Tim Howard

Following Our Soccer Players in the EPL

As the English Premier League approaches its halfway point of the season, we’d be forgiven for failing to follow our fellow countrymen in arguably the biggest league in the world. Due to time differences and keeping inundated with MLS breaking news, sometimes it just becomes a little tiring trying to keep up with the goings on in the EPL.

It’s also apparent that we don’t have the leading lights of yesteryear in the EPL anymore either. There’s no Landon Donovan at Goodison Park, where he instantly forged a bond with the Everton fans. There’s also no Clint Dempsey who had successful spells with London outfits Tottenham and Fulham. Nor is there the talisman Brian McBride who like Dempsey had a formidable period at Craven Cottage playing for Fulham under a host of managers.

With that in mind, there are more than a few reasons why you may have taken your eye off the ball with our homegrown talent playing in the EPL. But there is still a lot of promising American talent plying their trade in the EPL such as Stoke City contingent Geoff Cameron and Brek Shea, Aston Villa’s Brad Guzan, Tottenham’s Brad Friedel, Southampton backup goalkeeper Cody Cropper, Sunderland’s Jozy Altidore and finally the ever-reliable Tim Howard who is still with his beloved Everton.

 

Thankfully there is a multitude of useful digital platforms that can potentially help us keep up to date with the aforementioned players progress in the EPL. The coverage of sports in the UK isn’t too dissimilar to the U.S. and its main broadcasters have some really great apps. Luckily for fans of the EPL these broadcasters have tapped into the need that the consumer needs digital content on the go for the modern day Internet user. This generally means that broadcasters are now investing large amounts of their budgets into their services such as app production.

With a total of 17% of the world’s population now accessing the Internet via their smartphones according to Gaming Realms, the company affiliated with entertainment platform Spin Genie, high-profile broadcasters foresaw this need for real time content and have brought the most cutting-edge apps to the market. These apps now even let us follow the matches the aforementioned American players are featuring in, using the real time functionalities of such apps.

Here are some of the best apps that will keep you in the loop with the breaking news in the EPL:

BBC Football – One of the main terrestrial channels in the UK, the BBC’s digital services are extremely proficient and reliable. The app also covers the MLS as well, along with all the top leagues in the world and Internationals. But as far as the EPL goes, BBC Football has probably the most well respected online journalists working for them out of all the apps mentioned in this article. The content is updated regularly and is of the highest quality.

Sky Sports News – If anyone is likely to bring sports fans breaking news it’s Sky Sports. The cable channel has a wide net of journalists who work around the clock 24/7 to bring the latest news from all the 20 EPL clubs. It also has real time functionalities to follow the games as they are taking place.

Football Ramble – Not necessarily a news source but a funny take on the latest goings on in the EPL. It also regularly features segments on American and overseas players and makes for an interesting listen while on your commute to work.

Who Will Olsen Start at Left Back?

The Black and Red find themselves in a difficult position heading into the final leg of their series against the New York Red Bulls. Down 2-0 on aggregate, DC United must score at least two goals to send the series into extra time. Give up a goal, and the new away goals rule will force United to have to score at least four to stay alive.

This presents Ben Olsen (above Photo: Martin Fernandez) with the dilemma of needing to set up his team score, but also maintain a clean sheet. The Red Bulls are not known for their defending prowess, but an in form Thierry Henry is as likely to find the net, or provide an assist, as any player in the league. To accomplish this, Olsen must resolve DC’s issues at left back.
Since the departure of Cristian earlier in the season, United played both Taylor Kemp and Chris Korb fairly successfully at left back, with all-star Sean Franklin occupying the position on the right. Due to a slight injury, Sean Franklin started the first leg on the bench, with Taylor Kemp and Chris Korb debuting together as left and right back.

Kemp, while not playing poorly, was consistently targeted by the Red Bulls in one on one situations. This forced United to shift to the left, where Thierry Henry exploited the space on the opposite side of the field. The scoreline was 2-0, but could have easily been 3 or 4.

On Saturday, it almost guaranteed that Sean Franklin will return to the lineup. This leaves Olsen with Taylor Kemp, Chris Korb, or possibly even Samuel Inkoom to fill in on the left.

Taylor Kemp

Kemp has really stepped up since being promoted to the first team. Although 1v1 defending is not his forte, the narrower field at RFK will help solve some of the defensive issues. Going forward, Kemp is definitely more of a threat than Korb. Kemp notched two assists at RFK against the Rapids, earning team of the week honors. Against Houston, Kemp found the back of the net to help United earn its first victory at BBVA Stadium.

Chris Korb

The left back spot was all Korb until his injury brought Kemp into the starting IX. Korb may be a better 1v1 defender than Kemp, but offers much less in the attack. In a game that requires DC to score (at least) twice, this is a far more conservative pick. A change in the backline could address defensive issues from the first leg.

Samuel Inkoom

Inkoom is a wildcard. A world Cup and Champions League veteran, he could be the unknown that Mike Petke and the Red Bulls won’t be prepared for. The problem is, Olsen hasn’t shown much faith in Inkoom since his arrival, and he has rarely featured in MLS games.

Consistency

Olsen hasn’t changed tactics or personnel very drastically all season. At the end of August, United beat the Red Bulls 2-0 at RFK using Taylor Kemp at left back. More importantly, the spot has belonged to Kemp because he’s played well enough to earn it. Although he was often exposed by Loyd Sam at Red Bull Arena, the more narrow field at RFK will help him not get isolated on defense.

