Over the past couple of seasons, D.C. United’s Head Coach Ben Olsen has tinkered with a few different formations for his starting lineups. Most of the time, he has operated with a four defender back line, with varying shapes and groups of the midfielders and forwards. In 2018, United spent most of the first half of the season with a 4-1-4-1 look, one that created a lot of goals at both ends of the field.
In August, when he finally had Russell Canouse and Junior Moreno healthy at the same time, Olsen opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation. The Black-and-Red, of course, had a lot of games at home during that time, but that set up seemed to help United limit the amount of goals they conceded, while scoring more than enough goals to drag themselves up the table and into a playoff spot.
Given that United return many of the same starters for 2019, it is likely that Olsen will continue to trot out this formation, so long as United continue to have success with the personnel group. Here’s a look at all the different possibilities for formations for United in the upcoming season.
Continuing with this formation, which has two deeper midfielders, best fits United’s players right now. Canouse and Moreno, when healthy and playing together last year, made it difficult for opposing teams to find ways through United’s back line. Earlier in their year, when Chris Durkin was manning the defensive midfield line in the 4-1-4-1, it was too easy for opponents to put the defense under pressure for long periods of time. Part of that was Durkin’s inexperience at the professional level, but more of it was the lack of assistance that was needed.
Having the two deeper midfielders allows the front attacking four to have freedom while United has possession. Olsen still demands plenty of defensive work from all 11 players, so Luciano Acosta, Lucas Rodriguez, Zoltan Stieber, Paul Arriola, and Wayne Rooney still have to contribute on both sides. But if they can continue to score goals in bunches at the other end, then Olsen doesn’t have to think about shaking up the defensive side in order for United to pick up wins.
Over the past couple of seasons, this had been the formation that Olsen had been using for the most part. In theory, it’s not much different than the 4-2-3-1. Both have five midfielders, both have three of those midfielders located centrally, with one more attack-minded than others. However, theory isn’t what plays out on the field, and when United used this formation in 2018, it usually meant a goal party for the opponents.
To start the season, it was Moreno, and then Durkin as the deepest midfielder, while Canouse sat out injured until July. Acosta and Ulises Segura made up the middle two of midfield line. United’s only clean sheet before August came in a 1-0 victory over the Columbus Crew using this formation. However, Arriola got sent off early in the second half, and United were desperately defending in a much different look late on, and even needed two heroic saves from keeper Steve Clark to preserve the win.
Otherwise, United were conceding three goals to the likes of the Philadelphia Union and Real Salt Lake on the road, or four in the second half against Toronto FC. The New England Revolution managed three near the end of June against the Black-and-Red, and the LA Galaxy followed it up with another two goals in United’s last game on their long road trip.
The switch to the 4-2-3-1 was not right at the same time that Audi Field opened. But once Olsen made the switch, he never turned back. There’s a chance that this look could return in 2019, but that seems only likely if United are chasing a game, or having to cobble a starting 11 together due to injury or international absences.
3-6-1 (or 3-5-2)
Fans had been clamoring to see a three-man backline in 2018 when results weren’t favoring United at the beginning of the season. Arriola had spent some of his time in Mexico playing in a five-man back line, which could have meant an easy translation to the wing-back role in a three-man back line.
Curiously, Olsen finally utilized it in September, when the Black-and-Red hosted rivals New York Red Bulls at Audi Field, when United had already started winning games in their favored 4-2-3-1. The backline was made up of Steven Birnbaum, Frederic Brillant, and Jalen Robinson. Joseph Mora and Arriola played on either wing, with Canouse and Moreno retaining their familiar roles. Acosta and Segura played in a more advanced role underneath Rooney, and the first 45 minutes went fine, with the teams tied at 1-1.
Olsen must have seen something worrisome though, because to start the second half, he brought on right back Oniel Fisher to replace Robinson, and United operated out of the 4-2-3-1. That was the last of the three-man backline look from United in 2018. It’s unlikely to return in 2019, as it just doesn’t seem that Olsen believes his players best fit that system.
It could be used in case of an emergency, but unless United’s season is slipping away from them and Olsen needs to make drastic changes, it’s unlikely that he will use this formation.
There were a couple of times when both Rooney and Darren Mattocks were on the field at the same time in 2018. It didn’t happen often, and even when it did, Rooney tended to drop deeper in the formation. But, when United do sign a backup striker, and might be hurting for a goal in a game in 2019, United could certainly operate with a two-striker look, with either a three man or four-man back line.
Just don’t expect to see it from the start of games.