DC takes on NYCFC for the first time

League leading DC United stole three points in Montreal while New York City FC dropped their NY derby series with a clang.

On paper, you would think it’s a mismatch with one team winning in record breaking fashion and leading the Supporter’s Shield race handily as well, while the other is finding ways to lose in agonizing fashion and barely keeping in touch with the playoff race. Then again, you would think it’s a total mismatch the other way in terms of player salaries and pedigrees. But the reality is this game is nowhere near as easy to handicap and that and will be a lot closer than many DC fans would like to admit.

So NYCFC has two players who each make more than DC’s entire payroll and another player who makes more than all of DC’s starters combined. David Villa leads NYCFC in goals with 13 and has won a World Cup, European Cup, Champions League, etc. Chelsea legend Frank Lampard has also won everything there is to win except a World Cup and Andrea Pirlo is arguably the more decorated player than either of them and widely considered a genius in midfield. However, those bright lights also have one other thing in common in that they got absolutely spanked in their first game together in MLS last week when NY absolutely demolished NYCFC to sweep the NY derby and exposed the glaring weaknesses both in NYC’s lineup and especially in these aging superstars.

So, can the league leading team stroll into Yankee Stadium and do the same thing to NYC? In a word, no. DC might be running away with the East, but they were absolutely bolting out of Montreal like a thief in the night after that highway robbery. DC has set dubious league wide records in their last three matches and none of them are records DC is proud to have. The first team to give up goals in the first two minutes in back to back games, the first team to win back to back games from two goal deficits and perhaps the most damning of all, the first team to win a game with only one shot while being outshot 26-1. No, DC is riding a three game win streak, but is doing it with smoke and mirrors lately.

In particular the loss of forward Fabian Espindola is especially worrisome as it is been obvious for years that he is the key to DC’s offense and he is out again injured, this time with a knock to his knee last week which brings his season total to 14 games missed so far this year through suspension or injury. The addition of Costa Rican forward Alvaro Saborio will no doubt help once he’s fully integrated into the team, but it sure didn’t do any good in Montreal. He was so isolated up top that Stade Saputo might as well have been that island Tom Hanks washed up on in Castaway. He was banging all night looking for the ball, but it was pretty much crickets for him. The rumor is winger Nick DeLeon will be out as well after coming to life for his first goals in almost a year with two goals in his last three games which doesn’t help any either.

It will be interesting to see how DC coach Ben Olsen handles the missing starters too. Jairo Arrieta subbed in as Saborio’s forward partner in Montreal for DC’s first ever Costa Rican line but was ineffective. DeLeon’s typical replacement has been Conor Doyle, but outside of a wonder strike game winner in Chicago, he’s regressed offensively since moving to midfield and he was no great shakes to begin with. Despite a three game win streak, DC desperately needs a spark and I don’t see Arrieta or Doyle as being flint much less the spark needed. I suspect we’ll get Doyle and Arrieta as Olsen is nothing if not loyal to a fault, especially when winning, but it might not be the best way to stick the knife in NYC and keep them down.

Looking at the likely lineups, NYC coach Jason Kreis appears to have decided to play Lampard as more of a second forward than a midfielder and Andrea Pirlo as a statue admiring the play of others standing deep in midfield. No, just kidding. I think Kreis’ idea was to play his three superstars as the central attacking force in a 4-5-1, but NY’s tricky central midfield trio forced Pirlo and Lampard so far apart, the Maestro was collecting passes off the defenders feet far more often than he was picking out Lampard or Villa going forward. DC does not have the type of players or tactical formation to even attempt the same thing NY did, so I expect Kreis to go right back to the 4-5-1 and the same starters to see if it works better this time around. And to be sure, it is a small break, but DC likely gets another of their now usual lucky breaks by catching NYC before their lineup settles into a rhythm.

So, Villa will be the lone forward supported by Lampard and Pirlo centrally and with Mix Diskerud and Thomas McNamara on the wings leaving former DC midfielder Andrew Jacobsen as the lone defensive minded player in midfield. Across the defensive line should be Spanish right back Andoni Iraola, English youngster Shay Facey, Colombian Jefferson Mena, and Spanish teenager Angelino at let back in front of Josh Saunders. And make no mistake, this defense is much improved over the leaky paint bucket from earlier this year, Mena is a huge improvement over Hernandez and Watson-Siriboe despite his recent struggles, Iraola is solid, Facey athletic and becoming more consistent and Angelino is nothing short of brilliant as a left back defensively and offensively.

As I said, I expect Olsen to go with his tried and true Saborio and Arrieta at forward, Rolfe, Arnaud, Kitchen, and Doyle in for DeLeon in midfield. Maybe Pontius is ready to start, but I don’t think he risks it this early from a long layoff especially given Pontius’ history. And maybe Olsen gets frisky and sits Arrieta to start Rolfe as forward and brings in Aguilar but I doubt it. Could be a Halsti sighting too in place of Arnaud, but I seriously doubt that as well. Defense almost certainly will be Taylor Kemp, Steve Birnbaum, Bobby Boswell, and Chris Korb in front of Bill Hamid. Maybe Sean Franklin gets a start for Korb but I doubt that for the same reason as Pontius. I get the idea of letting the Costa Ricans work on improving their chemistry, but for this particular game a better spark might be to start Facundo Coria as that second forward as he has a bit more elegance and flair to his attacks while Arrieta relies more on craftiness and violence. Another spark might be to play Kemp as a midfielder and bring in Kofi Opare as left back. That would allow Rolfe to push up as well as get Kemp closer to goal as well while at the same time helping to negate the all-out attacking of Diskerud or McNamara.