More importantly, DC will have to be much better in possession if they stand any chance of coming out of this series. If they accomplish this, it will keep Kemp from having to defend 1v1 for extended periods.

Playing Korb at left back wouldn’t be a disaster, but he has yet to start a game at LB since returning from his injury. Korb will start on the bench and come on late in the game should he be needed.

Starting Inkoom would certainly throw something different at the Red Bulls that they probably haven’t prepared for. There’s probably a reason that Olsen has been reluctant to use Inkoom, and this is not the time for Olsen to make a “panic” change.

United need to score twice. They also need to keep a clean sheet. Playing Taylor Kemp at left back on Saturday gives them the best chance of accomplishing both of those goals.

Eddie Johnson

If I Had the Wings of an Eagle

DC United’s “worst to first” story is over. After 34 games, it’s time for second season. That’s right, playoffs.

During the dog days of the season, the major question for the Black and Red heading into playoff time was the striker position. Would it be an in-form Luis Silva, or the designated player Eddie Johnson starting alongside Fabian Espindola? Due to an ill-timed injury in Houston, it is Eddie Johnson that will lead the line on Sunday next to Fabi. Photo: Martin Fernandez.

Now, the major question in DC’s lineup comes from a position that has been locked down for the majority of the season: out wide on the wings. For most of the 2014 season, Chris Rolfe on the left and Nick Deleon on the right was the go-to pairing for DCU. However, Rolfe’s broken arm and the emergence of several other contenders for the wide position raise an interesting selection dilemma for Ben Olsen.

Heading into Sunday’s game against either Sporting Kansas City or the New York Red Bulls, Olsen can choose between Chris Pontius, Chris Rolfe, Nick Deleon, Sean Franklin, or Samuel Inkoom to provide width in DC’s attack. This depth could be key to a long postseason run, especially if they continue to deal with nagging injuries. Let’s narrow down the field to the two players that give DC the best option of winning over a two game series.

Chris Rolfe

Rolfe has been a lynchpin of DC’s chance creation this season, a revelation that arrived three games into the regular season. From his favored position on the left, Rolfe has 6 goals and 6 assists in 21 appearances. His linkup play and decision making, especially on the counter attack, has been crucial for DCU.

However, the selection of the Magic Headband is not guaranteed. Coming back off of a broken arm, it is unclear whether Rolfe is ready to jump back into the starting lineup, and a playoff matchup may not be the best time to test the waters.

Chris Pontius

The return of CP13 from a series of devastating injuries feels like a new late season signing for DC. Since his return to fitness, Pontius continues to impress, especially as he continues to regain match form, fitness, and confidence- crucial for a goal-scoring player. Pontius looked shades of his old 2012 form at home against Chicago, heading home an inch perfect cross from Eddie Johnson for his first league goal of the season.

Should Rolfe not be 100% ready to go out on the left, it is very possible that Pontius will get the nod. However, should Rolfe be ready to play, it is hard to ignore his form in the 2014 campaign. Rolfe and Pontius have yet to see the field together in 2014, or ever, so it is hard to say which player would play on the left, and which on the right.

Nick Deleon

In 2014, Deleon has at times looked similar to his outstanding rookie form, and at others has been a bit frustrating. The right midfield spot belonged to DeLeon pretty much all season, and it may be harsh to drop him heading into the playoffs. So far this season, DeLeon has 2 goals and 5 assists playing out on the right.

Compared to Rolfe and Pontius, DeLeon looks a far less menacing player to opposing defenses. However, NLD also has a history of crucial postseason goals, as everyone will remember from his 2012 strike at Red Bull Arena that propelled the Black and Red past their biggest rivals and into the conference finals.

Sean Franklin

All-star right back Sean Franklin shut down Bayern Munich (along with Bill Hamid and Bobby Boswell) in this year’s MLS All Star Game. Franklin has been outstanding at the right back position this season, but Ben Olsen has been pushing him up to right midfield and slotting Chris Korb or Samuel Inkoom into the right back slot on several occasions.

The switch to right back has mostly occurred when either Perry Kitchen or Davy Arnaud is unavailable in the middle of the field and Nick Deleon is pushed into the center. While Franklin has filled in fine out wide, he has yet to look particularly menacing in the final third. With both Kitchen and Arnaud healthy and ready to go for Sunday, we should see Franklin return to his preferred spot at right back.

Samuel Inkoom

DC United’s late summer acquisition is a curious case. A young right back and right mid that saw action in two World Cups for the Black Stars of Ghana, as well as Champions League experience with Swiss powerhouse FC Basel. Olsen appears intent on playing Inkoom out on the right, and he has looked dangerous with his speed and crossing abilities. These crosses could come in handy with Eddie Johnson lurking in the box.

Despite Inkoom’s impressive CV, he hasn’t appeared to feature regularly as of yet in Olsen’s plans. As many a player will tell you, adjusting to the MLS can be difficult, and Inkoom is probably not ready to be thrown into a playoff matchup as a starting player.

It’s Down to Olsen

Ben Olsen is one of the clear frontrunners for the Coach of the Year award, and has hardly put a wrong foot forward this season with his decision-making. In the end, whoever we see on Sunday in the wide positions will come down to the man who just recently signed a new long term contract.

