Defensive midfielder is not one of soccers glamour positions. Traditional jersey numbers are not assigned to it like number 9 for striker and number 10 for playmaking midfielder. The importance of a defensive midfielder goes beyond the numbers and is a focus for D.C. United.
United is hoping to have Perry Kitchen still in the starting eleven when it begins a three-game home stretch Wednesday against the Colorado Rapids at R.F.K. Stadium. Kitchen was forced to leave the first half of Saturdays 1-0 loss in Houston with a hyper extended left knee. An MRI revealed no structural damage to Kitchens knee.
We had about four or five guys taking MRIs today, said United head coach Ben Olsen after Mondays training. We are trying to get through and we will see who can walk and who can run. But this year I do have options.
It is no slight to Stephen King, who replaced Kitchen on Saturday, but after the switch in defensive midfield United was not as fluid. Going all the way back to Richie Williams United fans have appreciated the role of the defensive midfielder. From allowing the attacking midfielder to create to helping with possession, the defensive midfielder is an important role that Kitchen has been growing into.
In addition to concern for Kitchen, his first choice replacement Marcelo Saragosa has been battling a calf strain that prevented him from being on the substitutes bench. Also in the defensive third Dejan Jakovic, Emilliano Dudar, and Ethan White continue to recover from injuries.
Up front is where Olsens options come into play and he will need them. Chris Pontius is slowed by tightness in his gluteal muscle and leading scorer Maicon Santos is feeling some wear and tear with a calf injury. The fitness of Pontius and Santos could determine where Dwayne De Rosario plays. De Rosario might be forced to move up to forward.
If De Rosario leaves the midfield then that will create an opening for Branko Boskovic to get his third start of the year. The health questions around Pontius and Santos could also lead to a start for Hamdi Salihi at forward. After a rocky start to his MLS career Salihi has scored two goals in the last three games.
On the outside of midfield Olsen has a choice of Danny Cruz, Andy Najar, and Lewis Neal. Najar seems to be set to stay in midfield after starting one game at right back. Neal was in the first eleven against Toronto FC and with over ten years of experience in the English leagues is an intriguing option on the left side.
He (Neal) is sharp on the ball, Olsen said. I would like to see him be more of a threat offensively. He can keep the ball for days. He is technically sound. He just needs to relax a little bit and get more crosses in.
Like United, the Colorado Rapids have found a way to play through early season injuries and still get results. On 15 points from 10 matches, the Rapids lost their defensive midfielder Pablo Mastroeni to a concussion in the second game of the season. At forward Omar Cummings suffered a sprained left ankle in their 2-0 win over FC Dallas and is out four weeks.
The Rapids have been able to spread the wealth. The teams 15 goals have been scored by eight different players and nine of the goals have been finished by newcomers. Leading the Rapids debutantes is Kamani Hill who has three goals and is back in the United States after playing in Germany and Portugal following his career at UCLA.
The Rapids are also hoping to get more minutes out of Conor Casey at forward. Casey ruptured his left Achilles tendon at Seattle lasts season and just returned two games ago after a ten-month absence. He has been used off the bench, but his return to full fitness will help a Rapids attack that is now being engineered from the center of midfield by Argentine Martin Rivero.
Rivero has a little Christian Gomez in him according to Olsen and sealed the win over Dallas with his first MLS goal. Riveros goal came off a Brian Mullan cross and he and left-sided midfielder Jamie Castrillon should keep Uniteds outside backs Robbie Russell and Chris Korb busy.
On defense the Rapids have recorded four shutouts. Their back five starts with defensive midfielder Jeff Laurentowicz who is one of the better players at the position in MLS. The back four has plenty of experience with Tyrone Marshall and Drew Moor anchoring the middle and Colombian Luis Zapata and Kosuke Kimura able to jump into the attack.
Yes I am concerned we have lost two of three games, Olsen added. I am confident we will respond. After giving up five goals in San Jose, we came back and shutout Toronto. We have a break coming up to heal up, but we need to take care of business in these next three home games.