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Tactical Flexibility a Curse for Soehn?


Tom Soehn’s tenure as DC United manager has seen the Red and Black win the Supporters Shield, advance to the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions Cup and are on the doorstep of making the MLS playoffs and CONCACAF knock out rounds.

But Soehn’s player management have been from my vantage point, the absolute worst in the league since he took over as coach in the beginning of the 2007 season. Despite having one of the league’s best personnel minds in Kevin Payne, as well as a rabid supporter’s base, Sohen has made one mistake after another.

The lack of patience the manager has shown for players, and a lack of willingness to continue to play DCUs traditional style through rough patches are in particular sore spots.

In the history of this league, only one team has had a clear identity from the late 1990s until today: it is united. The 3-5-2 system mixed with some Latin playmaking flair and the quality of ball winners in midfield have made united the gold standard in the league.

In a week when the league’s commissioner is presenting to the world of football why exactly MLS has been the most financially unaffected world sporting league by the current global economic downturn, and how MLS has become arguably the most competitive and compelling football around, the league’s signature franchise continues to have questions around it.

Perhaps it is the hyper-competitive nature of MLS that has made DCU slip from the summit of the league mountain. Maybe it is this pressure that has forced Soehn to constantly juggle between a 4-4-2, 3-5-2, 4-4-1-1 and 4-2-2-2 over the past two seasons, while constantly shuffling players in and out of the lineup.

Perhaps it is this pressure that leads Soehn to throw players under the bus often. After all, the expectations around United are massive, as it is the club with the most developed supporter’s culture in the league and the longest term media presence as well.

One thing is painfully obvious: Tom Soehn is over his head as the coach of United. Perhaps his temperament and temptation to experiment would serve him well with another MLS side, but the red and black are not the laboratory for experimenting.


Costa Rica’s shock 2-0 win over host Egypt at the U-20 World Cup serves as a reminder to what  the hyper talented US U-20 team could have done had they qualified for the knock out stages. Costa Rica edged the US for the final spot in the second round based on goals scored since both were minus three in goal difference.

The USL vs TOA situation continues to unfold. As many media outlets have reported, the USSF has intervened and is holding meetings this week with both parties as well as with MLS/Don Garber to try and find a solution. On my personal site, I am reporting that the possibility of a breakaway league that works with USL in a fashion like how the Premier League interacts with the FA/Football League in the England is now a possible solution.

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  1. Andrew

    October 8, 2009 at 6:29 pm

    Park Bolivar- you must have missed the piece on tactics that this site did on the USMNT- the evolution of tactics for national team managers through the years. It is considered the definitive word on national team tactics by an American blog site. I think it was written in May or June.

    As far as the USL and player selection coverage, I agree their is way too much of it. After all this is MLS Talk, not USL Talk. I suggest if Kartik wants to discuss USL he ought to start another site called USL Talk.

    Most MLS fans not only don’t follow USL, but hope the league collapses in this mess now so that MLS can grow stronger and be the only professional league in the country. Why do we need another league after all?

    • park bolivar

      October 9, 2009 at 12:28 am

      Looking for the tactics piece. I started paying attention to this site around the 3-1 Saprissa debacle. “Saprissa Strikes Again” was my first post to ever read over here.

  2. Grunthos

    October 7, 2009 at 4:24 pm

    Well, they need to fire him. To use a term we normally reserve for players, he hasn’t got any upside. And there’s no excuse, none, for the last two league matches (San Jose and Chivas).

    To be fair, the heavy rotation of players in the last couple of seasons isn’t particularly Soehn’s fault, what with the eight bazillion tournaments crowding the schedule and tiring out the guys who aren’t injured. Add in the reliance on an aging attacking core, and you’ve got a recipe for rotation hell.

    But… Soehn doesn’t throw players under a bus? What else would you call the 43rd minute “tactical” substitution of Gomez last Saturday? Gomez will never be MVP again, but he was giving a decent effort; for Soehn to pull him off with only two minutes until the half was exceedingly insensitive and silly. I think we can agree that Soehn doesn’t explicitly call guys out in the press much, but there are many ways to be tone-deaf.

    Kartik, your continued insistence that a 3-5-2, in particular, defines what DCU does is, IMO, inaccurate. I’ve watched DC play very DCU-style soccer out of other formations this year, most notably in the 8/29 match at Chicago. But if I read the thrust of your argument right, you’re criticizing Soehn for having no plan or program with his tactical changes… and I agree, I don’t think he has a plan for how to make the most of the talent at his disposal. This year’s DC team has a lot of ability, but also a lot of flaws and limitations. Tommy has never managed to get them to be more than the sum of their parts.

    I’ll point to the following issues in particular:

    1) The basic choice between 3-5-2 and 4-4-2 has to be considered in light of the fundamental question, “How are we going to move the ball forward in transition?” In a 3-5-2, you have a second D mid who supports the ball-winner, provides an outlet for possession passes, and helps direct the flow of play; to get this advantage, you sacrifice tight coverage of your opponent’s wide players. In a 4-4-2, the defense will be less readily exposed, but now the ball-winning midfielder is more likely to be on his own when he takes control and looks for the upfield pass; the fullbacks have to get more involved in the early development of the attack.

    For DCU, the existing talent distribution has given Soehn a difficult dilemma (where formation is concerned) for his entire tenure. Play a 3-5-2, watch Burch and Namoff get skinned down the flanks by fast attackers. Play a 4-4-2, watch Clyde Simms hit heavy balls upfield that stop DCU’s attack before it gets started.

