Tonight’s DC United and Montreal game saw an occurrence that is become more common in MLS – both teams coached by two long-time MLS players. For the home team, that coach is legendary player Ben Olsen, who as a player was known for his passion, his on-the-field smarts, and his desire for the game. Everyone knew that Olsen would make DC a more physical team that evoked past championship sides. But well into his second year as DCU head coach, he has also become one of the best tacticians in MLS.
Tonight’s game was an intriguing match-up, as DC came into the game atop the Eastern Conference while Montreal was a mere two points behind the final playoff spot in the East. In the first match between these two teams in DC, Montreal took advantage of a lethargic DC team to earn a 1-1 draw; with temps in the high 90s and Montreal missing some key players, it looked like tonight’s game could have been much the same.
DC started most of the same XI as that April 18 contest but Montreal had a very different team on the field. Still, Jesse Marsch’s tactics were the same – clog the middle, try and spring the lightening fast Sanna Nyassi on the break. DC’s formation to counter this was a somewhat 4-1-2-1-2, with Pontius and Najar on the wings and Perry Kitchen covering the back four. Both Najar and Pontius like to cut inside, meaning this game would see a lot of play in the middle of the pitch and the formation essentially became a 4-4-2 diamond. As Ben Olsen said afterwards, “it was an important game to have the ball.” During the first twenty minutes of the match, the play was even with both teams struggling to maintain possession and both keeping the ball “between the 40s” on the old football field.
But beginning with a Maicon Santos shot from 30 yards out, DC began to gain the edge in possession and put some pressure on Montreal. How? They played a high line, asked Boskovic to play more of a central midfielder than an attacking mid, and let the attacks flow through the “wings”. When you are facing a fullback tandem of Tyson Wahl and Calum Mallace, that’s good strategy. Despite a number of quality chances and continuous pressure from the twentieth minute on, DC could not find the opening goal until the beginning of stoppage time. Then this happened:
Why the praise for what was a ton of missed opportunities and a one goal lead? Looking at the starting XI, Ben Olsen went aggressive early. He knew in the last match-up Montreal was able to hang out and grab a second half goal against a tired DC team. This time, seeing a weakened team trying the same tactic, Olsen went all-in early. He started his most attacking side and aimed to crowd out the mid-field, basically taking Montreal’s tactics and one-upping them. Boskovic, not entirely up to 90 minute shape, was a gamble to start this game. If DC doesn’t take the lead before halftime, their set-piece specialist probably comes off before DC can firmly take control of the game. As it was, he assisted on the second goal. In his press conference after the game, Ben Olsen said:
We knew they were going to be a little leggy from the travels so it was an important day for us to make them work as much as possible. And I think we did that, and you saw they started to wear down
These are all small things that the best MLS coaches do reflexively. But it shows that Ben Olsen is more than a cheerleader coach; he is a guy who is quickly becoming a very good tactician and that makes DC an even more dangerous team.