The enticing option would be to throw Rolfe and Pontius out for the first time and see if they can both hit a run of form at the right time. However, as previously mentioned, Rolfe and Pontius have yet to play together for DC. On top of that, they have both been used out on the left. In order to play together, one of these attacking players would have to shift over to the right, where Nick Deleon has seen the majority of the action this season.

On Sunday, I expect to see either Rolfe or Pontius in their usual left midfield position. Due to recent form, I would give Pontius the nod on Sunday- with Rolfe likely to be used as an impact substitute. On the right, expect to see Franklin back at the right back position with Nick Deleon playing in front of him.

This is a good problem to have, and none of these players are bad options. But this is playoff time, and Olsen has to go with what is currently working. There is very little time to experiment in this phase of the season. Should a new experiment go wrong, DC could find their worst to first run ending in an early playoff exit.

Back-to-back losses to start busy August foreshadows potential trouble ahead

On the heels of a perfect July for D.C. United (4 wins, no losses)  and seemingly impossible thoughts of challenging for the Supporters Shield , United has come back down to Earth with a mighty thud after poor back-to-back performances on the road in Houston and Sandy, Utah.

United has yet to win in either Houston (Robertson Stadium or BBVA Compass Stadium) or in Sandy (Rio Tinto Stadium) in league play, although United did pull off an improbable 1-0 U.S. Open Cup final last October at Rio Tinto.

Point being is that the optimism that had been building all season for United’s incredible turnaround from the single-worst MLS season in the history of MLS last year seems to have taken a bit of a hit after this tough two-week trip out West.

First off was the stoppage-time goal allowed by United in Houston to deny United a badly needed point. That disappointment was followed by a thorough 3-0 thrashing at the hands of Real Salt Lake this past Saturday night. Bill Hamid had three goals fly by him before he could even register a save for crying out loud.

Granted, flat performances like the one this past weekend have been few and far between this season, especially when they seemed to occur on a week-to-week basis just 12 months ago. However the wounds are still fresh from that craptacular season in 2013 and with it follows some worry about the rest of the month for United.

Before we take a look at the murderers row of matches still awaiting United in August, we have to objectively look back at first 20 games prior to these last two losses.

Home Cooking – 12 of United’s first 20 matches this season came at RFK Stadium. For a team coming off a disastrous 2013, this was certainly welcome news to Ben Olsen and his staff when the 2014 schedule was announced.

Full credit goes to United for taking 24 out of 36 available points in that span (7 wins, 2 losses and 3 draws) but it only leaves United with 5 of their remaining 14 matches at RFK

Road Good/Road Bad – To be fair, United and Sporting KC were the only teams in MLS with winning road records before the two recent road losses. A closer look at the schedule see’s only one win against a team on the road in a current playoff position (2-1 win in Toronto on July 5th) and overall (including home games) only 5 wins out of their 11 have come from teams currently in a playoff position.

The Future – United does have a rare home game in August up next against  the reeling Colorado Rapids this Sunday night at RFK. This is a MUST WIN considering what is coming down the pike.

Now the tough part –  After hosting Waterhouse FC on Wednesday, August 20th at RFK to open United’s CONCACAF Champions league group play, the Black-and-Red’s next two road matches are trips to Sporting KC on August 23rd and the Los Angeles Galaxy on August 27th  (- that’s about as hard a Saturday-Wednesday road trip any team can take – not exactly places teams go to break road losing streaks)

To wrap up an almost impossible month of play with an admittedly thin squad, United will host bitter rivals New York Red Bulls on national television on Sunday, July 31st at 3pm.

How will United look after August is done? – Tough to say. I think it’s important to remember that all teams in MLS struggle at times and United are no different in that regard. In combination with a thin squad and logging a ton or road miles to places where this team traditionally does not fare well, it’s hard to imagine United being very competitive in those matches.

However, the well-earned gift of 37 points in the table currently affords them some losses. I can only really see Toronto FC overtaking United by months end, maybe New York too, but they too have a tough upcoming month, as do most teams in MLS.

It just seems looking in from the outside that United has a bit too much on their plate and getting off to a terrible start with those two losses have not helped the collective psyche of the team. Sunday’s match against Colorado at home is critical in trying to alleviate the pressure of  the upcoming  games. If United can manage a win against Colorado and a win against Waterhouse FC (not a given considering they went to Panama and  beat Tauro FC 2-1 last week), then maybe they can go into that road trap of KC/LA with more confidence than I am currently willing to afford them.

If they lose/draw to Colorado, then I gather it will be a brutal few weeks for D.C. United and their faithful following..

 

Eddie Johnson

Coach leaves Eddie “Money” Johnson with no Ticket To Paradise

Every four years there are players around the world that are shockingly left off of their respective national team rosters for the World Cup, and every four years we wonder why talented stars such as Samir Nasri (France/Manchester City), Carlos Tevez (Argentina/Juventus), and Jermaine Defoe (England/Toronto FC) won’t be representing their countries on soccer’s greatest stage.   Perhaps it’s a sign of the evolution of the sport in this country that the United States has a legitimate snub story, in leaving Eddie Johnson off the roster (above left; Photo: Tony Quinn), to discuss in 2014.