No matter what though, this game will be won in the center of the field. If DC’s midfield can keep Lampard and Pirlo back and under control, NY will only score through a mistake or a set piece. If DC cedes possession like they normally do and allow Pirlo and Lampar plenty of touches in the attack, DC will be in real trouble. Lampard got free around the edge of the box three times against NY and uncharacteristically missed. Pirlo sent two or three brilliant through balls that were just cut out. If DC gives them the kind of room they gave Piatti and Donadel in Montreal, they will punish DC. Offensively, DC might well struggle to score, but NYC has shown they will make mistakes and clearly haven’t settled in as a unit together.

There’s no history to mention as this is a first ever meeting. DC is not exactly hot, but they are winning. The theft of three points in Montreal improved DC’s road record to 4-6-2, but only 2-5-2 recently. NYC has struggled at home Lost their last home game to Montreal 3-2, but thrashed Orlando 5-3 before that and with a 4-4 tie to TFC before that have scored 11 goals in their last three home games. However, they are 3-5-4 at home and have given up 3 or more goals in their last 4 home games.

So there you have it. This has all the earmarks of a tough game for DC. United has a very good defense that has been poor or lucky lately and an offense that has been shocking or invisible. Lately, NYC is scoring in bunches and giving them up just as often. So, I expect Olsen to button up the ship away from home and hope to force NYC into mistakes they seem prone to make. On the other hand NYC is scary good offensively and is starting to seriously settle down defensively. I can’t see DC shutting them out. I would expect NYC to get at least two given the way DC gives away possession, so they’ll have to score three to win it. With Espindola, maybe that happens, without him I suspect the soccer gods have to get involved to get DC the win. A 2-2 tie seems most likely, but it could very well be one of those wild and wacky games on that band box of a field in NY.

DC Heads to Montreal looking to tighten up their game

It’s been a wild and wacky two games for league leading DC United as their normally tight defense has been leaking like a sieve, but incredibly their moribund offense emerged from the stone age to make up for it.

DC is riding a two game win streak despite falling behind early and giving up six goals total in those games because they have suddenly found their offense to the tune of nine goals scored to make up for those uncharacteristic defensive lapses. To put their last two games in perspective, DC had scored only 24 goals in 22 games, but spent the better part of the season leading the East because they only gave up 20 goals heading into the last two weeks. Apparently the trade for Alvaro Saborio put that strategy on its ear because as soon as Sabo took the field, DC began spilling goals like a leaky paint bucket, but scoring them like a Pakistani Cricket team. From scoring barely a goal a game, DC scored an average of 4.5 goals a game in the last two games. DC had only allowed 2 goals against 3 times (NY twice, TFC) in 21 games until allowing Philly 2 and RSL 4 the past two weeks, and giving up 2 goals in Dallas the week before that.

However, there is no doubt United coach Ben Olsen will be looking to ratchet down the bolts on the defense particularly early in games, while hoping for continued offense albeit perhaps not averaging the unlikely 4.5 goals a game they have scored the last two games.

Fixing the defense should be both easy and likely. It’s not like DC has forgotten how to play defense after being arguably the best defensive team in the league the past two years with pretty much the same players. No. DC has simply gotten away from their normally aggressive style of defense. By no means the most physically imposing group, the defense has made its bones by being aggressive as well as positioning themselves intelligently. If you look at the goals scored lately, almost all are scored on defenders who are in position for the most part, but they are laying off players too much or simply getting out muscled. It’s not a case of DC defenders getting caught upfield, there’s plenty of guys back defending, they just aren’t making the plays they need to make and have made all year. DC has to stop giving so much room to players on the ball in the offensive third of the field and they have to be in there scrapping with elbows and teeth while they’re at it. Starting from the opening whistle to boot. They are not good enough to make up for playing any other way. Smart and scrappy is their mantra and they need to get back to it.

Oddly enough I think keeping the offense rolling might be the more difficult task. DC has caught two teams pretty unprepared for the change that Saborio brought to DC’s offense and I think that is likely to change as teams adjust now that they have some startling game film to catch their attention. Saborio is a pure number 9 and he occupies the center backs which allows room for Fabian Espindola to play off him on the fringes of the attack as well as provides room for Chris Rolfe and Nick DeLeon to operate without so many players collapsing on them. Both Philly and RSL play with one defensive minded player in midfield and that got exposed badly so look for teams to clean up those areas when playing DC. Perhaps by intentionally playing one back on Saborio and pushing the other up, or by shifting another midfielder into the channels or whatever fits their style, but I expect teams to adjust.

That said, DC should still score goals and very likely go back to stopping them too, just not at the ridiculous levels we’ve seen lately.

So, looking at the likely lineups, DC does catch their usual huge break as Montreal will be missing their star central defender, Laurent Ciman due to suspension as well as very likely dodging the Didier Drogba bullet as the newly signed legendary former Chelsea sniper isn’t likely to play much if at all. Montreal is also dealing with a glut of games lately too. The DC match will be their third of four games in eleven days albeit all but the first one is at home. So, with all that in mind I expect Montreal coach Frank Klopas to go with his usual 4-2-3-1 with Dominic Oduro as the lone forward with Argentine Playmaker Ignaccio Piatti playing underneath him with Dilly Duka and Andres Romero on the left and right wings respectively. Italian hard man Marco Donandel is back from suspension to partner with Scottish teeth rattler Calum Mallace in the defensive roles in front of Montreal’s back four. The defense should be homegrown Donny Toia on the left, Cameroonian Ambroise Oyongo and likely Wandrille Lefevre replacing Ciman in the center, and Victor Cabrera on the right in front of goalkeeper Evan Bush.

For DC, I fully expect the same starting XI for the third game in a row, although I wouldn’t be surprised if one change is made, but more on that later. Olsen will certainly play his usual 4-4-1-1 with Sabo up top and Espindola roaming freely. In midfield, I expect Rolfe, Davy Arnaud, Perry Kitchen, and Nick DeLeon playing left to right and in defense it will surely be Taylor Kemp, Bobby Boswell and Chris Korb as Sean Franklin remains out with Achilles tendonitis. However, while I think Olsen will stay with Steve Birnbaum in the center of defense with Boswell, it wouldn’t surprise me if Kofi Opare gets a start over Birnbaum either. Birnbaum has been the prime offender in playing soft and loose lately and that can’t happen given Oduro’s speed and the scrappiness of Duka and Romero. Olsen is loyal longer than one would expect, but Opare is a better option if Birnbaum needs some time on the pine to get his head right. We’ll see.

