LEESBURG, Va. — Close observers of both Loudoun United and D.C. United might have noticed a handful of similarities between the product put forth by the USL side Wednesday evening and the product Ben Olsen’s club delivers at Audi Field.
They might have noticed holding midfielders Antonio Bustamante and Carlos Alvarez connected at the hip while serving as double pivots in a 4-2-3-1 alignment, not unlike the way Junior Moreno and Russell Canouse were operating when United was at its best last season.
Or they might have noticed right back Connor Presley bombing down the flank repeatedly and launching eight crosses into the box, with his attacking style mirroring that of Leonardo Jara, who leads United’s defenders in that category with 41 crosses of his own this season.
Or perhaps they noticed left winger Christian Sorto drifting more centrally in the second half to run at defenders and occupy more dangerous places in the attacking third, ultimately linking with striker Kyle Murphy for an equalizing goal in the 47th minute. That Sorto’s movements mirrored those of winger Paul Arriola when he slides into the middle were hardly coincidental.
In fact, for Loudoun United coach Ryan Martin, none of those similarities were accidents.
“Part of why I’m in this role is I’ve been here for three years and helped build the methodology and what we’re trying to do with Ben, Nolan (Sheldon), Dave Kasper and the academy staff,” coach Ryan Martin said. “So for us, it’s what is a player profile of a center back? What do I expect of Donovan Pines? It should be the same thing that Ben and those guys expect on the weekend. For us it’s a pretty easy one, you know? That’s kind of where I fit into the mold.”
In a setting where results are less important than growth, Wednesday night’s draw against the Birmingham Legion qualified as a success for Martin, whose team maintained 59.8 percent of possession while outshooting its opponent and posting significant advantages in tackle success rate, crosses and passing accuracy inside the opposition’s half. Watching his team battle back from an early deficit to dictate play in a 1-1 draw solidified a fruitful evening before 1,007 fans at Segra Field. Adjustments were made, execution was sound and Loudoun was unquestionably the better side.
So if player development is the overarching goal, Wednesday’s performance served as a step in the right direction.
“Just proud of the guys,” Martin said. “I think we controlled the game, dominated the play and created more than enough chances to win. But really proud that the guys were actually able to step up and get an equalizer, you know? We’ve talked in the last couple weeks of the final action: Can we pull it off? And yeah, we were able to get one and created enough to really get a win. Again, progress.”
Loudoun fell behind in the 32nd minute after Pines made an intelligent run forward but was left uncovered by his two holding midfielders, Bustamante and Alvarez. The Legion quickly countered the other way and created an easy, tap-in finish for J.J. Williams a few yards from goal.
Such was the theme for significant portions of the first half when Bustamante and Alvarez left themselves exposed defensively, lacking the proper discipline in front of the back line. But their communication sharpened almost immediately in the second half, with each player taking turns venturing forward rather than both midfielders vacating their defensive responsibilities simultaneously.
They played with discipline, intelligence and restraint for the final 50 or 60 minutes, and as a result, Loudoun allowed only one shot in the opening 20 minutes of the second half.
“Massive,” Martin said of the midfield control. “And that’s why we brought Carlos in, quite frankly, just because of his experience. He’s played in (51) MLS games (for Colorado Rapids and Chivas USA) and he’s played at some very high levels. So for us, we wanted that out of Carlos and we knew we were going to get it out of him. We knew he was very good in terms of organizing, keeping composure, keeping the guys calm. And Antonio did the same, even though he is still relatively young. He just is very clean and everything is starting to come together.
“They did a better job balancing each other off. In the first half we thought that they would both leave big gaps in front of our center backs, which left us exposed. But we thought they did a much, much better job (in the second half). One would go and step and close down the space, the other would protect the back line. And it just really forced them into bad decisions, and we were able to regain possession quite easily at times.”
Utilizing a two-man anchor in front of the back line has become a staple of what Olsen and his staff do with the first team, and the 4-2-3-1 alignment is their preferred formation whenever the injury situation allows. It explains why Martin, who works closely with Olsen and Kasper to facilitate player progression, chooses to employ an identical formation. Not only does it help players understand the style the organization prefers, but it also trains them in the types of scenarios they’ll experience if and when they transition to the first team. Same tactics, same style, same formation.
That’s why Pines played another 58 minutes for Loudoun on Wednesday to continue his development at center back while Frederic Brillant and Steven Birnbaum are entrenched in Olsen’s starting lineup, practicing the same principles he would in Major League Soccer.
That’s why the newly signed Gordon Wild played significant minutes for Loudoun before joining the first team on a more consistent basis the last few weeks.
And that’s why youthful talents like Griffin Yow, Jacob Greene and Moses Nyeman are placed in the exact roles they might eventually fill for United.
Such is the purpose of Loudoun United, and on Wednesday those boxes were satisfyingly checked.
“We all know what type of players we’re trying to help produce for the first team,” Martin said. “My job is can I help find talent. Can Jacob Greene be the next left back that starts for the first team? He has all the potential. He has the player profile that Ben and Dave and those guys want. And it’s like, can we just put him in environments like this to try to make sure he’s ready.”