- - Thursday, July 21, 2016

Ben Olsen is the first person to point out he’s not the most tactically oriented coach.

In his mind, there’s no sense in overthinking a game that often comes down to a hustle play or lucky bounce. Since taking over at D.C. United midway through the 2010 MLS season, the former midfielder has almost exclusively relied on variations of a single formation: the traditional 4-4-2.

“I don’t want to talk about formations too much,” Olsen said. “I think it’s still a pretty simple game out there, and if you get good players who understand spacing and how to trap passes and move, ultimately you have success.”

It’s an approach that has served him well. United has advanced to the playoffs three of the past four seasons, with Olsen winning MLS Coach of the Year in 2014.

But the 39-year-old isn’t opposed to adjusting his outlook. After auditioning a 4-1-4-1 formation in a 2-0 win over the New England Revolution on June 25, Olsen has stuck with that look during the past month. In that span, United has compiled a respectable 1-1-2 record.

While Olsen won’t rule out bringing back the 4-4-2 or trying a different alignment entirely, he expects to again use his new formation when United (5-7-7) visits Toronto FC (6-7-6) on Saturday.

“I’m not married to it, but for the short term that’s how we’ll make up,” Olsen said. “Having guys with high soccer IQs jump in and out of tweaked formations is, I think, an important thing to do, and it’s an important thing for coaches to go through as well.”

As Olsen noted, the formation represents a subtle shift. By removing a forward in favor of a fifth midfielder, United has given itself an extra player to connect passes, win balls and apply defensive pressure in the busiest part of the field.

The caveat, of course, is that the lone striker is isolated a times. But the four advanced midfielders now have more freedom to attack, with deep-lying playmaker Marcelo Sarvas available to shield the four-man back line.

“It just gives us another number in the midfield where sometimes we were outnumbered there against other teams,” defender Steve Birnbaum said. “But now we have the same number of guys in there, and our guys are doing a great job of putting their team under pressure instead of us being on our heels. Now I feel like we’re on our toes and moving forward.”

Not every player, however, has been a perfect fit for the new system.

Moving to a one-forward formation caused veteran striker Fabian Espindola to be pushed to outside midfield before United ultimately traded him to the Vancouver Whitecaps on Wednesday. In a separate deal, United acquired Patrick Mullins — a more traditional target forward — from New York City FC.

But the change has helped accommodate prized offseason signing Luciano Acosta, a speedy midfielder who likes to get on the ball and run at defenders. For wingers such as Lamar Neagle and the newly acquired Lloyd Sam, there are more opportunities to drift into dangerous positions centrally.

Explaining the formation change Tuesday, Olsen said: “Well some of it was personnel and who we have, and some of your key components and where you think they can excel. It’s something we wanted to look at and we thought the timing was right.”

On the defensive side, United was pleased with its ability to clog the midfield and limit the opportunities conceded during a 1-1 draw at the Columbus Crew on Saturday.

“What we were trying to do seemed to be working quite well,” Sam said. “We frustrated a good passing team.”

Yet, as United sits one point out of a playoff spot, there’s a sense that such results will only get the club so far.

With just 18 goals scored in 19 matches — the league’s second-worst mark — United knows this new-look attack must start producing if the team wants to secure a third straight postseason appearance.

“We’ve got to move forward,” Olsen said. “We’ve got to start getting wins, and we’ve got to start putting games in where we get multiple goals.”

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