Featured / MLS

Central rivalry

Photo: Michael Long

The United-Union-Red Bulls rivalry has become an intense laboratory for a common dilemma in US soccer tactics: how to control a game without a traditional central midfielder.

Early successful MLS teams were built around traditional playmakers such as Marco Etcheverry (DC), Carlos Valdarrama (Tampa Bay), Peter Nowak (Chicago), Mauricio Cienfuegos (LA), Preki (KC), and Robert Warzycha (Columbus). Many teams now use withdrawn strikers and slashing wingers to provide the offense, while a central midfielder with limited distributing ability holds in front of the defense. The axiom that ‘vacuums will be filled’ is apparently unheeded or disproven.

The relevant personnel among the three local teams: Michael Farfan and Freddy Adu in Philly, Chris Pontius and Dwayne De Rosario in DC, and Thierry Henry and some combination of Kenny Cooper, Tim Cahill, Sebastien Le Toux, Connor Lade, or Joel Lindpere in New York generally mark the point of attack. While Brian Carroll, Perry Kitchen, and Dax McCarty hold their respective midfields, there are no dominant conduits between them and the high and wide attackers. These teams can either (a) ignore the vacuum and play through the wings, or (b) push the defensive midfielder or a striker out of position into the traditional central role.

This is an interesting issue for local soccer academics, because it highlights the strengths and differences of the mid-Atlantic teams that comprise an already intense three-way rivalry. DC expats living in Philly (like myself) may also use this angle as a way to confront the difficult decision of whether to adopt the Union. Any dispassionate observer would have to appreciate the Union’s fanbase and stadium, and this tactical puzzle offers an excuse to appreciate the team by following two diplomats representing DC in the Union midfield, Adu and Carroll.

Philly Union: Go Fish (or spend)

Ex-United players, Freddy Adu (born in Ghana, raised in Rockville, MD) and Brian Carroll (Springfield, VA), play prominent roles in the Union’s playmaking strategy—if not always in the execution. Adu, still only 23 years old, was not the player to control the game at DC, Benfica, the US National Team, or any of his other clubs. Similarly, with the Union he tends to attack from the wings—particularly from the right to set up shots on his left foot. Michael Farfan often plays a complementary position, attacking from the opposite wing, but neither has been a consistent engine for the Union. Carroll provides the defensive anchor, but has never demonstrated the capacity to control a game for United or the Union.

The Union have long adopted option (a) with Justin Mapp, Roger Torres, Adu, the Farfans, and slew of other wide and advanced attackers, but no comparable central midfielder. When Carroll has tried to fill a more advanced role in the middle of the field, the unnatural positioning has only diminished his stronger defensive talents. John Hackworth, like Ben Olsen, has a young squad, but lacks some of the depth and leadership in the attacking half provided by Dwayne De Rosario and a half dozen other attacking players on United. If the club does have a pile of allocation money hidden under the Commodore Barry Bridge, he would be the most justified of these three coaches in spending it on an established central midfielder.

DC United: Withdrawn De Rosario

In DC, Chris Pontius has had a strong season, but with Nick DeLeon and Andy Najar now providing complementary pressure from the right, and Long Tan, Maicon Santos, and Hamid Salihi adding sufficient threats up front, De Rosario could withdraw into a more central position. Kitchen is a representative member of the youngest team in MLS, but positions himself with maturity and covers ground well. Branko Boskovic has returned from his injury and doesn’t dominate offensively or defensively, but he does provide De Rosario and Kitchen solid support in each direction.

This seems closer to option (b), with an improving cast of strikers and wingers allowing De Rosario to drop back and fill the vacuum. DC would prefer De Rosario in a striker role, but he has been more effective than most strikers in filling the withdrawn playmaker role. If Olsen takes this approach, he will have to deal with Kitchen’s growing pains and eventually succession planning for the currently irreplaceable De Rosario.

NY Red Bulls: Cahill Recast ?!

In New York, Hans Backe might adopt a similar solution as Olsen, but Henry has not appeared as effective as De Rosario from deeper in the midfield. DC tried option (b) with McCarty as a playmaker, and when it failed, New York repeated the mistake. McCarty has passing ability, but he cannot control and produce offense to the extent that role requires.

