including the final five years on the field in Major League Soccer -- Peter Nowak has demonstrated a keen feel for the game. After two games in charge of D.C. United he's now showing he has the same ability as a head coach, as nearly every decision he's made in the early season has been successful.
After a preseason where United fans desperately wondered where the goals would come from, Nowak started Jaime Moreno and Alecko Eskandarian in the first game -- and both scored against San Jose. He brought on Ronald Cerritos as a substitute against the Los Angeles Galaxy on Saturday, and he scored with his first touch after barely a minute of being on the field. Nowak has also introduced Freddy Adu with the right mix of care and confidence.
But aside from all the single-game decisions, he has provided United with a tactical and mental framework which has seemed lacking in recent seasons. Few MLS coaches would dare play an MLS debutant like Brian Carroll in a vital "midfield" role -- directly in front of a three-man back line with the responsibility of setting the tone to United's attack. His four-man midfield has seen him move Bobby Convey and Ben Olsen back and forth from the flanks to the middle, giving them the most freedom they have ever enjoyed on the field.
The stability and balance of this lineup is a reflection of the stability and balance of the character of the team. There is focus and purpose in United's play and that translates into confidence of playing in two difficult environments to start the season: in front of a sold-out and expectant opening day crowd on national television one week, followed by a sold-out Home Depot Center the next.
Injuries to Ryan Nelsen and Moreno, an unfortunate deflection by Brandon Prideaux, which proved to be a service for the Galaxy's Carlos Ruiz, and a few Nick Rimando hesitant moments between the goal posts have been the only critical points in a start that has almost seen United take six points from their first two matches.
FREDDY ADU, CHAPTER 2
Saturday was a considerably different appearance by Adu, compared to his opening day debut. He seemed less nervous and more spirited in his second showing (see his heated exchange with teammate Bobby Convey after one play and a shoulder charge on Andreas Herzog). Adu was also more enterprising -- but only when he had the ball at his feet.
It hasn't been clear if Nowak has figured out what the best role for Adu will be. Granted, he's come into both games as a second-half substitute, likely with some very specific tactical instructions.
Yet it hasn't been immediately apparent whether he is supposed to be an attacking midfielder or an out-and-out forward. On certain United attacks, if you looked around for Adu, he was frankly nowhere to be found. If he is truly being provided this free roaming liberty across the field, partnering Adu with Moreno isn't an option geared toward success as the Bolivian does as much roaming as anyone in a United jersey. The 14-year-old needs to be paired with a Cerritos/Eskandarian type, who is more committed to battling defenders up top.
Adu also seems to be evaluating whether to play more with his back to goal and collect a pass from a stationary position, or instead turn and run into space. Then again, this will come with more time in MLS. He is, what, 14 years old, after all?
DONOVAN PLAYING SOLO ROLE
Without Brian Mullan providing service on the right, and with a left side of midfield still in flux, Earthquakes superstar Landon Donovan is stranded on a deserted island at the moment. Along with Richard Mulrooney, Donovan has been the lone player in the Earthquakes' attacking corps to present any real initiative or creativity.
Donovan has said he's fine despite battling sickness early in the campaign, but head coach Dominic Kinnear says he's only about 80 percent. But his subpar start can perhaps be attributed more to a lack of support he is receiving from his teammates. The 'Quakes haven't found the back of the net in their first two matches, where Donovan has been partnered in attack by Canadian international Dwayne DeRosario.
Kinnear has stayed true to his central midfield partnership of Mulrooney and Ronnie Ekelund, but a move to midfield would seem logical at this point for Donovan. A player of his initiative and activity during the course of a game would do more to involve his teammates as a centerpiece of the team than awaiting service up top as a forward or having to go find the ball.
Barring that, Donovan would also be helped by the reintroduction of Brian Ching, a physical presence who is currently an option off the bench. He could also potentially handle the forward load on his own with the backing of a wider array of midfield players.
The young Arturo Alvarez is another player who can potentially jumpstart things from the left flank for a predictable San Jose attack as his sudden dribbling accelerations can create matchup problems.
GALAXY PROBLEMS OF 2003 RESURFACE
The Earthquakes' archrival have did not fare much better in the second weekend of the 2004 campaign as the symptoms of the L.A. Galaxy's struggles from a year ago resurfaced. Lack of ideas in midfield and little support for their superstar forward, Carlos Ruiz, were issues that plagued head coach Sigi Schmid's side in 2003. Save for a few spurts from Herzog and forward Jovan Kirovski, the Galaxy midfield was outplayed by its United counterpart.
After a good debut, very little was seen on the right flank from Arturo Torres. Cobi Jones came on for Torres in the second half in his first 2004 action -- but you wonder if Cobi will be shackled under the 4-4-2 system Schmid has put in place this season after his ability to roam from flank to flank a year ago. Peter Vagenas and Sasha Victorine also registered barely average showings.
A brilliant Ruiz strike saved the Galaxy once again as he did so often in 2003, but the midfield needs to carry greater presence. Whether every MLS team will have these problems against United's well-organized five-man midfield will be seen in the weeks to come, but at least for this week, Schmid will have a great deal to digest.
Andy Pavon is a freelance soccer writer taking another perspective on the matches of the past weekend, past the box scores and standings. Please send him your opinion and feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.Views and opinions expressed in this column views and opinions are the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or MLSnet.com.