So, looking at the matchups and likely tactics this game is going to be very close and could go either way. Both teams like to cede possession and seek to counter-attack. Offensively, Saborio and Espindola are strong and crafty enough to cause problems for Oyongo and Lefevre who was less than impressive earlier this year as the starter before losing his job to Oyongo. However, Donadel and Mallace are very good at clogging up the middle and forcing turnovers, something DC doesn’t need any help doing on their own, so DC will need to be efficient on the chances they do get. The key may well be who controls the wings better and keeps their opposite number playing defense more than they’d like. If so, Romero could cause big problems for Kemp requiring Rolfe to help which will keep Rolfe from exploiting Cabrera, Montreal’s weakest defender, as much as he should. Same thing with DeLeon and Korb. Duka has been very dynamic this year and will pin Korb back, so DeLeon will have to pick and choose his spots to attack Toia who is a solid player.

Defensively, obviously Piatti is the key to their attack. He pulls the strings in midfield and is another reason why Opare might be the better option. Opare’s physicality and range pushing up from the backline would be more effective than sticking Kitchen on Piatti and keeping him buried back in front of the backline. That also leaves Arnaud pretty much alone keeping tabs on Donadel and Mallace scooting forward which is perhaps not such a good tactic either. It’s OK if Arnaud and Kitchen get pinned back as long as Rolfe and DeLeon can get forward, but that could turn on a dime against DC too, especially as Montreal has real speed in their counter-attacking and DC does not. Also, if Drogba comes in he could be a nightmare for Boswell should Montreal need a goal late. He is brutally precise in forcing mistakes and could be the kind of physical force not seen in MLS since Mamadou Diallo.

At least DC has some success up there in Montreal lately. DC tied the last time they visited, and trounced the Impact 4-1 the visit before that behind a Silva hat trick and Nick DeLeon scoring the winner. DC also squeaked by Montreal in the first game of this season here at RFK. Overall, DC is 3-2-2 against the Impact, but 3-1-2 since losing the very first game against them in Montreal back in 2012. Which is good because DC is an abysmal 3-6-2 on the road considering their position leading the league in points, an even worse 1-5-2 since beating Vancouver back in April with only a 1-0 win in Chicago in the last 3.5 months. Montreal on the other hand is 6-2-1 at home so far this year and 6-1-0 since Portland snuck out of Montreal with all the points in early May. NYCFC three weeks ago is the only team to beat Montreal at home in the past 3 months, and Montreal has shut out 3 of their 4 four opponents at home as well, while DC has been shut out 6 of their last 9 road games.

So there you have it, DC can certainly surprise Montreal in their house, but while I think Sabo and Espy will combine to score one, I see Montreal getting one of their own most likely from Piatti getting loose in the defense as he’s bound to do at least once or twice. And that’s assuming DC tightens up the ship on defense of course. If they continue to lay off players and let themselves get beat physically, then they will have to hope to keep outscoring teams, and while that is possible against Montreal with Ciman conveniently being out of the lineup, it is certainly not the recipe for success Olsen is looking for.

DC host suddenly relevant Real Salt Lake

Some home cooking against Philly snapped DC back on track while a listless RSL suddenly looks a lot more relevant after a couple of solid wins at home over Houston and Kansas City.

To say this summer has been a bit under the weather for DC is perhaps an understatement considering their torrid start to the season. Recently reeling from last minute losses and baffling mistakes United has had to rely on the cushion they built up earlier to retain their handle on the East until a massive morale boosting comeback win over the Philadelphia Union after a shocking opening four minutes. RSL has had a much different journey so far, a desultory 2-2-5 start to the season has morphed into a 3-5-3 record since then until a couple big wins at home has suddenly shot them into respectability again. DC has relied on their tried and true 4-4-2 to help keep the ship above the waves while dealing with crucial injuries and suspensions, while RSL has revamped their vaunted 4-4-2 diamond into a much less reliable 4-3-3 which has only recently begun to gel.

Interesting to note that perhaps the biggest loser in RSL’s transition to three forwards has been Costa Rican target man Alvaro Saborio and deemed expendable he was shipped off to DC last week in return for the very talented but somewhat fragile Luis Silva. The two principles in this recent trade will face each other for the first time barely a week later. Well, they would if the oft injured Silva was healthy but he’s not. Adding another twist to this matchup is DC MVP Fabian Espindola being reunited with Saborio who was his strike partner in RSL for 3 years. To be sure, DC is a much different team than those RSL teams from 2010-2012, but both players should be well motivated for revenge on the team that deemed them expendable for guys like Joao Plata, Sebastian Jaime and Devin Sandoval.

Both teams are a bit banged up with RSL’s defense being hideously thin while DC is surviving on their fairly impressive depth. DC is without Eddie Johnson (essentially retired at this point), Chris Pontius (calf), Sean Franklin (achilles tendinitis), and Bill Hamid (hand and knee surgeries) while RSL’s offense has recently gotten healthier with the return of Joao Plata, but their defense still lacks former defender of the year, Jamison Olave (Quad), Chris Schuler (knee), dynamic left back Demar Philiips (groin), and perennially unrecognized goalkeeper of the year Nick Rimando (knee bruise). However, both teams are well rested and should be able to start the lineups that have seen them surge back into form recently.

