February 17, 2019

D.C. United Analysis: First-quarter evaluation, part 3 – Midfielders

Of all the pieces of this week-long series evaluating D.C. United through about the first quarter of the 2014 Major League Soccer season, considering the value and effectiveness of the midfield might be the most difficult. Unlike defense and forward, the midfield wasn’t completely plowed over in the offseason, as the intention was to have relative veterans Nick DeLeon, Chris Pontius, and Perry Kitchen anchoring the middle of the field, supplemented by new acquisition and MLS veteran Davy Arnaud.

Nine matches into the season, that plan has already undergone a significant adjustment due to Pontius being unavailable due to injury. With the Washington Post reporting in late April that recovery from a hamstring injury will likely keep Pontius out for most of the regular season, midfield is one area where United’s best plan has already been rubbished.

The good news is that DeLeon has stayed healthy and started eight matches, providing three assists. Arnaud has been a quality acquisition, though he’s not a player United are going to get 90 minutes out of very often. But he’s scored a couple goals and gotten himself involved in the attack.

Kitchen is a team leader who never misses a minute if he starts (seriously, he’s played all 810 so far this season and played 99.4 percent of the minutes in his 31 starts last season). His role connecting the defense and the attack is vital to any success United is going to have this season. That may seem like a lot of responsibility for a player in his fourth year in the league, who is still only 22 years old. But Kitchen has done nothing to show he isn’t suited for the role and as long as he’s healthy, United’s midfield at least has a chance to compete with anybody.

The loss of Pontius has resulted in minutes for Lewis Neal, Luis Silva, and some for Chris Rolfe, who came to United from Chicago early in the season and has scored twice, added an assist, and added a bit of a new dimension to the D.C. offense with his work in the middle, given that a good bit of United’s offense has come from the wing, often the left, where forward Fabian Espindola often finds himself working.

If there’s a criticism of the midfield, and some of this can be put on the forwards, too, who we will look at on Thursday, it’s that there is sometimes a disconnect in how to get the ball advanced through the midfield to the forwards in a position where they can be dangerous once they receive it. This has especially been true in the case of forward Eddie Johnson, of whom much has been made of the fact that he hasn’t scored a goal yet this season, but that fact goes far beyond him simply missing the net with shots.

Johnson has often times had to retreat well into the midfield to get on the ball at all, or he is the target of ambitious (more like hopeful) long balls that find Johnson running alone with one defender marking him and another shadowing, without anyone else making runs in other attacking channels to give Johnson a distribution outlet. Whether it’s the midfield passing better amongst itself to get the ball forward, connecting better with Johnson so he doesn’t have to remove himself from dangerous areas to get on the ball, or if there needs to be more off-the-ball runs by midfielders, there does need to be improvement in terms of distribution and cohesive play.

This is sometimes seen in the defense, as well, where United have on a couple occasions been the victims of quick counters where the midfielders and defense are a bit slow to change direction and D.C. is sabotaged. Perhaps this is a bit on the players’ time working together in trying to replace Pontius, but it’s an issue that as the season goes on should improve. From now until the halfway mark of the campaign, it will be interesting to see how the midfield addresses this.

The midfield has produced five assists this season, a decent pace given the entire team only had 20 last year. There are holes to fix mostly related to speed of play and off-the-ball movement. Controlling the midfield, getting more of the ball to make life easier for the defense and goalkeeper, and building toward dangerous attacking opportunities are probably the number-one challenges facing United over the next quarter of the season.

Ed Morgans is the D.C. United Page Editor for District Sports Page. For in-game analysis and story notifications, follow him on Twitter @writered21.

About Ed Morgans

Ed Morgans is DC United Page Editor for District Sports Page. Ed worked for The Journal Newspapers (now The Examiner) and covered DC United from 1997-2002. He spent the 2003 season writing for the club’s website. Ed has covered All-Star Games, MLS Cups, CONCACAF Champions Cup, World Cup qualifiers, and international friendlies. He also worked as a blogger at www.bigsoccer.com, the country’s leading soccer message board website. You can follow Ed on Twitter @writerEd21.

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