United preparing to be pragmatic

WASHINGTON -- For decades, the "4-4-2" has been one of the most universal concepts in soccer, the default formation with roles that almost every player on earth intuitively knows and understands.But alternatives abound, especially at the highest levels of the game, and for pass-happy sides that love to get forward, a 3-5-2 shape offers many virtues. Its wingers ensure width, the extra man in the center of midfield helps win the possession battle and when all goes according to plan, opposing teams are pressed deep and forced out of kilter by the natural passing combinations that the configuration encourages.Peter Nowak brought the 3-5-2 to D.C. United when he assumed the head coaching job in 2004, using it as the cornerstone of a relentless, high-pressure attacking philosophy that helped D.C. win the MLS Cup that year and carve out several seasons of sustained success in league play.An early-spring losing streak prompted Tom Soehn to switch to a modified 4-4-2 just a few months after he took the reins in 2007 and a second consecutive Supporters' Shield bore out the move. Yet during this past preseason, he and his staff were surprised to see their squad perform much more effectively in the 3-5-2 system as players like Dejan Jakovic, Rodney Wallace and veteran Ben Olsen proved well-suited for several of the formation's specific needs.Lately there's been all too little of the slick, free-flowing soccer United showed themselves capable of producing earlier this year, however, and Soehn has flirted with the 4-4-2 on a number of occasions, mainly in road matches where his team's ability to rest and recover has been limited and a more defensive approach became necessary."When you're playing that system, it's really about the younger guys and very athletic guys who can go left and right and close down things," said defender Avery John when asked about the 3-5-2. "Once you have so many games, like us coming up, you kind of need to change the system, change players and try to get some results."Indeed, one recurring critique of Nowak's scheme was the strenuous physical demands it placed on the squad, a point backed up by United's habit of late-season fades in 2005 and 2006.This year D.C. have faced U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League matches piled atop league commitments, making quick turnarounds a frequent occurrence from late July until October. Coaches and players alike seem to be searching for the right balance between gung-ho intensity and tactical savvy."I think some of the physical demands that have been put on the players, anytime you go through July and August and you play a lot of games in the temperatures that we do, it's going to weigh on you," said assistant coach Mark Simpson last week, noting that United's 4-4-2 involves "not really taking a defensive approach, but more a disciplined approach and defined approach as to what guys' roles are."Soehn has fielded a 4-4-2 -- staffed mostly by reserves -- in United's first two Champions League group matches, both 3-1 losses. Wednesday night's home setback to Toluca saw United beaten in the possession game that they so often win at MLS level and when a late push was needed to seize the lead, United reverted to 3-5-2 -- but there wasn't enough left in the tank to hold off the Mexican side's wealth of attacking quality."When you play these CONCACAF games, they just play a completely different game," said midfielder Andrew Jacobson. "And I think it might be geared towards playing against teams like us. If we don't high-pressure as a team, together, they start to break us down and I think a few times when they were doing it, I thought we should have held back and we didn't."With an extended winless streak eating away at their playoff prospects, the Black-and-Red admit that the next few weeks will require pragmatism to trump their natural preference for attractive soccer. The team remains optimistic and Soehn closed Wednesday's postgame press conference with a passionate repudiation of the idea that his team cannot cope with their heavily-packed schedule.But deciding the best tactics and team selections for the task remains a thorny proposition, especially with inconsistency continuing to rear its head among the ranks."This balancing thing of trying to get some young guys in there, or fresh guys, we're going to have to really rethink and make sure, however we move forward, we've got to commit," said Soehn. "Whoever's on the field, the amount of work we do and the amount of effort we put through has to be standard. And the soccer might not be the best, but the amount of work we do, the effort we put forward, has to be better."Charles Boehm is a contributor to