One-eighth of DC season has been played. In horse racing terms, I like to think of this as the moment just after the gates have opened and everyone has bolted onto the field for a preliminary order. You don't really know who's going to win, even if someone has a big lead, but you can get a sense of how the team is running, what impediments they might face, and a first impression of overall form.
For DC United, the picture is generally positive. With ten points after four games, the fact that United sits atop the single table standings isn't important to me. It's nice, but the season is so early that it really doesn't matter. What does matter is how DC has looked in its first four games.
NOWAK, TACTICIAN: The team I see has a number of positive aspects, but here's the first one I want to address, something you can only see by looking at all the games combined: Piotr Nowak is gameplanning better than ever. The preseason gave a hint that this could be coming, and I wrote in the season preview
"The 2004 and 2005 United teams were at their best as a finely tuned sportscar. When they were on, they were almost impossible to beat. But a slight timing issue in the engine could be an expensive problem... Nowak's system may not be so defined as it has been in the past, allowing it to adapt to games when either DCU isn't quite ticking the way we'd like, or when the other team has found a weakness to exploit. The idea that United can shift with similar personnel between a 4-4-2, 3-5-2, and 4-3-3...is one that pleases me."
In the past, I felt that the recipe for United was simple: If we play our game, we win. If we don't play our game at a high level, things go wrong. Now that formula has changed. We adapt our game to win. United has this season seen multiple formation. Piotr Nowak may have been annoyed at having to sub people at the half, but he has made the right decisions. Eskandarian in at the half energized the first Red Bulls game. Simms during the Chivas game didn't work as well, but it was the correct idea. Further, by playing Gomez and Adu in the starting XI, Nowak has gotten out of his clockwork sub pattern of "Oh, it's the 60th minute, time to bring on Freddy. Ah, minute 80, now comes Jamil Walker." Instead, Nowak has been creative in his subs. Even within a single formation, he's made good decisions. Against Houston, in what I think was United's best game so far, he moved Freddy to the right midfield in order to allow Josh Gros to take on Mullan. It was a risky move, but it worked. If Nowak can make such smart moves throughout the season, DC United have a stronger team that can play in such a way where if Plan A doesn't work, Plan B still gives the team a shot.
THE TRENCHCOAT EFFECT: Need something for a key moment? DC has found it. Jamie Moreno will score his fair share of goals, but if he doesn't? Alecko Eskandarian is a threat. So is Freddy Adu. Christian Gomez is dangerous. Josh Gros is showing some good awareness. Facundo Freakin' Erpen is second on the team in goals. Need defense? Olsen and Carroll are beastly in the midfield right now. Josh Gros is shutting down the wings. Get through them? Facundo Erpen has the athleticism to take the ball off you, and Bobby Boswell is backing him up. Brandon Prideaux is playing better than I have ever seen him. Of the three goals allowed this year, only one can be directly attributed to a blown defensive assignment, when the ailing Brian Namoff allowed Djorkaeff through. The others came on a direct free kick and a goalkeeper muff. Multiple weapons and defense in depth? That's a recipe for success.
TROY PERKINS, JOURNEYMAN: In a way, it's a good thing that Perkins had a poor opening and a confused second game, as it seems to have allowed himself to confront his fears, and then overcome them. He now has two solid games moving into Saturday, and he will need confidence that he can feel like he's earned when facing FC Dallas.
NOT YET ON THE PAGE: Christian Gomez and Lucio Filomeno aren't where I'd like them to be. Gomez's game has featured lethal balls from set pieces, but his corners this year haven't been great. Admittedly, in two of those games, conditions were not ideal, but it is a bit worrisome. Even the goal he got against Houston came off a deflection.
In the season preview linked above, Filomeno, Perkins, and Adu were identified as players that could step up. Of the three, Filomeno seems to be lagging. What's upsetting is that he clearly has the talent and skill, the problem seems to be mental. He's not finding his space well, and when he does find it, he's having problems finding the net.
DEFENSIVE DISTRIBUTION: DC's defense has been good at stopping attacks, but it seems like there is some confusion or indecision once the ball in won in finding an outlet. Sometimes this manifests itself as bad passes out of the back, in other cases as holding the ball at the feet too much. I'm not sure what is causing this (my guess is that the proliferation of United's offensive looks means that the defense isn't quite sure where the midfielders are any more) but it needs to be solved.
Overall, my impressions are positive. And what is even more hopeful is that I feel like DC hasn't even played its best soccer yet. They are improving from game to game. This Saturday, look for a good game, and they may play a very good game and only get a draw against FC Dallas. That's okay, just keep the quality up.