Soehn presented with good challenge
WASHINGTON -- Six months can seem like a lifetime in the dynamic environment of professional soccer -- just ask D.C. United head coach Tom Soehn.Back in October, during a crucial stretch of the 2008 campaign where United were clinging to a playoff place that would eventually slip from their grasp, the team was so desperately starved for depth that Soehn regularly had to sprinkle rookie reserves into his starting lineups. He even took the uncommon step of fielding what were essentially reserve squads in his team's final CONCACAF Champions League group matches.How things have changed. Nowadays Soehn faces a thorny dilemma of an altogether different sort: how best to shoehorn his diverse array of talent into a coherent starting lineup.With Fred having made his season debut against Houston last week and Santino Quaranta poised to return to action against Real Salt Lake this weekend, United's injury list is remarkably short -- ensuring that competition for places is remarkably tight."I still look at every session and the way the guys compete against each other without crossing a line -- it's been fantastic," said Soehn on Thursday, just before his team departed for the long trip to Salt Lake City. "It keeps everybody sharp and we've even done a good job, on the days when certain guys are recovering, of getting after each other to make sure when it's the next guy's turn, he's ready."United's offseason moves have helped elevate the overall quality at Soehn's disposal to the point that merely selecting the travel and game day rosters has become a difficult determination. When proud, dedicated players are inevitably left out, the potential fallout calls for a different sort of man-management."It's a very tough job for Tommy at this point, because we're all competitive, and that's why we're here. That's why we're professional athletes," said midfielder Ben Olsen. "No one doesn't want to travel or play, and he's got to manage not only who's playing and all that stuff, but he's got to manage our egos and that's not always an easy job."Soehn has regularly preached the importance of positive team chemistry during his two previous years in charge of the Black-and-Red. But few subjects can test the locker-room bond like the distribution of playing time and this season he's called on his charges to handle his selection choices with particular maturity, keeping mindful of the long months ahead."Everybody knows we have a deep team and a lot of games this year, and there's going to be decisions that don't go your way and how you handle it affects everybody," said the United boss. "Everybody's going to, at some point, sacrifice for someone else."Going forward, tough tactical evaluations must be made as well. Quaranta and Fred have long been slated as D.C.'s first-choice wingers. But their preseason hamstring troubles opened the door for rookies Rodney Wallace and Chris Pontius, and also helped trigger the move to a 3-5-2 formation. The five-man midfield plays to the strengths of Olsen and Christian Gomez in the center of the park, but it emphasizes constant width and diligent backtracking from its wingers and might force adjustments from the other veteran duo which is now ready to contribute."The 3-5-2, it doesn't really fit me a whole bunch," said Quaranta this week. "Last year we played a four -- that's a different role. So we'll see. I don't know how we're going to play, that's up to Tommy to make those decisions. I can play forward, I can play whatever."The entire squad may be eager to get into the action, but Soehn's players are surely in no rush to trade places with him. Gomez's ambivalence offers one example: The Argentinean admits that he feels more comfortable in a 3-5-2 given the defensive cover and additional bodies for passing combinations it provides him, but he is also keen to see Fred and Quaranta's creativity added to the mix."We have some young players right now who have a lot of potential and talent who we're getting used to game by game," said United's playmaker. "But with Fred and Santino being out of the lineup, hopefully they'll be back this week. They're two players who will obviously help on the attack and help us create more chances."Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com.