United injuries highlight glut of forwards
all three of the team's goalkeepers -- travel as part of the team's 16-man roster for the match (road teams in MLS are allowed to dress only 16 players compared to a home team's 20) might have served to send the two incumbents a message, it provided a view of two other factors. Certainly, it was a clear indication of the state of the team's injury situation, but it also pointed out some real deficiencies in the team's roster makeup.
Despite facing a dire injury crisis, it is still puzzling that the United roster has two vacant slots (22 of 24 are occupied) and still features a total of six forwards at this point of the season. Of those, Santino Quaranta and Thiago Martins haven't been able to play a minute thus far due to injury.
In the meantime, while maintaining more forwards than defenders on the roster, D.C. United fielded its only four available defenders Saturday (including David Stokes, who admitted to not being defensively sharp in making his first career MLS start) while their fifth and last defender (Ryan Nelsen) sat out due to injury. The shortage of available midfielders (there are eight on the roster) may have also played into the decision to use a four-man back line for the first time this season, a change from the 3-1-4-2 formation Nowak has run out since the start of the season.
It's a credit to Nowak's side that it still created a fair number of scoring opportunities against the Rapids despite the situation but it is fairly obvious moves will be and have to be made. The question becomes this: When it's nearly one-third into the season, can a team afford to be picky for any longer?
REVOLUTION TINKER WITH FORMATION: The other team to make a change to its tactics this week was the New England Revolution, when tried-and-true 4-4-2 man Steve Nicol switched to a three-man back line featuring Jay Heaps, Brian Kamler and newcomer Avery John behind five midfielders. The team had already experimented with the new 3-5-2 setup during the midweek 2-1 exhibition victory against Sporting Lisbon.
While coaches will always seek to trivialize the tactical variations, in the Revolution's case it was significant as the team comfortably controlled the match for long stretches against a MetroStars side which struggled to gain any possession. With the imposing presence of both Shalrie Joseph and Clint Dempsey in the middle of the field behind playmaker Jose Cancela, the Revolution were also rarely caught off balance during the entire 90 minutes.
The one player who possibly stands to suffer from the new arrangement is right-sided midfielder Steve Ralston, who has already started with a subpar season on the offensive end compared to past campaigns.
In a five-man midfield the two flank players are expected to do a considerable amount of coverage up and down the touchline, and that would only mean fewer opportunities for Ralston to get to the byeline and deliver crosses into the penalty box for Taylor Twellman and company. For a player who has made his name for his contributions in the opposing team's half, this is not likely to be a positive development -- and will likely require a change in approach if Ralston is to be effective.
TWELLMAN'S DROUGHT CONTINUES: The reason the increased possession by the Revolution could not result in more than one goal against the MetroStars is an issue unrelated to the formation: personnel. Saturday's game was proof that the Twellman/Pat Noonan tandem up top is not a productive one for two main reasons: (1) Noonan is not an out-and-out striker and (2), as a result, Twellman is left alone at the mercy of more than one defender.
Any snapshot of Saturday's game will show you that Twellman and Noonan were 20-30 yards apart on most Revolution attacks. Noonan was often closer to midfield than he was to Twellman, a fact which left the team's top goal scorer alone as easy prey for defenders Eddie Pope and Jeff Parke, who between them comfortably contained Twellman. In fact, it took the man who has finished atop the MLS goal-scoring charts for each of the last two seasons until the 77th minute to register his first shot of the game.
The fact remains that Twellman has started at forward alongside Noonan a total of seven times dating back to last year and he has just two goals to show for it, both coming last year against the lowly Dallas Burn. This year, Twellman was paired with Joe-Max Moore for the first two games of the season, and found the back of the net on April 17. But with the injury to Moore, Nicol has since put Noonan and Twellman together up top for the past five games and he has watched Twellman go through the longest goal-scoring drought of his career (now at more than eight hours and counting).
Since the beginning of 2003, Twellman has averaged 0.28 goals a game when paired with Noonan compared to his 0.67 goals a game in his other starts. Along with Ralston's average season, Twellman's continued difficulty in providing an incisive point in attack because of his isolation will not help end the dry spell.
DOMINATING DEFENDERS GROW SCARCE: In all fairness to Twellman, however, he was up against arguably two of the best defenders in MLS this season in Pope and Parke -- who has claimed a regular role after being chosen with the 60th and final selection in the 2004 SuperDraft. Except for Nelsen (D.C. United) and Pablo Mastroeni (Colorado Rapids), a perusal of the 10 MLS rosters prove there are in fact few dominating, international quality defenders and several incidents this weekend proved that fact.
The fact that a converted left midfielder, New England's Kamler, is the only other quality defender to stand out in the season's early going says a lot about the collection of players populating the backlines in MLS. If further indications were necessary: a former midfielder and forward plays at right back for the Galaxy (Chris Albright), a few rookies have been handed starting jobs (the Crew's Chad Marshall, San Jose's Ryan Cochrane) and the best defensive team in the league (Kansas City) went to Serbia and Montengero for defensive help (31-year-old Vuk Rasovic).
Even Rasovic, who occupies one of three senior international spots on his club, had a difficult time in his MLS debut over the weekend, prompting a halftime substitution and the following Bob Gansler quote: "I was trying to get Vuk in there ... There were a series of misunderstandings and that is not on his bad ledger, it was on mine."
And those who may be waiting for the "up-and-comers" to change the tide only need to remember the 4-0 loss in Mexico by the U.S. under-23 squad during Olympic qualifying in Guadalajara, which exposed some serious deficiencies in the USA's back four that day, comprised of four players who all now ply their trade in MLS: Chris Wingert (Columbus Crew), Nat Borchers (Colorado Rapids), Ricky Lewis (Los Angeles Galaxy) and Marshall.
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.