Battle of Unbeatens as Earthquakes Visit RFK

Two teams that haven’t lost in over a month will face each other tomorrow night as DC United host the San Jose Earthquakes, who have been a bit of a tough out for United the past few years as the ‘Quakes are on a two year winning streak in RFK, and haven’t lost to DC anywhere since 2008.

DC, unbeaten against the Western Conference in their last 5 matches which has moved the team into third place in the East, takes on a San Jose team that has been just as dominant over the Eastern Conference over the same 5 game span. However, both teams have a few injuries and Gold Cup absences to deal with.

United has perhaps the lesser troubles as the loss of Dejan Jakovic, who pulled a hamstring preparing for the Gold Cup, has been ably replaced by the rock solid play of United’s kiddie corp of rookie defenders. Also, Dax MacCarty (groin, caused him to miss last two matches) and Charlie Davies (hamstring, came in as a sub in last match) have both recovered to the point where they could start, but almost certainly will play a role off the bench at the very least.

San Jose, on the other hand will be missing the defending golden boot winner, Chris Wondolowski and the rugged Ryan Johnson, who was just starting to really spark SJ’s offense after being moved back into midfield, as both are gone for the Gold Cup. But they got a bit of good news themselves recently as Simon Dawkins, who was signed away from Tottenham earlier this year, is back healthy and scored in their last match a convincing 2-0 win over Houston.

With all that in mind, it seems likely United coach Ben Olsen returns Charlie Davies and Dax McCarty to their starting roles against SJ. It’s true rookie Blake Brettschneider and Fred played very well in replacing United’s two biggest off- season acquisitions, but perhaps weren’t quite influential enough to warrant staying out there once United’s captain and leading scorer return to health.

It should be Davies and Josh Wolff starting at forward, then Chris Pontius, McCarty, Clyde Simms, and Andy Najar starting left to right across the midfield. Now, an interesting possibility, which would work against SJ especially, is for Olsen to reward Fred by keeping him out there, but replacing the shaky Simms with McCarty instead.

SJ’s central midfield is not so frightening that Simms has to be out there defensively, plus this allows Fred’s creative aggression to stay on the field to spark United’s attack instead of putting the pressure on McCarty, who clearly has had trouble living up to those expectations. This is a good game to experiment with a different role for McCarty to see if that frees him up to be more himself instead of putting pressure on him to be something he is not. And his steadiness and savvy play may well calm Fred’s natural instincts towards excessive turnovers. It would be interesting to see those possibilities, but I suspect Olsen goes with the more predictable route and banishes Fred’s creativity and carelessness back to being a second half spark off the bench.

In defense, there’s simply no doubt who will be out there. Rookies Chris Korb, Perry Kitchen, and Ethan White, along with journeyman Daniel Woolard have been simply fantastic recently, and are perhaps the biggest reason for United’s unbeaten streak since that horrid stretch when gave up 4 goals 3 times in April.

SJ coach Frank Yallop has also had a bit of time to adjust to the loss of his leading scorers of the past few years. Steven Lenhart coming back to form after a long injury layoff, as well as the return of Dawkins and the commitment of Khari Stephenson to refuse a Gold Cup call up give the former DC assistant coach quite a few weapons on offense. And interestingly, he has swapped the roles of former DC midfielder Bobby Convey and long time Quake defender Ramiro Corrales and struck on a good formula with Convey playing left back and Corrales in midfield.

Anyway, almost certainly Yallop will play Lenhart and Stephenson at forward (perhaps Dawkins starts at forward and Stephenson in his more natural attacking midfielder role, but I think not as Dawkins is still just getting fitness back after a bit of a long layoff himself). Then in midfield, Corrales, Brad Ring, Sam Cronin, and either second pick in the draft Anthony Ampaipatakwan or Joey Gjertsen going from left to right across midfield (if Dawkins starts, Stephenson replaces Ring in midfield). And Yallop’s defense will most likely be Steven Beitashour, Jason Hernandez, Bobby Burling (or Brandon McDonald), and Convey going from right to left across the back.

So, looking at the matchups, DC has some very tantalizing matchups on offense they could easily take advantage of. Obviously the Wolff and Davies that carved up Seattle could easily dance around or blow by Hernandez and either Burling or the beast McDonald, if they have managed to regain the chemistry they were building before some niggling injuries separated them for a stretch. Najar against SuperBobby is obviously a tantalizing matchup of former DC prodigy with current DC prodigy, and if Pontius continues to play with confidence and dagger efficiency, then Beitashour is in trouble.

Even if McCarty and Simms or Fred are negated by Cronin and Ring, DC should be able to find a way to score, and will win if they can keep the damage that Lenhart will wreak on their defense to a minimum, because outside of Jewfro, SJ’s offense is not terribly dynamic or effective without their sniper Wondolowski.

Corrales is steady, but won’t dazzle and shouldn’t be too much trouble for Korb to handle, especially if he’s dropping back too much to help Convey with Najar. Same with Gjertsen or Ampaipatakwan, they won’t trouble the unflappable and rock solid Woolard too much, especially if they are pre-occupied with helping Beitashour with the wily Pontius. Nor will Ring and Cronin outplay McCarty and Simms. So, as long as Lenhart is contained without fouling him too much and giving SJ too many dangerous freekicks, DC will be in fine shape.

Which is good, because the trends don’t really favor DC. As mentioned, SJ has won the last two on the trot in RFK and has only lost to DC once since being reformed in 2008. Historically, DC hasn’t fared much better either. DC is 10-14-6 against SJ since the inaugural MLS match loss in 1996, one of their worst records ever against a league opponent. In RFK, that is slightly better as DC is 8-7-0 but the bulk of those wins came a long time ago.

SJ also has the slightly better form recently too. They are 3-0-2 in their last five matches with convincing wins over Columbus, NE, and most recently Houston, while DC is 2-0-3 with a road win, but perhaps less convincing home draws to Dallas and Colorado.

On the bright side, DC is 2-1-3 at home albeit outscored 7-8 due to that hideous performance against NY, but they have only given up two goals at home since that match, and shut out the league leading Galaxy in the HDC their last time out. SJ, on the other hand doesn’t travel so well. They did beat Dallas early on, but haven’t won on the road since going 1-2-2 overall with the ties being unimpressive draws in Chicago and Vancouver.

Bottom line, DC should be able to score one more than SJ might score if DC really has turned a corner on their season. Some consistency from here on out will do a world of good for this very young team. They aren’t world beaters yet, but even average MLS teams get wins at home consistently. That should be the new benchmark.

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