Backs Against the Wall for DC United

United only has one thing on the agenda tomorrow night in their makeup game against the Portland Timbers, and the same thing for their last game of the season against KC on Saturday. They have to win both games (and get some help from a slumping NY), because anything less means they will have missed the playoffs for the fourth year in a row, a fate that has only happened to only two other teams in the history of the league.

Yep, United is the only team with four MLS Cups, but without a win tomorrow, a loss by NY on Thursday and another win in the last game of the season, DC United will become the third team to have missed the playoffs for four years in a row. Unfortunately, United hasn’t won two games in a row in over two years, and doesn’t appear likely to be able to pull it off now given the appalling four game losing streak they are currently riding.

In fact, as my buddy Chris pointed out the other night on the show, United has won only one “must win” game since winning the MLS Cup in 2004! Since winning their fourth MLS Cup, United has only won the US Open Cup (in 2008 over a USL team), other than that it’s been bupkis in MLS. They did win two Supporter’s Shields, but didn’t really face any truly must win games in order to secure those, and considering they were drummed out of the playoffs each time (in Conference final by NE in RFK in 2006, and in the first round by the Fire in 2007), those years are hardly examples of coming up big in big games.

Of course in recent history, United had no must win games in 2010 because they were pretty much eliminated from playoff contention in August. But, DC did face must win games in the last games of 2009 and 2008, as well as the Open Cup final in RFK in 2009, and didn’t win those either. In 2009, DC lost 3 of their final 4 at home and still had a chance to get into the playoffs with a win in KC in the last match, and gave up a PK in stoppage time to draw 2-2 and was eliminated. In 2008, the last match was in Columbus and again a win and they make the playoffs, but instead hit the post three times and fell 1-0 and out.

So, it’s not like DC fans haven’t seen this before and those were games the team at least tried valiantly to secure the points! This most recent Fire loss was simply atrocious. It was a miracle that they were even in position to win after getting their only shot on goal with Dwayne De Rosario’s PK in the 90th minute, but of course that was a tease as the Fire stormed back to snatch the win with two stoppage time goals for one of the most brutal losses in RFK history.

BTW, incredibly there have only been 5 games in MLS history where a team behind by a goal has won with two or more stoppage time goals, and DC has been involved in 3 of them. Ben Olsen set up Jaime Moreno, and then scored the winner over the Fire in stoppage time in RFK in 2000 after being down 1-0 well into stoppage time, and United prevailed in the Massachusetts Miracle in 2003 with 3 stoppage time goals (Eliseo Quintanilla (PK), Kovalenko, and Eskandarian with a bonus goal) in a 4-2 win after being down 2-0 until the 83rd minute. DC arguably was involved in another in when Luciano Emilio scored in 90th minute and Chris Pontius in the 93rd to beat NY on the road 3-2 in 2009.

But I digress, so back to the game at hand. Unfortunately, Portland won’t be an easy opponent as they also need to win both their last two games to have a shot at the playoffs themselves, and a loss would eliminate them as well. A tie does neither team any good, although Portland would still be alive praying for a NY loss Thursday, and then needing to win their last game at RSL.

DC does enter this match as healthy as they have been for most of the season, but with some real hard questions about starting positions for Olsen. Charlie Davies has played a mere ten minutes the past two games and says he is healthy and doesn’t understand why he is not playing more. Nice that he wants to play more, but it makes you wonder why Olsen has been sitting him so much if he is so healthy and dangerous as Davies seems to think of himself; and how angry Olsen is about Davies’ public comments about playing time. Also, while technically DC’s game plan was successful for 90 minutes, I think overall it can be said any team that doesn’t get a decent shot off until the death doesn’t have a good game plan.

That means that how to use DeRo will be the key to Olsen’s lineup. Often this year, DeRo has played forward and scored piles of goals, but that was with a healthy Chris Pontius and a dangerous Andy Najar. With Pontius out and Najar relatively ineffective against the Fire, DeRo did not get nearly enough touches on the ball. But, playing him in midfield means you have to start Davies which Olsen has obviously not wanted to do recently. So, Olsen either changes his mind and starts his malcontent designated player, or risks another dismal offensive performance in a vital game.

Not knowing the dynamic between Olsen and Davies, for example whether or not Olsen is angered by the post game comments or merely brushed them off as frustration from a player he is trying to send a message to; and not knowing how sharp and healthy Davies has actually been in practice, I can only go on what I’ve seen recently, and Davies has been ineffective even when getting decent minutes lately. He did little in the loss to the Crew the last time he went 90 minutes, missed the Philly match with the flu, and did little in 68 minutes in the Chivas draw, etc.

So, for my money, unless Davies is tearing up practice and Olsen isn’t bothered by Davies comments, then he has to line up DeRo as a forward and keep Davies on the bench until halftime so he learns to keep his mouth shut instead of trying to throw his coach under the bus. Tough time for a guy to need to learn a lesson, but it seems as if that’s the way this is likely to play out.

So, that means pretty much the same starting lineup as was out there against the Fire. But, I think there are two changes that I think Olsen is very likely to make. First of all, Austin Da Luz has done nothing to keep his starting job, while Santino earned the PK against the Fire, and while he has been pretty inconsistent, at least he has sparked some things offensively, while Da Luz has been consistently tidy, but rarely ever a threat. Santino has shown serious glimpses of his old aggressive form, and he links with DeRo and Najar very well, so he can truly take some of the pressure off those guys which Da Luz hasn’t seemed able to do.