For DC, I fully expect coach Ben Olsen to start the exact same XI from the Philly win, which means a repeat lineup for only the second time this season by the way. So Saborio and Espindola as forwards supported by Chris Rolfe, Davy Arnaud, Perry Kitchen, and Nick DeLeon in midfield. The backline will consist of Taylor Kemp, Steve Birnbaum, Bobby Boswell, and Chris Korb in front of the brewer Andrew Dykstra in goal. Now perhaps Kofi Opare gets the nod over the suddenly suspect Birnbaum or maybe there is a rare Markus Halsti sighting, but I doubt it. Olsen is pretty reliable with sticking with his guns particularly when they chalk up points.

RSL is a bit more tricky. No doubt RSL coach Jeff Cassar sticks to his 4-3-3 as he appears ready to sink or swim on that formation and the jury is still out on whether anyone tosses him a job preserver on that one yet. However, he has some options along all three lines as he really hasn’t hit on a great mix just yet. For sure, Devin Sandoval will be the center forward and Joao Plata starts as a wing forward, but whether it’s Sebastian Jaime or Olmes Garcia as the other wing is a coin flip. Same with midfield. No doubt Javier Morales and Kyle Beckerman are two of the three, but whether it’s Luis Gil, Luke Mulholland or John Stertzer is a bit up in the air. Gil is the more talented, but Mulholland or Stertzer provides MUCH better balance to that trio. Even as thin as they are on defense, Cassar has another devil if you do choice to make there. Tony Beltran and Abdoulie Mansally are the sure starters on the outside and Aaron Maund will play a central role, but his partner in central defense could either be Salvadoran Elias Vasquez or impressive rookie Justen Glad. Vasquez has the much bigger pedigree and obvious skills, but Glad has surprisingly been the more effective player. There’s no doubt Jeff Attinella plays in goal though as he is the unquestioned backup to St. Nick.

So, looking at the matchups and tactics this game will be interesting as DC’s 4-4-2 should be able to frustrate RSL’s 4-3-3 on paper alone. Indeed the 4-4-2 is designed to create numbers advantages up the middle to both thwart the “creative” player advantage as well as unbalance the opposing defense with wide play. So, if Barcelona’s 4-3-3 plays Chelsea’s 4-4-2, it’s a matter of attrition and key plays and much to the dismay of the world the stifling 4-4-2 seems to win out more often than not. However, DC does not have the difference makers Chelsea has and RSL certainly doesn’t have the attacking talent of Barca. DC tends to cede possession and rely on counter attacks, while RSL seeks to dictate the pace of the game and pressure high to keep the ball in the other team’s end looking for ball movement to create holes to exploit.

Looking at it that way, the matchups become a lot more crucial. DC needs to keep the pressure going wide down both sides to force RSL apart both to pry them open and to keep them from being close enough for their quick passing to shred DC’s somewhat slow and extremely reactive defense. If DC can keep Korb and Kemp upfield forcing Mulholland or Gil, and even Plata and Jaime or Garcia back, RSL will be reduced to hoping for the odd bit of brilliance from Morales or a DC mistake to even score anything at all. However, if RSL can keep Mulholland and Gil or Stertzer high up the field pinning Arnaud and Kitchen back as well as DC’s wide players, United will be in trouble. That said, Espindola and Rolfe are a couple of the most vicious counter attackers the league has ever seen and if Saborio occupies RSL’s weak central defenders enough to knock down balls to DC attackers coming from deep, or simply keeps them on the back foot allowing Espy and Rolfe the room to dissect them like frogs, DC could cede possession and still win 4-0. That’s if the game is played straight up, if Cassar gets tricky and adjusts back to their old diamond with Beckerman sitting in front of the back line, maybe they fare better, but no matter how you slice it DC has the tactical and matchup advantages in this one. (knock wood!)

On top of that, DC is undefeated against RSL in RFK. That’s right RSL has never won in DC and there’s been some cracking wins over the years too. Gallardo’s wicked inch perfect volley and DeRo’s first half hat trick come to mind right away, both 4-1 wins. DC is 5-0-3 outscoring RSL 17 to 5 in RFK since they entered the league in 2007. (That’s only fair as DC hasn’t won in Salt Lake since Freddy scored the winner in 2007 by the way.) Obviously, DC has been light’s out at home lately with an 8-1-3 record so far this year. The only loss since last June was to Giovinco although it’s important to note that DC also hasn’t shut out anyone at home since the Crew in early May and has given up 2 goals 2 of their last 3 in RFK (the Philly win and the TFC loss) still, DC has outscored visitors by a healthy 21-12 goal margin. RSL on the other hand is a horrific 2-6-2 on the road being outscored 16-6 which is made even worse when you consider they went 1-0-2 to start their road campaign. They’ve been 1-6-0 since outscored 11-3 since their last road win in Chicago in early May.

So there you have it. DC has every advantage on paper and should prevail as long as the soccer gods keep their noses out of it. We’ll see. RSL is the far more desperate team and that sometimes skews the results. DC leads the East comfortably by 7 points and shouldn’t be too ruffled by RSL’s visit especially considering their road record. RSL on the other hand is in a right dogfight in the West simply to remain relevant now that they have come within sight of the playoffs. A win would see them above the playoff line depending on other results, but a desperately needed 3 points to be sure. Still, you gotta go with the magic of a Ben Olsen led team in RFK. Seems like it takes more to beat DC in their house these past couple years.

DC Hosts Surging Union

DC United clings to the top of MLS despite recent slump and hopes to keep the suddenly respectable Philadelphia Union at bay.

An early season surge with a glut of home games and good results against the fairly weak East has vaulted DC United to the top of the league despite crucial injuries and suspensions, but DC appears to be coming back to earth while dregs of the East seem to be dragging themselves back into contention.

OK, it’s been almost a month since Conor Doyle’s wonderstrike stunned Chicago and delivered DC a road win that cemented their place at the top of the East 10 points clear of anyone, but since then DC has failed to score in Toronto and Seattle and only scraped one own goal in a three game winless streak with two losses on the trot. Philly on the other hand has gone from one win in their first eleven games to five wins in their last ten games plus ousting DC from the US Open Cup with only ten men a couple weeks ago.