DC United’s newly acquired forward Eddie Johnson, a regular fixture during World Cup qualifying, was left off the provisional 30 man roster of the US National Team, which must be trimmed to 23 players by June 2 to comply with FIFA regulations on official rosters. While it could certainly be argued that Johnson was a stretch to lock down a starting role for the USA, he’s probably the most dangerous player the team has available to bring off the bench, and his versatility would have afforded national team manager Jürgen Klinsmann multiple tactical options for substitutions and injuries.

Leaving EJ off the World Cup team is the biggest mistake since Steve Sampson left Roy Lassiter at home in preference to Roy Wegerle. As a fan of both Roy’s I can almost appreciate the difficulty in picking one over the other, but the sheer absurdity of that choice was cause to dismiss Sampson before the team left for France in 1998. Johnson’s omission isn’t a Sampsonesque disaster, but it’s positively a head scratcher when you consider that players like Terrance Boyd, Chris Wondolowski, Joe Corona, Brad Davis, Maurice Edu, and Kyle Beckerman, who while fine players in their respective leagues, have no business taking the field in a World Cup match. Yes, all of those players are good, and many of them have helped the USA to qualify for Brazil 2014, but none more so that Johnson, and not one of them has proven that they can consistently compete on the international stage. In stark contrast EJ has proved that he can do exactly that, and not only does it ring with the unjust sting of a punch in the stomach, it’s a huge mistake to leave him behind.

Eddie Johnson scores clutch goals. Be it for club or country, if you need a goal late in a game, EJ is you man. But he’s not a selfish poacher, or a one dimension speed demon. He’s arguably the most versatile player on the roster, able to play as a pure striker, a target man, setup man, or as a withdrawn forward. He’s also adept on either side of the wing midfield, contributing to a possession game while making slashing penetrating runs. He’s good with his feet, whether shooting or passing, one of a handful of US players that can actually beat a defender off the dribble, and he’s better than anyone on the roster in the aerial game. On top of all of that, he’s pretty damn fast to boot.

The knock on Johnson allegedly has been his slow start/poor form in MLS. This is hogwash. It’s nitwittery espoused by the mindless stat-crazed fools playing fantasy soccer. Anyone paying attention to Eddie Johnson’s play with DC United this year would have seen him integrating effectively with new teammates, at least six of whom are new to the team themselves. Judging EJ of his lack of goal scoring through seven games with a new team, and that being one that lacks a play making midfielder, is just silly. It’s also ignoring the blossoming forward partnership that he’s forged with fellow newcomer Fabian Espindola. It’s discounting the fact that Johnson wins every head ball that comes his way. It’s ignoring the tireless off the ball runs he’s making while not getting proper service out of the midfield. Additionally claims that Eddie is in a scoring slump ignore the fact that he’s had goals for both DC United and the United States wrongly disallowed by poor officiating. The fact is that Eddie Johnson is as close to top form as any player in the USA player pool.

The poor from rationale doesn’t hold water. Aside from the fact that the label is inaccurate, it’s not consistently applied to the selection of the other players on the team. Jozy Altidore is coming off a wretched year in the English Premier League with Sunderland, a club he was counseled not to sign with in the first place. Yes, you can make excuse that Sunderland is a trash heap club, but he chose to go there, and by the end of the season he was not only not starting, but mired on the bench behind a cast of donkeys. Even so, Altidore made the provisional World Cup roster in spite of a much more arguable case of poor present form. He’ll be going to Brazil because he’s the best forward we have. And good for Jozy, he’s earned it. But so has Eddie.

The suggestions that Eddie Johnson is a bad influence in the locker room, or that he pouts and sulks when things down go his way, are a lot of after the fact rumor and speculation drummed out to rationalize his exclusion. Maybe there really is something to all of that, but there’s just a general absence of honesty to this angle. Meanwhile Eddie’s reaction to the snub was pure class:

That’s not the reaction of player that fits the negative stereotype labels applied to EJ, or of a bad locker room influence, or of a sulking child. That’s the reaction to heartbreaking news from a ‘Grown Man’ as my friend Andrew Dixon would say.

The most frustrating part of this is the conventional understanding that Johnson was probably beaten out by Wondolowski. Wondo is a great MLS player, and a goal poacher of the highest order – in MLS. The World Cup however, is clearly beyond his reach, and there will be no goals to poach against Ghana, or Portugal, or Germany. Scoring goals against these teams is going to require the ability to play at the international game speed. Eddie Johnson can do that, and Chris Wondolowski cannot. Now maybe Wondo gets trimmed from the final roster in two weeks and makes this 1v1 comparison moot, but it also holds to the likes of Boyd, Corona, Edu, Davis, and Beckerman just as well.

At some point you have to allow a manager to select his player pool, his starters, and his tactics, accepting that he’s trying to assemble best “team” rather than a collection of the best players. That’s fair enough, but it’s a bitter pill to swallow when asked to accept that there’s no place on the US team for EJ’s level of skill, athleticism, and consistent production on the international stage.

To put a positive spin on this the USA’s loss is DC United’s gain. Eddie will now not miss United games while the US team is in pre-tournament training, or games while the team is away in Brazil for the World Cup. He’ll have more time to settle in with his new club, where he can set about being a part of restoring this team to its winning ways, and we will be treated to his clutch play, passion for the game, and professionalism.

Take us home tonight, Eddie. We love you!

Next step for DC United is a win

United grabbed their first goals and point of the season last week in a draw with the Fire, but if they want to prove they are really starting to come together as a team, then the next step has to be a win against the lowly New England Revolution who also got their first goals of the season but made them count more with a win in San Jose.

