Ahead of a demanding stretch of matches and travel this week, D.C. United Coach Ben Olsen aimed to strike a delicate balance of managing playing time and earning points.
The formula has proved successful so far: United fared well through two tests and kept several starters fresh for the final exam, Saturday’s visit to Houston. Although the end is in sight after earning four of a possible six points, Olsen will need to continue making adjustments and asking his first-place team to improvise.
“It’s been an interesting time to coach because we are adjusting every week and figuring out how best to go about each game, tweaking and pushing these guys mentally,” he said. “It’s a good time of growth for everybody.”
United (7-3-3, 24 points) defeated shorthanded Kansas City, 1-0, on Sunday at Audi Field and received a resolute performance from a largely secondary lineup three days later in earning a 0-0 draw in Toronto (despite a 35-3 shot disadvantage).
Of the four primary attackers, Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta logged 42 minutes apiece Wednesday, Paul Arriola went 28 and Lucas Rodriguez did not enter. Defenders Leonardo Jara and Marquinhos Pedroso didn’t play either.
So in theory, United should be well positioned to gain at least one point against the Dynamo, which is 5-0-2 at BBVA Compass Stadium and 6-2-2 overall.
Two defensive midfielders are absent, however: Junior Moreno is with family following his father’s death, and Chris Durkin reported to the U.S. under-20 national team.
Three players — center backs Steve Birnbaum and Frederic Brillant and defensive midfielder Russell Canouse — might have to go 90 minutes for the third time this week.
“We are going to have to adjust again,” Olsen said without specifying any additional changes. “The guys continue to be open to pushing themselves and getting out of their comfort zones for the betterment of the team.”
While the rested attack promises to be at top fitness and form, Olsen will have to decide how to address the two defensive midfield slots. On Wednesday, he deployed three: Canouse, Durkin and Chris McCann.
He could opt to retain McCann, whose previous two starts were on the back line. Or he could call on the versatile Ulises Segura. Or maybe something new is the works.
Moreno, a Venezuelan who started the first 12 matches, was “completely willing to come to Houston,” Olsen said.
But the lengthy overnight flight from South America — his father was receiving cancer treatment in Argentina — and Saturday morning arrival would have been, Olsen said, “dangerous emotionally and physically.”
Consequently, Moreno is not expected to rejoin the team until next week, when United will host Spanish club Real Betis in a friendly Wednesday and visit the New England Revolution next Saturday.
To fill Durkin’s slot on the 18-man game-day roster, Olsen summoned Chris Odoi-Atsem, the outside defender who last weekend made his first competitive appearance since he completed chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The former DeMatha and University of Maryland standout played 22 minutes for second-division Loudoun United.
Odoi-Atsem had been slated to play for Loudoun again this weekend, but to provide cover for D.C.'s outside backs, he arrived in Houston in time for practice Friday.
“I feel bad because we wanted him to get that [Loudoun] game, but I’ve got to do what’s best for the first team,” Olsen said. “There is a scenario or two where I could use him.”
Namely, if Houston’s swift attackers are causing havoc, the fleet-footed Odoi-Atsem could end up entering late in the match.
Reflecting on his substitution pattern in Toronto, Olsen said he did not want to play Rooney, Acosta and Arriola more than 45 minutes. The trio remained on the bench at the start of second half, but when it became clear Toronto’s dominance would not subside, he inserted Rooney and Acosta and, later, Arriola.
United escaped with a point from a draw that the hosts had controlled for almost the entire night.
“It wasn’t genius; it wasn’t idiotic,” Olsen said. “It was just a matter of them coming in.”
Notes: D.C. homegrown attacker Griffin Yow scored in the U.S. under-17 national team’s 2-1 defeat to Mexico in the final of the Concacaf tournament Thursday in Bradenton, Fla. The Americans already had qualified for the U-17 World Cup. Yow will rejoin United next week. …
United will hold a news conference Monday to announce a July 24 friendly against Olympique Marseille at Audi Field. Marseille also will participate in a preseason tournament July 18-21 at that venue with French clubs Saint Etienne, Montpellier and Bordeaux.
D.C. United at Houston Dynamo
Where: BBVA Compass Stadium.
When: 8:30 p.m. Saturday.
Live streams: FloSports, ESPN+. Both are subscription services. ESPN+ is subject to blackout in the D.C. area.
Records: United 7-3-3, 24 points; Dynamo 6-2-2, 20 points.
D.C. probable starters: GK Bill Hamid; D Leonardo Jara, Frederic Brillant, Steve Birnbaum, Marquinhos Pedroso; MF Paul Arriola, Russell Canouse, Ulises Segura, Luciano Acosta, Lucas Rodriguez; F Wayne Rooney.
Houston probable starters: GK Joe Willis; D A.J. DeLaGarza, Aljaz Struna, Maynor Figueroa, DaMarcus Beasley; MF Alberth Elis, Matias Vera, Boniek Garcia, Tomas Martinez, Memo Rodriguez; F Mauro Manotas.