I also expect Olsen to move Perry Kitchen to midfield and bench Clyde Simms, who has been pretty ineffective himself, but more importantly it will inject some fire and feistiness into a bland midfield as well as relieve Kitchen of marking some big tough players that Portland will throw forward on set pieces. This is a very good game to bring Ethan White out of the doghouse and show you have some faith in him as his size and athleticism especially on set pieces could be huge against a team that has a lot of big bodies the likes of Eric Brunner and Futty Danso.

Granted, both chyanges are risks, but if you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’ll keep getting what you’ve been getting, and lately, that’s losses stacking up like cordwood. So some token changes are in order no matter what. Therefore, I’m expecting Wolff and DeRo at forward, Quaranta, Stephen King, Kitchen, and Najar in midfield from left to right, and Daniel Woolard, Brandon McDonald, White, and Chris Korb to start in front of Bill Hamid.

Portland on the other hand does have some injuries seriously hampering them. Knee injuries to Darlington Nagby and Sal Zizzo has zapped them from the starting lineup, and speed merchant Jorge Pelazza has a banged up back which might slow him down a touch. They also have a defensive midfielder as their leading scorer in Jack Jewsbury, which says something about the year Kenny Cooper is having as the co-leading scorer as each of them have 7. Considering Portland’s fairly solid defense, their light scoring offense (14th in MLS in goals scored) is the biggest reason for their -8 goal differential.

So, using my crystal ball, I expect Sean Connery…err, I mean John Spencer to trot out Cooper and Pelazza at forward, Ex DC winger Rodney Wallace, Diego Chara, Jewsbury, and Khalif Al-Hassan in midfield from left to right, and Mike Chabala, Brunner, Danso, and Lovel Palmer from left to right across the backline in front of former DC net minder, Troy Perkins. My, won’t Perkins and Wallace, who led DC in assists last year tied with Santino, be just itching to extend DC’s misery.

However, looking at the matchups, DC does match up pretty well against them as evidenced by the 3-2 win over them in earlier this year in Portland. Cooper and Pelazza are streaky and manageable for White and McDonald. Cooper likes to play like a 7 foot guard and shoot threes, and if he hits them they win, but if he misses, as 7 goals in 32 games suggests he does more often than not, DC breathes a big sigh of relief. Same with Pelazza, who has 6 goals on the year, lightning fast, but hasn’t scored in almost two months.

On the outsides, Wallace and Al-Hassan (6 assists) are good enough to trouble Korb and Woolard, but not too badly. Korb is becoming quite a steady player and is as feisty as Wallace is athletic. Al-Hassan is quietly putting together a very respectable season for a light scoring team, but then again Woolard is doing the same for a soft defensive team. Portland may have a slight edge, but not much, especially as Jewsbury and Chara are not really all that dynamic in the run of play offensively, and Kitchen’s competitivness will go a long way toward negating their offense.

I expect a goal from them, but not much more unless DC just turtles into a shell and gets peppered until they crack. For one thing, their set pieces by Jewsbury to Brunner and Danso are lethal already, but now they’ve been bringing on the behemoth Bright Dike, who has a standing invitation from Holland to lie on their beaches and hold back the North Sea any time he likes, to make things even more difficult in defending their set pieces late in games.

However, going the other way, DC will score too, hopefully one more than they give up. DeRo and Wolff are fully capable of dancing around Brunner and Danso, especially if Santino and Najar are causing real problems for Palmer and Chabala. Granted, Chara and Jewsbury will completely negate King and Kitchen offensively, but that’s OK as long as DC gets some joy on the outsides.

Heck, DeRo alone can generate goals against Portland as he has already done with the game winning assist in a 2-0 Toronto win and the game tying goal for NY in their 3-3 tie with the Timbers after he was traded to NY. In fact, a goal or an assist and I have to think he’s the first player ever to score a point against one team in one season while playing for three different teams. Now that would be a shocking record, of course then again, if he doesn’t help TFC and NY in those games, DC would be in a better position in this game, but hey, what can you do.

As for trends, DC won the first meeting, so that’s good, but they’ve lost four in a row, including their last home match which is obviously bad. Portland lost last weekend to Houston at home too, but have 7 points out of their last 5 games unlike DC. Portland is a paltry 2-9-4, outscored 21 to 7 on the road, and while they did win their last road match against Vancouver 1-0, they have only 2 goals and 5 points east of the Mississippi River and have been shut out 4 times those 6 games.

DC does have some promising stats on their side however. The Black and Red is of course average at home being 4-4-7, outscoring their opponents 31 to 26. However, DC is 3-1-4 in RFK against the Western Conference, outscoring them 16-10, even with that hideous 4-2 loss to SJ. So, there is reason to hope for a good result.

Honestly, if I was a handicapper, I’d call this one a 1-1 tie barring divine intervention. But since DC just loves to tease their fans with some hope, before crushing it irrevocably, I fully expect DC to find a way to win this one before getting blown out by KC next Saturday.

Of course, if NY gets a point Thursday, it’s all moot anyway. But, if NY was to lose (which I think they will) and DC win tomorrow (which I think is slightly better than even money given the torture factor alone), then for the third time in four years, DC would face a truly must win game in their last match of the season, and have another chance at winning two games in a row for the first time in over two years.

Surely, the time has come for them to beat the odds?

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