After a season opening horror show, DC showed a glimmer of hope with a somewhat lucky, but decent one goal loss in Toronto and a truly remarkable improvement with a solid, if not completely satisfying performance against the Fire last week. However, if that is to truly be a harbinger of a promising future, then DC simply has to continue that trend upward into a win over the Revs at home tomorrow night. Not to put the whammy on United, but last year’s epically bad side already had 4 points 3 games into the season then rapidly slid into infamy and didn’t earn another point for two months. If this year is to be better, the trends have to keep going up as the schedule doesn’t get any easier going forward.

Unfortunately, DC had some bad news this week with Luis Silva banished for 2-3- weeks with a ankle injury and worse, Chris Pontius ruled out indefinitely with his surgically repaired hamstring going on the fritz again and requiring more surgery. To help ease the loss of those players, United continued their time honored tradition of getting a player from a team they just played when they acquired Chris Rolfe from the Fire. Rolfe is a solid MLS pro who can play multiple attacking positions and it would be shocking if he doesn’t start tomorrow against NE.

It will be interesting to see how Olsen decides to use him however. His best days in MLS were as a lesser Wondolowski type forward who was ruthless and deadly in the box and relatively anonymous otherwise. Yet, with EJ desperately needing to get off the shneid with his first goal as well as Espindola being rewarded for actually notching his first of the season last week, Rolfe is a virtual lock to play midfield. However, to replace Silva who plays centrally, a role Rolfe has been pretty suspect in filling in the past for the Fire is not likely to be a recipe for success. A better fit would be to move DeLeon inside and play Rolfe on the outside, but DeLeon has been a bit invisible thus far this season as well.

Looking strategically at what the Revs are likely to do might perhaps lend itself to an answer. Playing an attack minded 4-5-1 or hybrid 4-3-3, the Revs are built to score a lot goals (even though they haven’t yet until the 2 last week), but are likely give up a lot of goals too with a very weak midfield defense and a pretty thin defender corps outside of Jose Goncalves and Andrew Farrell. They attack in waves with 5-6 players committed to the attack most times, but if they don’t score regularly which they didn’t early on this season, they are prone to break down and fall behind and have a tough time getting back into the match. NE coach Jay Heaps solved some of his midfield defense issues by playing former Vancouver Whitecap, Daigo Kobayashi in midfield with Andy Dorman, and while that tightened them up quite a bit, it also took away from their attack somewhat.

Similarly, DC who previously had pretty much only defended with the backline and Perry Kitchen, last week found success with keeping Lewis Neal and later Jared Jeffery home to help him out. That should continue, but if Olsen wants to stay with a narrow diamond midfield, then Arnaud, Rolfe or DeLeon has to play the point and all of them are have serious flaws in that role and /or are past their sell by date to make it work in today’s MLS. Arnaud is no longer mobile or threatening enough offensively, DeLeon too undisciplined and completely lacking in even fleeting defensive capabilities, and Rolfe is a combination of both of them. Not as good offensively as DeLeon is capable of being, but more aware of defensive responsibilities. He’s better than Arnaud offensively, but not as integrated into the team having just shown up this week.

As horrifying as this might sound, Olsen should go back to the roots of his only previous run of success when he was tactically outgunned and undermanned, he simply gummed up the works and looked for a winner. Just like in that improbable playoff run in 2012, he should go back to the dreaded empty bucket for this game and pair Kitchen and Neal or Jeffery in front of the back four and play Rolfe and DeLeon ahead of them. That should staunch what NE wants to do as well as put Rolfe and DeLeon in roles that benefit them, less defense, more attacking further upfield.
Looking at the matchups, NE almost certainly will go with Bunbury at forward with Diego Fagundez and Saer Sene running wide of him. In midfield, Dorman, Lee Nguyen, and Kobayashi again if Kelyn Rowe isn’t back from injury quite yet. Then the defense will be Farrell, Goncalves, AJ Soares, and Chris Tierney in front of Bobby Shuttleworth going right to left. So, assuming Olsen trots out his preferred best XI that means DC does have some very favorable areas of the field to attack as well some concerns defensively, but overall the good outweighs the bad.

Going forward, EJ and Espy have to be considered a threat over Soares no matter how good the disgruntled Goncalves is. Especially if DC right back Sean Franklin and Rolfe on the right can get deep on Tierney as well as keep Dorman and Kobayashi in their half of the field. DeLeon and DC left back Christian Fernandez will have a much tougher row to hoe on their side of the farm with the powerful Farrell not only being tough to beat, but very tough to defend as well. But, all in all if DC plays their cards right, EJ or Espy will get isolated on Soares enough times to score a brace and that’s enough as long as DC keeps a tight ship defensively.

Granted, there are some concerns defensively. Bunbury is quite a handful of speed and power and if DC central defenders allow him to get into a footrace, they’re toast. But they can match his power with intelligence as well as keep the dynamic Sene and the slippery Fagundez and the crafty Nguyen at bay with their superior experience and positioning, with the help of Kitchen and Jeffery, as well as Franklin or Fernandez pinching in from time to time, then it’s game over. They do that and DC wins this by a goal. They defend like they did against Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Patrick Nyarko from the Fire, and DC is in trouble again.

