- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 16, 2007

Sometimes, a little change can go a long way.

At the beginning of this MLS season, D.C. United first-year coach Tom Soehn continued to use a five-midfielder system first put in place by former coach Peter Nowak — a stylish attacking midfielder during his playing days.

Three games into the season though, United was 0-3, having been outscored 7-3. Soehn decided then and there to put his stamp on the team. Referring to the midfield as “too crowded,” Soehn tinkered with his lineup, eventually settling on a four-man back line of Josh Gros, reigning MLS Defender of the Year Bobby Boswell, Facundo Erpen and Bryan Namoff.

The result has been a six-game unbeaten streak for United. Perhaps the biggest beneficiaries of the shift have been Gros and midfielder Ben Olsen.

Under Soehn’s system, Gros has the freedom to make opportunistic runs up the left flank.

“I’m getting more comfortable back there,” Gros said. “They’ve been trying to tell me to pick my time when to go forward. So I’ve been watching a lot of film in order to read the game better.”

Gros timed his run perfectly 15 minutes into Sunday’s game against the New York Red Bulls. Coming from deep on the left flank, the 24-year-old played a curling cross for Olsen to head home.

“I was working on that move all week,” Gros said.

Olsen has been able to find a home playing out wide on the flank where he can make offensive runs knowing that a reinforced back line is behind him. Against the Red Bulls, he tallied a career-high three goals.

“The difference of being out wide in a 3-5-2 and a 4-4-2 is everything,” Olsen said. “In a 3-5-2 you are dealing with box-to-box and straight up-and-down running. You’ve got your man and you are running with him all the time. In a 4-4-2, I have Namoff behind me who is doing a great job. In a 3-5-2, I would have to back track with my man, now I can pass him off to Namoff … out-wide in a 3-5-2 I’d be dead.”

The Chicago Fire — tonight’s opponent at RFK Stadium — are the only team in the Eastern Conference that has an overall winning record against United (12-11-5). The Fire beat United 3-2 at RFK in the last game of the season in 2006.

Olsen believes United has to approach tonight’s game differently than in the past.

“They don’t always beat us with the soccer, but that passion they come with sometimes has been greater than ours and that is what has to change,” he said.

While United will have to play against the Fire without Boswell, who is serving a one-game suspension, Gros doesn’t think the team will be in too much trouble.

“Bobby has big shoes to fill but we will be all right,” Gros said.

Soehn has not revealed who might replace Boswell, although Devon McTavish and Marc Burch remain possibilities to fill the void.

Gold Cup — The U.S. men’s team, which recently moved up to 16th in the FIFA World Rankings, takes on Panama today in the quarterfinals of the Gold Cup at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. If the United States beats Panama, it will take on the winner of the Canada-Guatemala match in the semifinals on Thursday.

The Americans remain unbeaten under coach Bob Bradley, with a 7-0-1 record this year.

Roundup — Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant visited FC Barcelona in training on Thursday before the team’s final game this weekend. Bryant, an avid soccer fan, said Barcelona coach Frank Rijkaard had been his favorite player. Barcelona plays Gimnastic in the team’s last game tomorrow. …

David Beckham will play in his last game for Real Madrid tomorrow against Real Mallorca. With a win, Madrid would win its first Spanish Liga title in four years.

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