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Sun. Dec 7th at 3:00 PM EST · ESPN · UniMas · UDN · TSN1 · RDS2
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Final

Sampson beginning to leave his mark

nominally wide midfielders -- continually changed flanks as well as pinching into the middle, and combined with Andreas Herzog often dropping into a deep-lying role, Richard Mulrooney and company were severely outnumbered in the middle of the field and down the flanks, creating several matchup problems.

While running and fitness are important aspects for any soccer team, it is a key emphasis in Sampson's system of play and he made it clear from the beginning of his tenure. So players like Broome and Arturo Torres will continue to see major minutes because of this fact and will shine in the system.

While it may go unnoticed, Sampson also introduced a new lineup change with Peter Vagenas, Marcelo Saragosa and Victorine all playing in midfield together for the first time all season. Although probably limited in some aspects, all three together as a group held up strong and covered efficiently for one another in the heart of the field.

If there were any skeptics wondering whether Sampson in fact would bring a distinct "style" and game plan, one of the few U.S. coaches capable of this, he has proven it thus far with minimal personnel changes and with several players still maintaining their usual positions. The players' comments are a sign of this:

"Obviously it's a new style for us but I think we are going to build off this," said Victorine after the game, while Arturo Torres added: "Everyday, we are getting more used to Steve's style of play ... we are looking more like a team now."

GOMEZ OVER ADU NOT A SLAM DUNK: Argentine central midfielder Christian Gomez got his first start in his preferred position of central attacking midfield in place of rookie Freddy Adu, who had started the previous five games. Gomez had a more forward role during the absence of star striker Alecko Eskandarian but that provided few highlight moments. The same can be said of Gomez's first foray as an out-and-out playmaker on Saturday against the Dallas Burn.

The soon-to-be 30-year-old is arguably still in his "preseason" with his new club but has not exhibited any contributions of real substance in four games. Gomez's lack of speed, unspectacular creative vision and some inaccurate free kicks, bring into question the move to insert him in such a critical position in the lineup and at such a critical period in the season when the overriding critique of the team is inconsistency.

Whatever Gomez does in upcoming games (or even Adu for that matter), Moreno is United's de facto playmaker. Although listed as a forward, Moreno is the one who is threading the passes, breaking defenses down and inviting runs by his teammates. The Bolivian's 10 assists lead the team for a reason.

United's most productive system has depended heavily on Moreno seeing the plays develop and midfielders making penetrating runs to allow him to pick defenses apart. While Gomez does not fit in this category of midfielders, Adu mixes in well with the likes of Ben Olsen, Dema Kovalenko and Josh Gros who continually make the runs into space onto balls provided by Moreno. In fact, it was Adu and Olsen who did just that on the first and third goals in United's 3-0 victory.

KOVALENKO MISSES CHANCE TO BURY HATCHET: Two minutes into the Dallas vs. D.C. United game on Saturday viewers were instantly reminded of the history between Ronnie O'Brien and Dema Kovalenko, which dates back to last season. In an infamous incident at RFK Stadium in 2003, O'Brien suffered a broken leg on a challenge by Kovalenko and the two have never been on good terms since.

Despite first having an opportunity to do so at the 2004 Sierra Mist MLS All-Star Game in July, O'Brien and Kovalenko are yet to get past the incident. Instead, the two have opted to send messages through the media, O'Brien upset at not receiving an apology and Kovalenko defending his sliding tackle on that day in 2003.

On Saturday, however, after a Kovalenko tackle on O'Brien, on which the United midfielder followed through with a high boot, the two came nose-to-nose once more. While both can be deemed at fault for jawing at each other after the play, Kovalenko's chest bump and attempted head butt was a disheartening response given the context of the play. Kovalenko could have easily ignored O'Brien's controlled reaction and instead extended a hand to the Irishman, a fair play gesture fans across the country would have appreciated.

It was an opportunity lost for a message that could have set an example for thousands of kids who look up to professional soccer players as role models. The fact that the two continued their dispute in the media with their post-game comments adds to the regret.

NICOL SEES A DIFFERENT GAME: Revolution boss Steve Nicol continues to share a unique viewpoint on his team's performances on a weekly basis. Even in front of the poorest performances put forth by New England, whether it is a dull scoreless tie or a game in which his team gives up a 2-0 lead, Nicol is the undying optimist.

The following are excerpts of his comments following Saturday's 3-2 loss at Giants Stadium: "We played as well as we have done for a while, we knocked it about and obviously when you're 2-0 up you expect to win the game." In another comment to The Boston Globe, Nicol says his team "pushed and pushed in the second half."

The Revolution scored two goals on their first two attacks against the MetroStars and the 2-0 lead (on a free kick and a rare gift by Metros goalkeeper Jonny Walker) was not earned because they necessarily outplayed the MetroStars. On the heels of the 2-0 lead the Revolution did seem sharp and strong, playing with an extra bounce in their step, but that seeming control over the game was short-lived. For yet another weekend the opposition was able to advance deep into the Revolution's half of the field before any meaningful defensive pressure was exerted by Nicol's men.

But New England is unable to control a game because it does not have the players to do so. Shalrie Joseph and Clint Dempsey, while solid overall performers who are not enjoying their best playing form, do not have the characteristics of players who can maintain possession as central midfielders. While a team like D.C. United can take advantage of enterprising runs by all five of its midfielders, Joseph and Dempsey rarely figured in any Revolution attacks on Saturday.

With Brian Kamler experiencing an overall poor season at left midfield (his substitute Felix Brillant did not live up to his name either on Saturday), Steve Ralston is the only player with initiative and with a clue in midfield. And while Joseph and Dempsey coughed up countless balls, forwards Pat Noonan and Taylor Twellman were clearly expected to create their own chances, chasing hopeful balls in the MetroStars half of the field.

At this point the team needs solutions and it needs a game plan. Similar to the Dallas Burn, who realize their midfield limitations and play a counterattacking style, the Revolution may have to opt to go the same route. In that scenario, speedy wingers Felix Brillant and Richie Baker on the left and right respectively would probably be the best fit for the Revolution, with Ralston taking advantage of his superior skills by playing central attacking midfield.

First the solution was about scoring ("if we could just score goals") and now it's about winning ("all we have to do is win"). If Nicol wants to maintain his credibility in front of fans and players alike, his postgame comments should approximate those of his team captain Ralston, who provided a clearer indication of what happened on the field on Saturday:

"We don't know how to keep a lead. We have to do a better job of keeping the ball ... As soon as we got the ball we were just launching it forward hoping our forwards could hold the ball. We have to do a better job defensively closing the ball down. I thought a lot of times we were giving guys too much space ... and they made us pay."

Andy Pavon is a freelance soccer writer taking another perspective on the matches of the past weekend, past the box scores and standings. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.


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