Historically one of the oldest rivalries in MLS history, there has been any number of dramatic games between these two sides in RFK over the years. Typically, when DC was up in any particular season or run of seasons, NE was down or vice versa. But like the incredible 4-3 penalty kick playoff win in 2004 and the heartbreak of 2006, there have been some memorable results on those rare occasions when both were up or down at the same time. Usually, DC prevailed through the magic of Jaime Moreno, who was just a hair more successful than the Revs’ Taylor Twellman both 100 goal legends of the game, but there were of course the odd dumbfounding individual performances from unusual places like Francis Doe with an extremely unlikely brace for DC to beat them in last match of 2008, or the imperious Hristo Stoitchkov with a majestic goal in 2003 to snatch a point from defeat, etc.

No matter how you slice it, this is a toss up in predicting a winner. Both teams started the season in an underwhelming fashion, both managed their first goals and points of the season last week by tightening up their central midfield. Both have dynamic attackers prone to invisibility and stalwart defenders prone to mistakes.

Unfortunately, this is as easy as it gets for DC. United hosts New York next week, plays in Columbus the week after, then Dallas at home and Portland away. Three points against NE and DC has a chance to stymie an out of sorts NY and perhaps give the Crew a run for their money in their house. Then rebound against a schizophrenic Dallas and head into the inevitable Portland loss with a head of steam and perhaps some decent points.

On the flip side, a loss against NE and then NY and the Crew are that much more daunting. By the time Dallas gets here, the long knives on the season hopes could already be out. That’s what happens when you remake the team after the worst season in MLS history. You have to put up or expect the boobirds to come out. It does no good to plead for patience for your “new” team to gel if fans are looking at others in the league doing much better with as big a roster turnover. And the goodwill earned by doing the right things in the off season is emphatically negated if you’re virtually out of the playoffs by July. This team has to start winning now.

It starts tomorrow. (Fingers crossed)

Snap Shots – DC v Fire

DC United’s valiant come from behind effort was all for naught as the Fire’s Quincy Amerikwa’s redirect from the six-yard box in the 82nd minute leveled the match at 2-2 and spoiled the party for the announced crowd of 9,445 fans, the smallest league crowd at RFK in over five years.

DC United have now gone 15 matches without a win over the course of two seasons. United will next take aim at the New England Revolution who come to town next Saturday night at 7pm.

Photos: Martin Fernandez.

United acquires Eddie Johnson from Seattle Sounders – Caveat Emptor

D.C. United made a major offseason move yesterday with the acquisition of mercurial striker Eddie Johnson from the Seattle Sounders in exchange for allocation money. The U.S. International, who was instrumental in helping the U.S. qualify for the World Cup in Brazil next summer, was persona non grata in Seattle after the Sounders late-season collapse. Allegations of jealousy over contract status (his “Pay Me” celebration in a league match in Columbus in September certainly didn’t help matters) and locker room unhappiness have been laid at the feet of the talented striker. When the Sounders acquired Kenny Cooper last week in a trade with FC Dallas, that was the last straw for Johnson in Seattle.

United has been in dire need of a speedy goal-scoring forward since… well, forever actually and now they have one. Whether or not the current roster can supply Johnson with the necessary service from the wings is another matter altogether. The trade for Johnson certainly didn’t come cheap but it didn’t have to involve any players or United’s #1 pick in next months MLS SuperDraft. It’s unknown at this moment how much allocation money was sent Seattle’s way, but with an estimated $1.5 million dollars of allocation money accrued over these past few months for various reasons (you suck allocation; CONCACAF Champions League allocation; previous trades, etc..), the trade was a no-brainer in terms of bringing in the talent that Johnson possesses. United was not going to find another striker within MLS with Johnson’s talent without selling the farm. Additionally, it is being reported by the Washington Post that Johnson will play the 2014 season under his current contract cap hit of around $150,000 with the promise that a legitimate and fair negotiation with United Technical Director Dave Kasper will commence at some point during the season. What that means in a nutshell is that United most likely will re-sign Johnson to a multi-year contract that will make Johnson either a Designated Player or someone pretty close to DP money ($390,00 per season).

While Johnson will undoubtedly will help United out of their record-setting goal-scoring malaise in 2013, the also acquired a player with a built-in host of issues that could create some issues on and off the field for United. Johnson has a well decorated history of colorful behavior both on and off the field that could leave many United fans with legitimate concerns toward his ultimate effectiveness with the squad. While they desperately need a player of his ability – fast, great in the air and most important of all – a great finisher – is the juice worth the squeeze if Johnson falls back into some of his old habits that have hastened his departure from multiple clubs?

At this point, the answer to that question is a profound yes. This team was at an all-time low last season. Surely they could use some fire and passion in this team, be it from a player who has been known to rattle a few cages. Could they really do any worse than 3 wins and 22 goals scored with Johnson? I highly doubt it. Besides, Johnson at the very least does have some motivation to start scoring goals right from the start with United.

Johnson is far from a lock for the World Cup squad for the U.S in June. He’s a lot closer than players like Chris Wondolowski or Hercules Gomez for example, but he does need to keep his goal-scoring up to solidify his spot on the team and in my mind that only helps United. United will have Johnson in camp in early February after the U.S.’ match with South Korea in late January. That should give him a solid 4-5 weeks of training with his teammates to hopefully build on some cohesion heading into the MLS opener at RFK Stadium against the Columbus Crew on March 8th.

