together given the sweeping changes made during the offseason. Olsen said he and his players will spend much of preseason trying to concoct the proper shape (Johnson and Espíndola could certainly form a front two with DeLeon and Pontius charged with providing creativity from midfield, but there are other alternatives if Olsen wants to experiment with a 4-3-3 setup, too) and foster the rhythm required to produce the desired uptick in front of goal this season.
“That's the challenge,” Olsen said. “We have a short amount of time to do it. It's not going to happen on opening day. This is going to be a process throughout the entire year of figuring out who we are. That's OK, as long as we're moving forward and learning about each other and the group. I think, in the end, because of the quality we have, we'll be OK.”