With their attack withering on the vine and leading scorer Fabian Espindola failing to stay on the field enough to keep DC’s anemic attack afloat, United dealt away a key scorer from last season in Luis Silva the talented but oft injured striker, for the aging sniper and perennial scorer Costa Rican Alvaro Saborio from RSL and he should be available for DC for this match. The acquisition of Saborio reunites the strike partnership of Real Salt Lake that saw them dominate the West for 4 years, but both players are well removed from those times to say the least.

After a dreadful start to the season, Philly has also made a key trade this week by moving right back Sheanon Williams, who had lost his spot to Raymond Gaddis, to Houston essentially for cash in order to upgrade their roster, but that trade has yet to play out. DC might well catch another break as Philly will head into this match woefully thin on defense with the loss of a dynamic right back in Williams for the roster and salary cap room to bring in a difference maker such as Swiss winger Tranquillo Barnetta who has yet to sign with the team and won’t be available this weekend even if he does sign after this article is posted.

MLS has a new rule involving acquiring new players by paying down salaries on existing players which in effect allows a fourth DP player for teams willing to splash out money such as LA, NYFC, etc. However, it will is having a knock on effect for lower budget teams being able to get premium players for bargains from teams who have their eye on bigger fish. No chance RSL cuts loose Saborio or Philly jettisons Williams unless they have their eye on a much bigger prize with the new “targeted allocation money” which is the newest MLS Calvinball mechanism for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer. But that is a rant for another day.

OK, time for nuts and bolts. DC is reeling lately with no rhyme or reason to their offense and while they have a ridiculously stiff defense, you simply can’t put up zeros every weekend in today’s MLS. Espindola has been making United respectable for going on two years and Olsen has been doing it with smoke and mirrors this year while Fabi has been suspended/hurt/susupended again. However, Fabi is back and he will be able to take a different role now that a true “number 9” striker has been acquired in Saborio. Fabi himself has stated since the trade that he relishes the chance to play more on the fringes of the offense now that Sabo is here to occupy the central defenders, something Olsen required of Espindola this past couple years and something he is not really suited to do albeit he did it effectively.

So, the question is how will this trade change DC United’s anemic attack and yet not disrupt its lights out defense, and how will this play out against Philly?

First of all, DC plays a defense first counter-attacking style which seeks to frustrate an opponent and pounce on any mistakes looking for goals on counters or set plays. Saborio obviously helps on set plays, but he may well help in forcing mistakes too. He’s no where near as nimble as younger guys like Silva or Rolfe or Arrieta as a forward, but then again, he will play higher up forcing those guys to play quicker and allowing guys like Espindola and Rolfe to snag mistakes and/or have a guy to finish their plays. Espindola and Rolfe both are excellent whipping dangerous balls into the box, but unfortunately unless they are the ones on the end of those balls, they are often wasted. But Saborio changes all that. He is a finisher. Granted a couple years past his prime, but he is a dagger in the box the likes of which DC hasn’t seen since Luciano Emilio and that’s not a far-fetched comparison to a former MLS MVP. Saborio has the same skill set. If he gets the chances, he will convert. The question is will he get the chances. DC does not exactly light up the league in chances.

So let’s break it down. DC will most likely start Saborio and Espindola as forwards, and I fully expect Rolfe, Davy Arnaud, Perry Kitchen, and Nick DeLeon to play midfield going from left to right. Then Taylor Kemp, Steve Birnbaum, Bobby Boswell, and Chris Korb to play defense from left to right in front of Andrew Dykstra in for the ailing Bill Hamid. Philly almost certainly goes with CJ Sapong as the lone forward in front of Andrew Wenger, Cristian Maidana, Vincent Noguiera, Brian Carroll, and Sebastian LeToux in midfield as that is their unquestioned strongest attacking combination, although Venzuelan banger Fernando Aristoguieta and speedy Cameroon midfielder Eric Ayuk could sneak in there as well. In defense, Carroll sweeps up in front of Fabinho, Maurice Edu, Ethan White, and Gaddis, but White and Edu both picked up knocks in their Open Cup win over NY in midweek. Both could play, but Steven Vitoria is creeping back to fitness and the big Portugese Canadian is a force. No doubt former NASL keeper Brian Sylvestre starts in goal however despite fourteen high dollar keepers on Philly’s roster.

So, looking at the matchups and likely tactics, this looks like a bruiser of a game with likely a last man standing more so than a team running away with a win. DC will seek to cede possession but shut down Philly while looking to counter against their relatively weak defense. This will be a good test of what Saborio will bring to DC as he and Espindola could easily find joy against Edu and whoever in central defense assuming they get some type of service. And that is the question as Philly’s midfield looks too strong for DC to handle. Rolfe will hold his own of course against Gaddis, but is almost certainly going to need to help out Kemp contain LeToux or Ayuk so his help in the attack could be negated. DeLeon and Korb against Wenger and Fabinho is more promising, but those are the two most inconsistent and weakest attackers DC has. Perhaps Kitchen and Arnaud outplay Maidana, Noguiera and Carroll, but I doubt it.

DC has a strong defense though which will frustrate Philly. I don’t see Sapong or Aristoguieta unsettling Boswell and Birnbaum that much. LeToux and/or Ayuk’s speed could panic Korb or Kemp depending on what side he plays but unless he scores himself which he did against DC earlier this year, he still has to set up a guy to beat Boswell which hasn’t happened all that often this year.

Bottom line is that Philly’s slightly better offense has to beat DC’s much better defense more often than DC’s slightly weaker offense has to beat a philly defense that has been shown to cave under pressure much more often. Philly has barely scored more than DC at 26 goals to 24, but DC is the second best defense in the league, 20 goals against in 22 games, while Philly is the absolute worst defense in the league with 34 goals against in 20 games.