After the season begins, Johnson will have roughly 8 matches to play with United before leaving for training camp with the National Team ahead of the World Cup. What happens after his return from Brazil will be anyone’s guess at this point. Will we get the Eddie Johnson who came back to MLS in 2012 and earned his way back on the National Team or will we get the sulky Eddie Johnson who returned to MLS after the 2006 World Cup and labored with the Kansas City Wizards (in fairness to Eddie, he did bounce back in a big way in 2007 with 15 goals for the Wizards)?

Regardless, United has acquired a legitimate game-changer in terms of goal-scoring that they have not seen here in D.C. since the first incarnation of Luciano Emilio. I know Dwyane De Rosario came to town in the middle of 2011 and lit up MLS on the way to an MVP trophy, but we all knew in the back of our minds that DeRo was on his last legs and this past season certainly was proof of that.

It will be an interesting year for United that is certainly not in doubt. Will the addition of Johnson, Sean Franklin, Bobby Boswell, Fabian Espindola (rumored to be the #1 pick  for United today in the Re-Entry Draft Stage 2) and the #1 overall MLS SuperDraft pick next month (Maryland’s Patrick Mullins would be nice left-footed version of Chris Pontius if you ask me) be enough to propel United back into the playoffs? I guess we’ll just have to buy a ticket for this ride and see where it goes..

 

MLS announces new club on the eve of conference Semifinal matches

On the eve of the second leg of the MLS Cup Semi-finals Major League Soccer announced that Orlando City SC will become the newest member of the “club.” Orlando will join the league as the 21st MLS franchise and is set to debut, under a “purple banner,” in 2015.

Orlando will join the league’s 20th franchise, New York City FC, in league play at the same time. This is the first time since 1998 that MLS has added two clubs in one year. Back then the league added the Chicago Fire and the now defunct, Miami Fusion.

The excitement of the addition of MLS’s 21st franchise comes at a time when four teams remain in the hunt for the 2013 MLS Cup. Still in play are Real Salt Lake and the Portland Timbers in the West, and Sporting KC and the Houston Dynamo in the East.

Heading into their second legs respectively each team still is capable of advancing to the League’s premier event, but in my opinion, Real Salt Lake and Sporting KC hold the edge in their respective series.

Houston and Sporting will face off on Saturday November 23rd at 7:30 pm in Sporting Park to conclude their series. The teams have played to consecutive scoreless draws, including a 0-0 draw in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinal series and Kansas City has only won once against the dynamo in the last five meetings at Sporting Park. Coincidentally the win came in the second leg of last year’s Eastern Conference Semifinals – Houston would prevail 2-1 by virtue of their 2-0 win in the first leg.

The teams are obviously no strangers to each other and Kansas City looks poised to avenge their Semifinal loss from last year to advance to this year’s MLS Cup.

In the West, Real Salt Lake holds a slight advantage over the Portland Timbers as they head into the “confines” of Jeld-Wen Field in Portland, Oregon on Sunday November 24th at 9:00 pm. Real leads the series by virtue of their opening leg 4-2 win at Rio Tinto Stadium in Salt Lake City, UT.

All Kreis’ guys need to do is not loose by more than 1 goal (to avoid extra time) to a Portland team that has not lost a competitive match in their home field since March 9, when they fell 2-1 to the visiting Montreal Impact. For Portland, overturning a 2 goal deficit is by no means impossible, but they will have to accomplish something that has not been done since 2004 when the then Kansas City Wizards came back to defeat the San Jose Earthquakes 3-2 on aggregate to win the series.

Real holds the advantage by virtue of their 2 goal lead and the fact that Kreis’ squad is ready to forget this year’s Open Cup debacle.

If I were to place a bet on the official William hill website my money would be on a Sporting KC vs Real Salt Lake in the MLS Cup Final, with Sporting edging the boys from UT to win their Second MLS Cup, their first since becoming Sporting KC. A prediction I mad earlier this season on the UnitedMania.com Podcast.

United begins offseason housecleaning – Inside and Out

The bloodletting has begun. Not even a week after D.C. United closed what arguably will be the worst single-season by an MLS team in it’s 17-year history, the Black-and-Red have made moves on and off the field that have sent shockwaves through the United community.

The on-field moves made by United yesterday included the declining of team options on Dwayne De Rosario, Lionard Pajoy, Carlos Ruiz and Marcelo Saragosa. None of these moves comes as a surprise with the exception of De Rosario, team captain for most of his time on the field this season. While DeRo came up way short in terms of production on the field, it was a bit of a surprise that the team didn’t at least talk through the option of re-signing DeRo at a much lower rate than his reported $600,000 salary from this past season. Not coincidentally, all four of the players let go yesterday were all over 30 years of age. John Thorrington and Lewis Neal are the only players now on United’s books that are over 30 years old and both will most likely be retained in the offseason.

As for the others, it was a no-brainer as Pajoy, Ruiz and Saragosa were shells of their former selves. Some would argue differently for Pajoy’s case as he was clearly the fans and media’s #1 whipping boy for the failures of the 2013 edition of United. Pajoy was unconvincing pretty much during his entire run with United, but for some reason head coach Ben Olsen loved his workrate. It’s funny, I remember a conversation during an early season match for United that was televised on ESPN when play-by-play man Adrian Healey was mentioning a conversation he had with Olsen in regards to Pajoy when he said “Olsen really likes his high workrate”. Immediately color commentator Taylor Twellman shot back “well I prefer my forwards to score goals.”  That pretty much sums up everyones opinion on Pajoy and it really seemed a mystery why Olsen decided to hitch his wagon to him.