    Soehn has tried to get around this in a number of ways, but he’s never willingly addressed it head-on: play Burch *or* Simms, but not both at the same time. He seems to be caught in the unsophisticated safety zone of “playing the best XI”, rather than building the most effective and efficient *team*. This shows up in a lot of ways, but the Burch/Simms dilemma seems the clearest failing to me.

    2) Rodney Wallace. At the beginning of the season, Wallace showed why the team drafted him. Playing left wing, he was highly energetic, put in good work at both ends of the field, and showed some very creative thinking at times. Then some injuries cropped up, and Soehn tried out Wallace as a defensive mid in the 3-5-2… which would have been fine as an experiment. But when Rodney (predictably) showed that a center midfield role accentuated his weaknesses (positioning and deciding when to tackle and when to stand up) while neutering his strengths (pace, enthusiasm, and a good cross)… Soehn took no notice. He kept sticking Wallace in the middle, disrupting the team’s shape. Meanwhile, left flank defender/midfielder combos like Burch/Fred and John/Pontius were routinely and repeatedly exposed defensively.

    3) Let’s take a specific tactical look at last Saturday’s match. Having finally decided to bench Emilio, Soehn tried out a straight 4-4-2, with Gomez and Pontius as the forwards, Olsen and Simms in center midfield, Quaranta and Khumalo wide. With no true attacking center mid, there were only two ways for this to work: either the team would drop out of DCU’s traditional style and play a lot of balls down the flanks, or one of the forwards (namely Gomez) would need to run his socks off to help link midfield and attack while still supporting the front-runner (Pontius).

    Was there any evidence that the team had been prepared for this choice? None. Nada. Zilch. Throughout the first half, the team would try to move the ball through the middle, end up kicking it out to a wing, and then find that wing isolated because no attacking mid was available to provide a short option. Only in the rare cases where a fullback overlapped was the team able to generate good chances… but of course, DCU’s current roster lacks both the pace and the height to make a British-style high crossing attack work.

    Having struggled through the half with this arrangement, in minute 43 Soehn pulls off Gomez for… Jaime Moreno. No formation change. So, to be clear, the position with the most need for energy and fitness would now be manned by the 35 year old who runs at turtle speed. (When DCU lobbed a random ball in front of Jaime early in the 2nd, and Jaime started to run it down, he failed to beat the defender to the ball even with a good 10 yard head start.)

    I could provide another dozen examples without breaking a sweat. Tom Soehn isn’t an idiot, and he’s not a *bad* coach… but he isn’t good enough for this team and this level. The evidence has been on display all season for anyone to see.

    • park bolivar

      October 8, 2009 at 1:10 am

      Holy crap… I enjoyed the hell out of this post. Please tell me where you’re posting so that I might continue to follow this.

      • Grunthos

        October 8, 2009 at 9:54 am

        Sorry, not a blogger… my opportunities to write at length are unpredictable at best. I have been a semi-regular commenter at the DCenters, but their time and interest in posting has been drying up, so there’s less and less opportunity there.

        But thanks for the compliment!

        • The Gaffer

          October 8, 2009 at 10:23 am

          Grunthos, if you’re interested in writing for MLS Talk, e-mail me privately at thegaffer[at]epltalk[dot]com

          The Gaffer

          • park bolivar

            October 8, 2009 at 5:48 pm

            Let me second the Gaffer here.

            MLS Talk is chock full of talk about player selection, the Nats, and USL. This site would be WELL served by somebody who pays close attention to tactics (particularly over a long period of time) and has a pretty good grasp of language.

            You’d totally be an asset to this site if you could produce an article each week at the caliber of that rant. (Of course, it’ll have to be more than just DC, brah)

          • Grunthos

            October 9, 2009 at 7:35 pm

            Sorry to disappoint, park, but your last line is what trips it up. I can comment at length on DCU because I’m a season ticket holder. There’s no way I could fit in the necessary time to watch enough other MLS matches for a reasonable contribution to this site.

            Ah, for a life where I could relax and watch soccer in HD every day…

  3. Charles

    October 7, 2009 at 2:27 pm

    Not saying they should fire him, but doesn’t “Doorstep of making the playoffs” in a small league = possibility of “fire the coach”
    This isn’t the EPL, even if you have no chance of winning it all, as long as you don’t get relegated…..this is America, win it all or else.

  4. Julius

    October 7, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    Kartik your analysis of Soehn’s coaching was more about DC United tradition than what Soehn has actually has done tactically. His formations, player selection, playing players out of position, in-game tactics can all be criticized but you do very little of that expect to say he switches formations a lot. And a few times in his tenure he has specifically called out a player but rarely does he ever throw anyone under the bus.

    You also left off the 2008 US Open Cup trophy from the list of accomplishments. That’s two trophies in 3 years. Could he have done better, probably (in my opinion) but at least credit him correctly.

    • park bolivar

      October 7, 2009 at 2:35 pm

      I think the most damning critique of DC United comes down to squad selection.

      Peering over the current United roster you see a lot of aging talent.
      Not to take away from Ben Olsen, but the guys golden years of play were almost a decade ago (he’s 32). Fred’s 30, L. Emilio is 30, Namoff’s 30, Gomez is 34, Moreno’s 35.

      And every one of those cats is a starter– for United. Sure, certain players can be great into their mid-thirties, but most players peak around 27 and decline from there.

      Also, looking at the squad, we realize that, of the $2.3 million
      $225k – Fred
      $225k – Olsen
      $100k – Namoff
      $255k – Gomez
      $350k – Moreno
      $1.1 million in payroll for 5 starters over 30 (and 1 DP who costs and additional $750k, who’s also over 30).

      How many newer, fresher, hungrier players could DC get if they’d shed themselves of this older, top-heavy squad? 1998 was nothing but guys in their early twenties (Including Mr. Olsen)

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