Good that the current season metrics favor DC as the intangibles and current trends certainly don’t. DC lost to 10 man Philly in the Open Cup a couple weeks ago as well as lost to them in Philly on a last minute goal two months ago to start their current swoon of six losses in twelve games. That win also helped Philly from only one win on the season to their current surge of five wins in their last ten games. DC did eek out a sketchy win in RFK a couple weeks later, but the less said about that the better. DC has owned Philly at home 3-1-3 in RFK against their closest rival to the north, but it hasn’t been quite convincing of late with the PK controversy last time Philly visited and the 1-0 win in 2014 and the 2-3 loss in 2013.

Bottom line, DC should be able to shutout Philly. The only question is will DC score to win it. This would be a good time for Saborio to step up and show why it is they got him.

Kitchen Juggles

Kitchen Juggles

DC travels to Toronto for tricky tilt

Red hot TFC hosts recently resurgent DC United with both teams coming off big wins over Eastern conference rivals in the mid-week.

League leading DC United extended their lead in the Supporter’s Shield race when they topped the abysmal Chicago Fire 1-0 on the road mid-week playing pretty much their B side, but DC will be looking for their A team to keep the ball rolling in Toronto. However, TFC might well be the most feared team in the league right now coming off a big time 3-1 rout of Montreal at home for their fourth win in their last five matches. A game in which Sebastion Giovinco furthered his argument for MLS MVP and which saw all three of their designated players score a goal for the first time in MLS history.

In the third of a wicked stretch of 5 matches in 12 days the last 4 of which are on the road, United coach Ben Olsen took the chance to rest a ton of his starters when facing the last place Fire in Chicago. The gamble paid off when the Fire played like a last place team allowing reserve Conor Doyle to strike a venomous volley to win it late in the match. Regular starters Fabian Espindola, Chris Rolfe, Nick DeLeon, Davy Arnaud, Perry Kitchen, Taylor Kemp, and Chris Korb all were rested or played very little in Chicago which means those A players should all be available to start in Toronto. It appears Olsen will be without Sean Franklin and Chris Pontius again however.

Toronto coach Greg Vanney has had little of the same schedule congestion since they are long since bounced from the Canadian Championship (Canada’s version of the Open Cup), and having already endured a long stretch on the road while BMO field was revamped earlier this year. So while TFC is indeed at the end of 3 games in 8 days, it’s their first such stretch for them all season and all of those games have been at home to boot. Considering TFC is set to lose Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Jonathan Osorio, and Ashtone Morgan for the Gold Cup, I have no doubt all of those guys play this last home game before they leave, especially as Vanney’s defense remains dinged up with projected starters Steven Caldwell and Mark Bloom still out as they have been most of the year.

With all that in mind, I think it very likely Olsen starts Espindola at forward and continues to tinker a little bit with a true 4-5-1 lineup that he has been using out of necessity lately, but might very well be a key to shutting down the explosive TFC as well as taking advantage of their relatively weak central defense. The makeup of that five man midfield should be interesting however. No question Chris Rolfe and Nick DeLeon start at the wide positions and it is equally certain that Perry Kitchen and Davy Arnaud will play centrally, but that third attacking midfielder/second forward slot is up in the air a bit. Team second leading scorer Jairo Arrieta has been starting quite a bit lately and should probably be considered an A player at this point, but he has to be gassed considering the minutes he’s played the past two weeks. As for Luis Silva, the only thing he has shown coming back from injury lately is his inability to play midfield at all, or even be very effective as a second forward, so I doubt he starts either. I think Olsen pulled Facundo Coria first from the Fire match with the idea he starts underneath Espindola in this match as the point man of that central midfield trio.

Starting in DC’s defense will almost certainly be Kemp and Korb bookending Kofi Opare and either Bobby Boswell or Steve Birnbaum. I think Birnbaum gets the nod both to keep the aging Boswell from playing on that turf and giving him some rare time off, but also to give a boost in confidence to Birnbaum who has been taking one for the team lately playing out of position as right or left back. Birnbaum is a competent defender no doubt about it, but he has not looked comfortable playing a wide role and he deserves a vote of confidence by playing him in his natural role in the center. Opare almost has to start given the speed and physicality of Altidore, and Luke Moore as well should he play. Birnbaum is a good complement to him especially in the air to combat the long balls and crosses TFC like to put into the box. Boswell could do it too of course, but Birnbaum has that bit of still youthful athleticism over Boswell’s smarts. Of course none of that matters if Bill Hamid in goal keeps dismissively slapping away shots like a water buffalo twitching away flies on the Serengeti.

TFC will use a 4-4-1-1 similar to the formation they used to break DC’s long home unbeaten streak three weeks ago, but this time Bradley will be available and Altidore will be healthy. Altidore almost certainly starts at forward with Giovinco in that second forward role. Osorio, Benoit Cheyrou, Bradley, and likely Warren Crevalle should start left to right across midfield for the Reds. Possibly Vanney uses Jackson instead of Crevalle to be more dynamic in the attack, or even Collen Warner to be more defensive, but I think those options will be used off the bench depending on the situation. Morgan, Eriq Zavaleta, Damien Perquis, and Justin Morrow should be the defense going left to right in front of goalkeeper Chris Konopka.

So. Looking at the matchups and styles, DC has their work cut out for them even if their A players bring their A game. DC’s five man midfield should go a long way toward shutting down Giovinco who killed them in that loss earlier this year as well as providing some cover for DC’s wing backs Korb and Kemp who can get caught out from time to time. In particular Rolfe has shown the endline to endline effectiveness Olsen demands from his wide players and he should be matched up with Osorio both to negate the Canadian’s attacks, but also to force him to defend which he doesn’t really want to do. DeLeon has been the second best wide midfielder for DC this year. Not as dynamic or precise in the attack as Rolfe, nor as timely or consistent in defense either, but he is active on both sides of the ball and will pop up in the attack from time to time, as well as get in the way defensively if nothing else. Certainly enough to outplay Crevalle and hold his own against Jackson or the teeth rattler Warner.