Ruiz was a shot in the dark that simply didn’t pan out. There were expectations that Ruiz’ experience would help United’s admittedly young striking corp (aside from Pajoy) but it never materialized and he became an afterthought for Olsen during the summer. Ruiz’ only contribution was a goal against Chivas de Guadalajara in an exhibition match midseason. After that Ruiz was a persona non grata once the on-loan addition of Conor Doyle came to be.

Imagine how Ruiz’ and United’s fortunes may have changed had Ruiz finished that sitter late against Real Salt Lake in the 2nd match of the season. Who knows? Maybe if Ruiz buries that chance, both he and United don’t begin a season-long funk in front of goal. Now of course it’s ridiculous to heap the blame of an entire season’s worth of ineptitude on the feet of Ruiz and a shot he buries 9 out of 10 times, but it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that a burst of confidence from that finish might have spurred United to a better outlook on the season rather than what became the customary “here we go again” scenario that unfolded too many times to count during the season when chances came begging that weren’t put away.

As for Saragosa, he was a solid peice of the late-season puzzle for United last year in the wake of the DeRo injury that put him out of the last 9 league matches (of which United went 7-0-2 to end the season). Saragosa however has always been a limited player aside from locking down the middle of the park and his injuries this season and subsequent unavailability made this an easy decision for the front office staff.

Now, speaking of the front office..

On Tuesday the team also announced that Doug Hicks (Cheif Marketing Officer), Aprile Pritchet (Community Relations – also in charge of United for DC charity) and Sarah Lerner (Communications Manager) were all let go. This news sent shockwaves through the media and Twitter was ablaze for about 5 hours after the late-afternoon announcement.

Hicks had been with the club for 13 seasons and was everpresent for any and all major announcements and was a true pro in his role as Communications Director for most of his time with United. On a personal level, I’ve dealt with Doug for over 10 years and he has been more than meets the eye on almost every occasion. Without knowing the inner workings of United, it seems on the face of things a terrible move by the ownership group. On the heels of major front office moves last season, which included the letting go of Communications Manager Kyle Sheldon, it makes you wonder what the Hell is going on over at United.

On the one hand, I understand if new onwnership comes in and wants to input their own personnel, that’s their prerogative as owners and truth be told, the front office has not been up to snuff from previous seasons. Season ticket sales are down and United just came off their worst attendance average in club history in just over 13,000 per game. Heads are gonna roll in situations like this but it doesn’t mean that I can’t disagree with them from the outside looking in. That’s my prerogative.

As for Aprile Pritchet and Sarah Lerner, not unlike my experiences with Doug, they have been very open and receptive to any of my minimal needs. It just doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense why good people are losing their jobs. Sarah was only with the team for two years but Apriel had been there a very long time as well. I wish all three of them good fortune in the future and hope to cross paths with them again one day.

In the end, United in two years have basically jettisoned every person I deal with from a media standpoint and it just doesn’t seem right to me. However, it’s not my decision and I will just have to buck up like every other media member who is as saddened as I am to see these good people let go.

One can only hope that their replacements are equally as accessible and professional as Doug, Aprile and Sarah were.

Getting back to the on the field product, it seems pretty clear that Olsen and his staff are cutting what they see as dead weight. This doesn’t mean that the contributions from the four aforementioned players won’t be forgotten anytime soon. DeRo after all did win an MLS MVP trophy and almost single-handidly carried United to a playoff berth in 2011. I think in many ways, everyone with a vested interest in United was hoping to see something similar from him this season after the team made a number of offseason moves that saw quite a few goals leave the team. DeRo obviously wasn’t up to the task and paying him a Designated Player salary just wasn’t sound business. Additionally, I think DeRo’s time had come. From the two-game suspension at the beginning of the season to the pouting about not starting matches when clearly his form was way off, he just wasn’t giving this team what it needed most, veteran leadership.

DeRo can still play in this league, just not for a team like United who is in major flux. DeRo would be a good addition to a veteran team next season, provided he’s okay with a reduced workload that also comes with a slight reduction in salary. Unfortunately, that is the climate for veteran players in MLS these days not named Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill or Robbie Keane.

The much maligned Lionard Pajoy actually did manage to carve out a few memorable moments in his brief time with United. He scored the lone goal in a 1-0 away win over Philadelphia during that streak late last season that kept United in the hunt for a top playoff seed. He also scored the game-tying goal in Chicago on the last day of the season that clinched 2nd place for United in the East. Had that goal not been scored, United would have been in the play-in game against Houston. I think we all know what would have happened had that panned out. And last but not least, he helped set up the series-winning goal against Red Bull last November that got United to the Eastern Conference final.

Obviously Saragosa and Ruiz’ contributions had much less impact than what DeRo and Pajoy had done during their time with United but that doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate the effort they put forth for United. These are tough decisions for teams but at the end of the day, they were the right moves to make going forward.

United still has a trip to Indonesia on the books in December and Technical Director Dave Kasper had said recently that the club was planning on taking a 22-man squad on the trip. Well, the releasing of these four players makes that decision that much easier.

All in all, I still think this team has a lot more moves up their sleeve. Let’s hope they make the right ones this time as clearly last season they did not on many fronts..