Impressions From The Charleston Challenge Cup: D.C. United

Posted In Match Previews and Reviews - By Kevin McCauley On Tuesday, March 8th, 2011 With 2 Comments

As we all know, last season was bad for D.C. United. They were, beyond a shadow of a doubt, one of the worst teams in MLS history. This is saying a lot, since there were some really poor teams in the dark ages between about 2001 and 2005. The Allocation Order’s Ted Meyer did a preview of what he thinks D.C. will look like in this upcoming season, and Ted seems like a pretty optimistic guy.

Based on what I saw this past Saturday in Charleston, SC at the Charleston Challenge Cup, Ted has plenty of reason for that optimism. Of course, D.C. played Charleston Battery, a third division side, but there were plenty of things that could be taken from the game. First off, Ben Olsen played the same formation that he’s played all preseason, implying that he’s pretty set on it. Second, Charleston are a pretty decent team and they were seriously working their socks off during the game. Finally, even if Charleston aren’t as talented as most MLS teams, you can still tell if their opponents are skilled and intelligent. D.C. outplayed them, but it wasn’t by passing in circles or by running by guys with straight line speed.

However, because Charleston are a division three side, I’m going to focus on what D.C. players showed and did not show, instead of the actual result, which is largely irrelevant.

By the way, I sat next to Ben Olsen during the first game of the night, which was Toronto FC vs. Chicago Fire. This was actually one of the highlights of my life. At the end of that first game, a random guy gave us $30 for no reason, simply stating “beer’s on me tonight, guys.” I guess because he was sitting in front of us with his grandkids and we weren’t obnoxious, drunk jerks? That was actually the highlight of my life, as cool as sitting next to Ben Olsen was. Thanks, random guy.

The most apparent thing when watching the new-look Black and Red is that Dax McCarty is the focal point of the team. He looks very confident in this role, and he had a spectacular game against Charleston. D.C. basically play a flat 4-4-2, but McCarty has more freedom than Clyde Simms and will regularly play above Simms when D.C. have the ball. However, it’s also not uncommon to see Ngwenya drop into midfield to find the ball while McCarty sits back, in line with Simms.

Ngwenya, like McCarty, played a great game. Also like McCarty, his best quality was controlling the pace of play and distributing the ball to his teammates. While Ngwenya and McCarty were serving very similar functions while D.C. had the ball, they were obviously doing it in very different ways. McCarty would often run forward with the ball from deep, looking to play attacking balls, while Ngwenya played with his back to goal, helping his team to keep the ball moving and keep possession. Both players were very effective in these roles, while Simms was great in his more defensive midfield role. Chris Pontius was stellar on the left wing, but a couple of D.C.’s attacking players had less than stellar games.

Andy Najar struggled, but it was probably just a one off performance. Charleston seemed to focus very heavily on Najar and he didn’t look like he was in the kind of form to deal with it. While Najar had an incredible last season and he really looks like a grown man on the pitch, we have to remember that he’s still only 17 years old. He’s going to be inconsistent, and it will be another couple of years before we can really predict with any degree of accuracy how good Najar might be, and it will be a couple of more years after that before we can expect him to be a totally consistent player. Najar actually looks considerably bigger this year than he looked last year. We have to remember, he’s not only growing as a footballer, he is still literally growing.

In the other forward position, often playing ahead of Ngwenya, Josh Wolff didn’t have a great game. This isn’t to say he made any mistakes, it’s just tough to see what he brings to the team. Wolff doesn’t have the speed he once did, he’s not very big, and he’s not a great passer. He doesn’t make mistakes and he’s a solid finisher, but he didn’t even get himself into places to finish chances. This was the case all of last year for Kansas City. Wolff is a decent squad player to have when you need to bring on a forward who isn’t going to make mistakes, but he doesn’t look like he has what it takes to start in MLS anymore.

Because of this, one of two things is going to have to happen for D.C. to reach their potential. Either Charlie Davies is going to have to get 90 minutes fit sometime in the next month or so, or D.C. is going to have to go with three central midfielders and one striker. Ngwenya can play up top by himself, holding up the ball and distributing to his teammates. Najar and Pontius have shown that they’re dangerous cutting into the box from midfield positions (Pontius scored a goal this way in the game). Simms is a great holding midfielder, and McCarty is a great two-way player. The missing player, then, is the attacking midfield player who will be expected to do this scoring. This could be Branko Boskovic, Santino Quaranta, or Fred. I feel that all three are better options than Josh Wolff at this point.

D.C. scored twice in the game, the second time coming on a long ball from left back Daniel Woolard to Ngwenya. This was the third highlight of the day, after sitting next to Olsen and getting handed $30. Late in the game, Kurt Morisink, who had come on for Simms, passed the ball to Woolard. The Battery players stood off Woolard as he sat on the ball for two seconds, thinking about what to do. Visibly annoyed by this, Morisink looked at Woolard and, in a very irritated tone after a delay, thanks to a silent death stare, yelled “…GO!”

Woolard, like a robot, hoofed the ball upfield after Morisink pointed out how dumb he was being. Ngwenya chased after this ball and scored a goal. Kurt Morisink, you’re not such a bad player after all.

One last thing before we wrap this up: Perry Kitchen is legit. The real. Effing. Deal. He played in the center of defense, and despite the fact that he’s probably a natural defensive midfielder, looked like he’d been a starting professional central defender for years. He made literally zero mistakes. He’s even wildly impressive in warm-ups. For the entire duration of the warm-ups, I watched Kitchen and, I swear, every single touch he took was absolutely perfect. It was jaw-dropping stuff. He could probably play any position on the pitch. I can’t say enough good things about every single element of his game. The only thing that’s lacking for him is size; the guy needs to get into the weight room. Seeing as he’s only 18 years old, I think he’s allowed to be a little skinny. Every professional athlete can’t be Lebron James. I’m confident that, in two to three years, Kitchen will be among the best players in MLS and attracting attention from Ligue 1 or Bundesliga clubs. He’s that good.

About Kevin McCauley - Kevin McCauley is the Editor in Chief of The Allocation Order. He is also the managing editor at World Soccer Reader and a contributor on multiple levels to SBNation

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  1. Anthony says:

    Excellent article. I have high hopes for DC this year.

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