But this game will be decided right down the center of the field. Opare and Birnbaum or Boswell can certainly handle Altidore at least as well as anyone in the league can handle the best forward America has right now, especially if Arnaud, Kitchen, and Coria can maintain some sort of control over Giovinco, Cheyrou and Bradley. Admittedly that’s a tall task, but DC has shown they can be stingy so it’s possible. Still, no matter what, you gotta figure those guys get one at minimum and two goals more likely, so DC has to figure to score at least two to pinch a draw.

Which is where Espindola, Rolfe and the clever Coria come in going against TFC’s suspect defense. Perquis and Zavaleta scare no attacker in the league and Espy is easily wily enough to force a mistake or punish a missed assignment from either of them all by himself. But if Rolfe and Coria can combine with him often enough to keep Bradley way back defending, it helps DC’s defense as well as maybe turns possession in DC’s favor which will allow Kemp and DeLeon to pressure Morrow and Morgan respectively, DC might well get those two goals they will need. Cheyrou bossed the midfield and didn’t allow that from DC last time, but Coria could be the wild card in this one. Definitely a tough task and maybe even unlikely to boot, but certainly possible.

Which is good because the intangibles don’t favor DC at all unless you consider ancient history or hope the soccer gods get involved. As mentioned, TFC is hot coming off their fourth win in the last five matches, but they have also won three of their last four at home, two out of the last three by 3-1 scorelines. TFC is a respectable 3-2-0 at home having outscored visitors 8-6 altogether in those 5 matches and only being shut out once. TFC did lose 0-2 to NYCFC at home recently, but an early PK in that game, a lack of Altidore for most of the match, and a mighty performance by Josh Saunders in the nets for NYC had a lot to do with that. Also, while DC did eek out that win in Chicago, they remain 3-4-1 on the road having only scored 5 goals and given up 7 in those 8 matches. DC is 12-7-3 all-time versus TFC and 7-4-0 in BMO field, but most of that came in the early bad old days of TFC. DC has lost to TFC 1-2 earlier this year, and lost 1-2 last time they visited BMO field as well. The last visit before that in 2013, a C team got crushed 1-4 in Toronto three days before DC won the US Open Cup title in Salt Lake.

So, there you have it. Toronto should be favored for sure, but DC has shown they are a tough out and can grind out points in tough spots, especially if Hamid puts on his cape, so maybe a draw is within reach in this one. DC’s has seen red cards in Vancouver and NE boost them to four unlikely points on the road. They have seen stunning goals from out of the blue in Orlando and Chicago scrape out wins in games against weaker opponents. But they have also squandered points in Orlando, Portland, Philly, and got thumped in NY. All those games they kept tight however, and at least once a year DC drops a 0-3 clanger somewhere on the road and I can’t help thinking this will be it. Usually, the clanger comes in Seattle, LA, RSL or someplace else in the West, a 2-5 loss in SJ comes to mind as well. But every once in a while it comes in the East. Chicago, Columbus, even Houston when they were in the East have all dropped big ones on DC. United has yet to really lay an egg on the road this year and despite the A team, I think this might well be it.

Still, with a four point cushion on Seattle and Vancouver, even a loss keeps DC in the league lead until at least next week (but the Sounders and ‘Caps both have two games in hand), and DC holds an even tighter grip on the East with a 10 point lead on NE (who have one game in hand). However, every team in the East holds games in hand on DC, who have played more games than anyone in the league. Toronto holds a whopping five games in hand and Montreal a mind boggling six games for example.

DC’s long road trip starts in Chicago

DC just snapped a two game losing streak with a home win over NE, but now head out for four straight on the road starting with the Fire who have lost three straight in MLS.

United is fresh off a rousing 2-1 come from behind win over hated rivals New England that saw DC leap to the top of MLS two points clear of the Cascadia combo of Seattle and Vancouver. But having played eleven of their first eighteen matches at home, United’s long summer of travel starts in Chicago where DC hasn’t won since 2009 when Bryan Namoff scored the winner two weeks before a concussion that would end his career, and where United has only won three times since Toyota Park opened in 2006. The Fire, on the other hand, are reeling through a difficult season that currently sees them at the bottom of the league having lost five of their last eight games including a 3-1 loss to DC a few week ago in RFK.

So while this is a top versus bottom clash that you would normally think favors the top team, given the situation, it may not play out that way. Starting with DC’s ridiculous schedule and travel along with still some key injuries and a suspension, United coach Ben Olsen will have some tough choices to make for his starting lineup in Chicago. DC will be without regulars Chris Pontius (calf), Sean Franklin (ankle) as well as Davy Arnaud (yellow card accumulation) and they are in the midst of a 6 games in 16 days stretch that started June 16 in Pittsburgh with a 120 minute win, then the NE win, now in Chicago, in Toronto on the weekend, at Philly for the Open Cup next mid-week and ending up July 3rd in Seattle.

The Fire have some key injuries to David Accam and Shaun Maloney, and a suspension to Matt Polster too; however their schedule is much easier to deal with having last weekend off and facing the least daunting Open Cup opponent in the next round which will be at home for them too. For comparison; since June 15 when Chicago beat Louisville City at home to advance in the Open Cup the day before DC, they had last weekend off and incredibly will have next weekend off as well before hosting the USL Charlotte Independence before traveling to Houston for their July 3rd match. DC has 6 games in 16 days, 5 of 6 on the road; the Fire, 4 games in 17 days 3 of them at home. Nice going MLS.

