Ben Olsen is a tiger mother. He demands maximum effort and will not accept failure. Listen to these quotes:
“It was men versus boys. We lost every matchup on the field.... We weren’t good enough in any aspect of soccer.”
“I can live with some mistakes, but I cannot live with the lack of commitment, the lack of aggression.”
You can sense the boiling disappointment. Ben has no favorites — not golden child Andy Najar, not fan-favorite Charlie Davies, not designated player Branko Boskovic (though he’s now out of the picture for the foreseeable future). They can all be benched; Ben does not hesitate to express his disappointment. And he pushes his boys hard, putting them through a punishing practice session on the heels of the Houston match. So far, the team still wants the approval of its authority figure. Here’s Simms:
“We are a young team, but we’ve got to stop making that excuse for ourselves.”
And Dax: “This is schoolyard stuff, this is little kids’ stuff. It’s just unacceptable.”
So, Ben still has the locker room. The team is still buying in to his philosophy. But as those of us with friends who are unlucky enough to have tiger mothers know: when those kids rebel, they really rebel. United’s guys aren’t metaphorically piercing their tongues and raving ‘till dawn on a Tuesday night just yet, but if things continue the way they’ve been going, then they’ll eventually explode.
The good news for United is that the MLS home office, to the extent that they set rules, are much more Western-style parents. Soccer moms. Ten teams out of 18 make the playoffs. No relegation. They don’t want to be too harsh...they want teams to learn from their mistakes instead of being punished. After all: United feel bad...isn’t that punishment enough? So, if United need extra time to figure things out and learn how to make better choices, well...no pressure.
The first chance to right the ship comes tonight against Seattle. The Sounders are without Steve Zakuani, who suffered what is undoubtedly the most gruesome-sounding injury I’ve ever heard. If you were watching with your eyes shut, you would have thought that someone just hit a crisp single to center...but that was Zakuani’s tibia snapping in half. Yikes. The Sounders have responded well, winning the match in which Zakuani was injured as well as the following match against Toronto. They’re 3-2-3 right now...middle of the pack. Middle of the pack is something United aspire to at the moment.
Hamid will probably start in goal, but after giving up eight goals in two games, you have to wonder. Ben has shown that he has a quick hook, but Cronin hasn’t played in a league match all year. Hamid hasn’t been great, but he also hasn’t stunk up the joint; I’d bet he gets the start.
As for the back line, Zayner’s hamstring is injured again, so Korb will probably get the start instead. I’m not bothered by that; from the little I’ve seen, Korb looks like the better player. I think it’s possible that White gets the start instead of Jakovic or Kitchen, but I doubt it. Burch was one of our few good players on Friday, so he’ll start.
If Boskovic hadn’t torn his ACL, I’m sure he’d be starting in the midfield tonight. But he did tear his ACL, so the central tandem will probably be Dax and Simms again in spite of two lackluster performances from that tandem in a row. Pontius probably keeps his spot on the left, though nobody has played well enough recently to be a lock-starter. I’d like to see Najar start on the right, but I think there’s a pretty decent chance we’ll see Quaranta. Ben’s looking for effort, and Tino’s effort is beyond question. It’s his skill that is debatable.
I really have no idea who will start at striker. I think that Davies and Wolff is our best tandem, but both stunk like wet dog on Friday. Ngwenya might get the start just to change things up. Brettschneider might actually be the best tactical option; with our midfield completely incapable of advancing the ball past midfield last match, we were never even in position to play Davies or Wolff in behind the defense. That pretty much neutralized both of them. United might benefit from having a bigger guy in the lineup who can be a target and hold the ball.
Some things I’d like to see:
• Dax playing to his ability. Let’s have some perspective: last season, our engine room was frequently Morsink and King. McCarty and a healthy Clyde Simms should definitely be an upgrade. But that’s a pretty low bar to clear: Morsink and King are what baseball fans would call “replacement-level players,” and United’s record reflected it. Picking up McCarty was a good acquisition, but only if he plays the way he was playing at the beginning of the year.
• More aggression from Simms. Both on offense and defense, Simms needs to be more aggressive. I’m not a fan of unnecessary fouls, but it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if Simms took some more chances and maybe drew a few more whistles and yellow cards. And I’m all for safe passing in the back, but not if you have better options forward. Part of me wonders if aggression is in Simms’ DNA; I’m friends with one of Simms’ cousins (or, at least, he’s a friend of a friend), and his cousin is a super-nice guy. Just really laid back, friendly. Simms may or may not have the genetic makeup to be the enforcer you sometimes need to be at that position.
• Something better from Davies. Don’t talk to me about the Gold Cup; right now I’m questioning whether Davies deserves to start over Joseph Ngwenya. He doesn’t look physically limited, but he does look extremely rusty.
• Ninety minutes of energy from Najar. If he starts, it’s an opportunity for him to reclaim his spot in the lineup. But he has both Quaranta and Fred fighting for his spot, so he needs to show something. When Ben talks about “commitment to the cause” and “playing for 90 minutes,” I get the feeling that Najar is one of the main guys he’s implicating.