St. Louis Sports Day

Close games are likely to continue for DC United

Soccer is a simple game. When a league approaches parity of player talent, it places a premium on other aspects such as coaching.

Even in that area, MLS has tended to a certain degree of parity, as the U.S. style spreads to the somewhat inbred coaching community. Arguing to the contrary is the lack of success of the occasional outsider brought in. So, what is happening?

One coach with whom I have spoken, whose tradition comes from outside the US, is surprised at how long teams wait to replace an underperforming coach. That observation, rooted in the greater financial ability to rotate coaches in the rest of the world, would argue that fear of job loss is not a major motivator for MLS coaches.

In yet another contradiction, I believe that they are often both too flexible and too rigid. Successful coaches train their players within a system which will be rigid in its fundamentals, but flexible in overall execution.

At most levels of play below the very highest, consistency requires a 3-5-2 or 4-4-2 as a fundamental, and overall maintenance of shape as the flexible execution. In essence, the players exchange roles which are themselves rather defined.

In top professional divisions roles are less rigorously defined as the players slide more comfortably into different positions as they respond to the dynamics of the game situations that they encounter. It is about speed of thought which in turn allows a deeper reading of the game.

One might draw the analogy to the value to some chess masters of “speed chess”. While a master of any art studies and absorbs the lessons and permutations to master the craft, it is the inspiration which distinguishes the truly artful.

To truly excel, one must stretch one’s mind. Thus the good soccer coach applies constant pressure in practices which stretch the player at all times. By now most MLS coaches have learned to structure all their drills to incorporate vision and control, at speed, and under pressure.

The players become comfortable with game-like situations and you will see that comfort displayed by strong teams fairly often on the practice field as well as in games. The best of coaches manage to keep training sufficiently varied to avoid boredom while maintaining good habits.

At the current MLS maturity level, almost every coach has learned this. Some took longer than others and some never quite figured it out. The latter are now gone.

The level of fundamental coaching competence in MLS is now near parity, joining that of most players. That’s what salary caps do and so we should not be surprised at the number of ties and close games this season.

This does not mean that each team will not have a unique style. Each carries into a given season its own history and team culture, the particular vision of the coach, and the various talents and visions of the players.

DC United has a culture of possession, control, and quick attack, usually down the center. Coach Tom Soehn learned from last season that other teams were packing the center and adjusted by placing greater emphasis on wing play to spread the field wider and open up space.

Perhaps he was fortunate to have early injuries to Fred and Tino Quaranta. Their absence allowed the younger Rodney Wallace and Chris Pontius to play a simpler game focused on better width. Overall team play benefited as better team habits formed.

In turn, they and other young players saw more time in games that mattered alongside the more seasoned. There is a certain synergy in the young and physically quick challenging and working with the mentally quicker veterans.

As United has developed more width in its game, opponents have had to adjust. Some have done quite well at it. Jason Kreis has proven to be a quick study at Real Salt Lake. He appears to learn quickly from game tapes of opponents’ play.

Last Saturday at RFK, his bunker defense shut down a heretofore potent DC attack. He took note of his team’s tall defense and counted on their reflexes to execute a strong offside trap in a flat back four. If United did get off a cross from the wing, RSL had height in the center to maintain control.

If United tried to go over the trap, the deep nature of the bunker would usually give the ball to Nick Rimando who is a quick and athletic keeper. DC United never found a good solution. Therein lies the next step in coaching and team maturity in MLS.

The coach who realizes this, and many probably have, will still need to find the specific tactics to anticipate and counter what a given opponent might do. Mastery of in-game tactical adjustments will distinguish the next level of MLS coaches.

The lucky coaches will have a few on field creators who will find ways to win games for them by adjusting team dynamics on the fly. Such players may occasionally win a game with individual brilliance, but the best of them will incorporate teammates and build a common understanding with a few others of similar flexible mind.

Tom Soehn, just like all MLS coaches now, will spend the rest of this season trying to solve the well thought out defenses of his opponents. The habits of flexibility that he can instill into his players will determine the team’s ultimate success.

As to the proper response to RSL’s flat bunker, enough slashing diagonal runs from midfield as United’s attackers who are drawn offside refuse to pursue the ball should leave defenders behind both ball and midfielder.

Yes, that means perfectly weighted lobs into small space or perfect placement through small seams. Those are signs of a high-level team. Focused practices that ingrain both physical skills and vision are critical.

This brings us back to why Tom Soehn has so often spoken of the occasional luxury of full weeks between games. It is difficult for a full team to practice properly when most players’ energies are concentrated on healing and recovery.

The fact that 2009 has allowed DC United to build more well trained depth will allow them to play slightly better against other teams as fatigue and injury take their toll on all teams, but the Open Cup and CONCACAF play will eat into the valuable practice time that Soehn so highly values.

For the reasons above, close games should remain the hallmark of the rest of the year.