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02/11/2014
 
There seemed to be a small bit of irony that D.C. United's 2014 campaign began under a cover of fog last Wednesday. Having made a flurry of off-season moves to completely rebuild the roster, it was unclear as to what D.C.United would look like in 2014.

United's two losses this week (first to Toronto F.C. 1-0 on Wednesday, then 2-0 against the Chicago Fire on Saturday night) showed some of what can be expected from the team but left more questions unanswered.

A couple of things to bear in mind when talking about these matches.

First, don't pay attention to the score.

All three goals that were scored against United occurred when United was fielding reserve players. United Goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra, who started in the Toronto FC match and allowed the lone goal, in all likelihood will be the third-string goalkeeper or loaned out to the Richmond Kickers in USL Pro.

Players like Jalen Robinson, Taylor Kemp, Collin Martin, and Michael Seaton all obviously have a high upside and a great potential to become quality footballers but they are outmatched against the likes of Michael Bradley. So these observations are not necessarily based off of the score but rather specific plays or instances.

Second, it is still very early in the preseason and players are still getting into match-fitness. At this point, players are still trying to prepare their bodies for the rigors of a full season. Other players, like Chris Pontius, are coming off of off-season surgery and are recovering from injury. At the beginning of preseason it is natural to see players a bit gassed after 40 or 50 minutes. It is when it is happening 2-3 weeks from now that teams should be worried.

So with that in mind here are a few thoughts and observations from D.C. United's first two preseason matches.

#1 Their defense has the chance to be one of the best in the league

It must have been a bit jarring for the Barra Brava supporters to witness two consecutive matches where D.C. United play tough, physical defense. After having gone through a season where their defense had difficulty doing basic things clearing shots out of the box and setting up plays from the back, United's back four on Saturday pressed the Fire attack giving them very few scoring opportunities. United head coach Ben Olsen chose to play a 4-2-1-3 with Christian Fernandez, Jeff Parke, Bobby Boswell, and Sean Franklin making up the back four. During the first half, which is when most of them played, they were able to make several professional tackles, set up long periods of possession, and use the offside trap to regain possession.

In particular the one player who really impressed me was Christian Fernandez. The left-back, who was just signed on Friday from UD Almeria in La Liga, did an exceptional job at marking Fire forward Patrick Nyarko for 35 minutes and drawing multiple off-side calls. The Fire early in the match repeatedly tested the left-side of the United defense, but were rarely able to get a shot off. Defender Taylor Kemp, who started for United as left-back in Wednesday's match, came on for Fernandez in the 32nd minute and had great difficulty in staying in position which gave the Fire a huge hole to work with on the left flank.

The other player that really stood out was Sean Franklin. Even though Franklin was regularly out-manned due to Forward Fabian Espindola's lack of defending (more on that later,) he was able to make several quality tackles and was able to drive the counter-attack on two possessions late in the first-half. His cross to Forward Eddie Johnson in the 43rd minute which Johnson nearly finished was one of the better plays in the game. If Franklin and Johnson (that sounds like a 1980's T.V. Cop show) can be able to develop some chemistry and understanding of each other's position on the field, then the D.C. United counter-attack could be quite devastating.

#2 Developing chemistry and balance is going to take time

Though it was quite evident that the D.C. United defense is going to much stronger this season, as a whole, the team has looked very disjointed. The good news is with their roster is that they have a mixture of veteran players with proven track records and young players who have the potential to be quality players in Major League Soccer. The bad news is that these two groups of players only started playing with one another a few weeks ago and thus there really is no chemistry or balance between positions or players. Over the last two games, there have been numerous instances of players playing out of position, passes going in the opposite direction of players, and a general lack of coordination between the defense, midfield, and strikers.

Chemistry and balance are both inexact sciences. It can take a handful of games or months for a team to be able to develop an identity. The one good thing is that D.C. United has a solid of core of young veteran players like Goalkeeper Bill Hamid, and Midfielders Perry Kitchen and Nick De Leon who can bridge the gap between the two different groups. Having players that have a good understanding of both situations in positions where ball-handling and possession are important should be able to smooth over some of the early growing pains this team is showing.

#3 The right-wing position is still very much an open race

One thing is certain after the first two games: Fabian Espindola should never play on the right-wing again. During Saturday's match, he was routinely moving towards the center forward position, giving Fire Defender Gonzalo Segares multiple opportunities to run the counter-attack and put the United defense on their heels. While he was able to link up with Johnson on a couple of nice give-and-go's, he was clearly not comfortable playing in a 4-2-1-3. Olsen switched to a 4-4-2 near the end of the first half which did very little to change United's offensive output.

Part of the problem with the three that United put front in the first-half is that they were physically outmatched. Espindola, Johnson, and the Nick De Leon, who was playing in the left-wing position, are all smaller attacking players.

Whether it is a 4-2-1-4 or a 4-4-2, the United attack might be better served to use a more physical attacking option like Conor Doyle. In both the Toronto F.C. match and against Chicago, he was able to use height and his size to break away from defenders and set up opportunities for Johnson or De Leon.

Having him working with Johnson up front could create a situation like the one the Philadelphia Union have with Conor Casey and Jack McInerney where Casey draws the attention of the defense opening up space for the faster McInerney. Espindola could also be used for a three striker set, but his lack of dedication to defense is alarming. He might be better suited as a spot-starter or as a 65th minute sub meant to give the team an offensive spark.

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Over the next few weeks it will be interesting to see how this team continues to develop and what ideas Olsen chooses to implement. What makes the pre-season so fun is that teams will experiment with rosters and lineups to see what works and what doesn't. But as the pre-season winds down, expectations will rise. After a three-win season, United supporters will want to see more than what they have seen over the past two matches, to see a return to glory. Whether United can meet those expectations will be proven in the next couple of weeks.
 
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