Now there’s the D.C. United team we got used to seeing this spring.
After scoring just three goals in their past five games, United (12-8-4) surpassed that total in a mere 90 minutes Wednesday with a key 4-2 win over the Chicago Fire (12-8-5).
With the triumph, United added to the gap separating them from the Montreal Impact (11-13-3) for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot and actually moved into third in the East in points per game (1.67).
But all those numbers in the standings might not mean as much as the confidence boost this win could mean for a D.C. team that had lost its swagger this summer while falling from first to fifth in the East. After starting strong and hitting a midseason slump, is it time for United to return to top form? It just might be.
Here are some of my thoughts on Wednesday’s game:
RIGHT BACK OF THE PRESENT?
United coach Ben Olsen raised some eyebrows when he told the “Capital Soccer Show” on Tuesday that he sees Andy Najar as the “future right back of this team.”
After the performance Najar turned in against Chicago, it appears the future is now.
With starting fullbacks Robbie Russell (foot) and Daniel Woolard (concussion) sidelined, Olsen went with second-year player Chris Korb at left back and Najar on the right.
And boy did Najar look sharp. The Honduran international was a force up and down the flank, pushing forward liberally to make runs into the box and whip in early services. His attacking presence helped negate Chicago winger Patrick Nyarko, who seemed too preoccupied tracking back to make much of an impact himself.
“He has these unique qualities in this league and they all lend itself to the modern right back,” Olsen said. “You look at soccer now and the outside backs have to be good on the ball and dynamic, they have to have great engines to get up and down the field and they have to be brave in their defending. He’s got a lot of those qualities. He will grow into it. We’ll still use him on the flanks, and it’s a good option to have.”
Added captain Dwayne De Rosario: “I think his work rate was great. He really bounced it out very nicely for us on the defensive side and going forward. He created that option going up the wings, which is huge for us, and we’re very happy with his performance tonight.”
PAJOY STAKES HIS CLAIM
Given another shot to show he deserves a starting slot up top, recently acquired striker Lionard Pajoy enjoyed an active match for United, holding the ball well and finding good positions in the attacking third.
When Najar’s fine run and cross just before halftime found his head at the far post, Pajoy didn’t miss. It was a well-taken first goal for the Colombian, even if he did squander a few other opportunities.
I still think Maicon Santos, when healthy, remains United’s best option as a true striker. But Pajoy is building a case for himself.
“I’m glad he got his goal,” Olsen said. “I thought he caused their center backs a lot of trouble.”
AUDITIONING THE EMPTY BUCKET
Olsen for the first time this season went with dual defensive midfielders from the start, partnering Perry Kitchen with Marcelo Saragosa, a move that spared De Rosario’s legs of extra wear and tear on short rest by sliding the veteran up top.
The move worked well, with Kitchen and Saragosa both clogging passing lanes and providing solid, if unspectacular, distribution.
“We were more side-by-side rather than one in front of the other,” Kitchen said. “I think it was a good shape for us. We hadn’t worked on it too much, but coming into the game we knew we needed to battle because they had three guys in the middle there.”
Added Olsen: “On paper, it has always made sense. If their spacing is right, they can co-exist. Sometimes, when you have two like-minded guys in the same spot, you worry about them both doing that holding midfield role and not being able to push out. I’ll tell you what — they did it very well tonight and I was very pleased. It’s an option now going forward for sure.”