While Mikel Arteta—not Cahill—was the central playmaker at Everton, perhaps a combination of withdrawn Henry and recast Cahill could control the game in front of McCarty or Teemu Tainio. Houston’s domination of the Red Bulls last week, however, suggests the need for further tinkering (like Cooper and McCarty instead of Le Toux and Tainio). The wealth of attacking players on this roster highlights the dearth of available central midfielders. Backe has focused on finding new wingers, which may indicate that he thinks he’s already found that playmaker. Cahill is a dynamic and dangerous player, but would have to completely reinvent himself to fill this role.

Whether and how these three teams marshal their resources to fill similar, gaping holes in their midfields will be an interesting if not determinative factor in their contention for post-season spots. Even if you don’t (or can’t) support the Union, an objective observer would have to appreciate the competitive puzzle, and can always support the representatives from DC. Having to test their solutions in key head-to-head games may further increase the tension among these local rivals.


  1. Thank you for this article.
    I invite you to support the Union as its the new team from your new town, but of course I would not blame you for sticking with DCU. There’s not much tradition in MLS but you have a little bit with DCU.
    Many of us are hoping that Amobi Okugo is moved forward ten paces and becomes an instant regista. This may be an unrealistic expectation.

    • Nate Emeritz says:

      Thanks for the invite- PPL is a great spot (unfortunately not located by the other Philly stadiums) with a great crowd and atmosphere. The fans in DC have a strong tradition that will hopefully improve with a new stadium near Nationals Park. This series of posts on decreased United attendance provides some interesting lessons that management and supporters of newer clubs should consider wrt maintaining attendance: http://www.blackandredunited.com/2012/8/7/3224051/d-c-united-attendance-is-awful-why-part-3-and-final

      Okugo certainly has passing and technical ability which would complement Carroll’s defensive prowess and provide better service to Marfan, Adu, and the striker du jour. To the extent Hackworth does not want to buy a central midfielder, or first wants to experiment internally, Okugo would be a solid candidate that I would like to see in that role. He has had occasional positioning issues in the back, but those might reflect youth and/or playing out of his traditional role, rather than the lack of vision and understanding required to direct the flow of play.

    • WilkersonMcLaser says:

      Man, I like this. Okugo does have the traits and toolbox to fill a regista role, but I never saw him that way. I always looked at him as a midfield destroyer or at best a box-to-box type.

      But if Soumare really does live up to the hype, I’d love to see Okugo use some of that silky distribution to play as a deep lying playmaker. Not totally sure it would work out, but I’d love to see the experimentation.

      • That is the thing I’ve been most looking forward to Soumare getting into the game, I want to see what Okugo and Carroll can do together in the midfield, it could be a total cluster, but it needs to be tried, we know that Carroll and every one else hasn’t been spectacular(I think Lahoud has been serviceable) but I want to see so we know for the future what we have.

      • Nate Emeritz says:

        Agreed that Lahoud is serviceable. More interesting is the view toward the future: should Okugo eventually replace Carroll with someone else as regista, or is Okugo to be the regista? I’d like to see some young Americans developing in that role, although I also agree that it might be a stretch for Okugo. Rather than ‘sink or swim’ experimenting, it would be nice for Okugo to have an experienced (retiring big-name) player to guide him into the role- Xavi, Lampard, Riquelme, Veron, Giggs, Kaka, etc. I think Adu and Marfan would also soak up that type of guidance, and Hoppenot and McInnerney would thrive on the service.

      • JediLos117 says:

        Okugo to replace Carroll. We had hopes that Adu would be more our playmaker but that hasnt happened…M. Farfan hasnt been able to assimilate as our regista either. Its been our biggest need since last season.

      • WilkersonMcLaser says:

        Marfan is too raw to take on the regista role. Adu, though young, should have enough experience to at least give it a go, but he’s been absent everywhere — even in his ‘preferred’ positions. I can see Marfan growing into a playmaker (though a Farfan^2 on the wings is fascinating), but he would need some mentorship.

        Not sure about Okugo replacing Carroll, who has been one of our most consistent players all season. Yeah, he’s not an offensive dynamo, but he does do some good defensive work. I’d rather him paired with Okugo with a playmaker or have Okugo give the playmaking role a shot.

      • Great article. This to me is exactly the problem with the young Union players. Lahoud, Daniel, Marfan etc show positives but they are not midfield Maestros

        I would prefer to see Okugo and Gomez teamed together in the center. Criticism against Carrol is his inability to think offensively (although a great destroyer) and to work well with Gomez.

        Also our 4-3-3 formation seems to amplify the void in the midfield. This needs to be called into question.

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