Still be that as it may, that’s the task set before DC and most pundits are fond of pointing out how United is the deepest team in the league so let’s take a stab at how Olsen sets up the team for Chicago which is arguably the more winnable game than either Toronto or Seattle, much less the bottom of the bench team that will be sent to Philly. Replacing Arnaud is easy as the Finn, Markus Halsti can slot in there easily enough and indeed will make quite a few folks happy to see him play some true first team minutes with the first team. Franklin too can be replaced easily with Chris Korb, but Pontius is a much tougher loss as DC is very thin on the wings. Rolfe obviously can play there, but he’s played a lot lately and might be better off the bench against his old team in his old stomping ground, but more on that later. Which pretty much leaves Conor Doyle or Miguel Aguilar as Olsen’s options as the winger opposite Nick DeLeon, and if DeLeon is rested, there are both your starters.

So, looking into my crystal ball, I think Olsen tries to get one more match out of Fabian Espindola before resting him and starts Jairo Arrieta along with him at forward, but will be getting Luis Silva into this match early. I think going with Espindola gives DC the best chance to score early and maybe make the last place team in the league hang their heads, then he can replace him with Silva to hopefully hang on to the win. Silva has been getting only garbage time lately and not playing well at all, so I doubt he starts, but he will have to take a big chunk of minutes in the next couple weeks so he has to start getting bigger minutes now to build up to more down the road.

In midfield, I suspect Doyle and Aguilar will start both to rest DeLeon and because Chicago’s wing play won’t be as dynamic as last time with Accam and Maloney out which likely moves Harry Shipp inside to Maloney’s playmaking position. I think it very likely Perry Kitchen plays alongside Halsti in midfield, but Perry has been playing quite a bit lately too, so part of me thinks Olsen might pair Halsti with Jared Jeffrey for a couple reasons. One being that it’s likely Jeffrey and Halsi play quite a bit together in practice and they did start together in Portland, also Jeffrey has been pretty poor in his limited time, but that was with a complete bottom of the roster team in Portland. Might be a good idea to see what he can do with a lot more regulars around him against a team that doesn’t have a good midfield in general, as well as give Kitchen some rest. Which only leaves the backline which should be pretty stable and interchangeable weathering this glut of games and injuries as they were last time. Taylor Kemp, Steve Birnbaum (or Kofi Opare), Bobby Boswell and Chris Korb will be fine until Franklin gets back, especially with reigning goalkeeper of the year Bill Hamid seemingly back to health and starting.

The Fire’s Frank Yallop will have a much easier time putting his lineup together without future games to worry about. Quincy Amarikwa started against DC at forward in RFK, but hasn’t played much since and still hasn’t scored in MLS although he did get the game winner in the 1-0 Open Cup win for the Fire. Still, Guly Do Prado or more likely Kennedy Igboananike have displaced him at forward. But whether Yallop tinkers with his tactics will be interesting. They have played mostly a 4-2-3-1 as most MLS teams are doing this year, but last time out he played a straight up 4-4-2 against NE that lost 2-0, but then again looked a lot more solid than that score would indicate, especially as it took two world class goals to give NE the win, Diego Fagundez’ cracking goal of the week side volley and a ridiculous reaction header from Charlie Davies on a shot heading out for a throw-in. The 4-4-2 would actually line up better against DC but we’ll see.

Anyway, the last time the Fire had a good run of results two draws and a win about a month ago, they played the 4-2-3-1 with Igboananike up top. With Maloney out, Shipp will almost certainly move underneath him which isn’t good for DC as Maloney has been terrible and Shipp orchestrated the Fire’s lone goal in the 3-1 loss to DC a few weeks ago. Also with Accam out, Yallop will likely go with Jason Johnson as the speed element on that wing, or maybe he goes safe and plays Lovel Palmer to shut down DC, but I don’t think so unless DC starts Rolfe. The rest of midfield will be Michael Stephens on the right, Razvan Cocis and Matt Watson for the suspended Polster holding in front of the backline. The backline should be Joevin Jones, Adailton, Jeff Larentowicz, and Eric Gehrig going left to right, although maybe Palmer plays the right sending Gehrig into the middle and sitting Adailton, he of the two own goals in one game. Could be either Jon Busch or Sean Johnson in the nets although if Yallop has been paying attention to how much of a United killer Busch has been over the years, that would be a no brainer. Johnson has been the starter, but was benched and may well have played his way back in there, so we’ll see.

So, looking at the tactics and matchups, DC has some legitimate advantages as long as Espindola starts and will be even more favored if Rolfe does too. Chicago plays a lot like NE does only with less success and less talent overall obviously. They have lacked a finisher which they hope Igboananike (or Do Prado) will become but they can counter with speed, especially through Shipp and with Johnson slashing in behind Korb or Kemp Chicago can be trouble, not as much trouble as with Accam, but trouble nonetheless. Shipp and Larentowicz hits some wicked deadballs too, but that’s about it. Chicago might get one, but not more than that if DC plays their normal tight road game. It should be noted Chicago’s Mike Magee should be back in the 18, but with such a long layoff, hopefully he doesn’t find his form until DC is long gone.

Offensively, Aguilar or DeLeon is feisty enough to give fits to Jones, Doyle likely won’t do much against Gehrig or Palmer, but he’ll help keep Stephens from causing too much trouble. However, if Rolfe starts, DC owns this side. Interestingly enough, Rolfe has never played against the Fire as he missed both matches last year as well as the first match this year. However, as much as I’d love him to start, it’s probably smarter to bring him off the bench in this one. Still, the real advantage offensively is Espy and Arrieta (and later Silva or maybe DeLeon) going against Larentowicz and Gehrig or Adailton. DC’s forwards are easily crafty and quick enough to torture Chicago’s central defense, especially with Halsti in there as he can hit some dagger balls behind them which Espy and Arrieta will eat up. So, assuming the soccer gods sit this one out, while DC will give up one goal, they should score two and get their first win in Chicago in six years.

Bold statement when you consider the history. As mentioned DC hasn’t won in Toyota Park since 2009 and is a pretty woeful 6-10-8 all time in Chicago, but lost in all that is DC is 3-3-6 since Toyota Park was built and has 4 draws in their last 6 there. Still, DC has also been pretty awful on the road of late at 2-4-1 with only 4 goals scored and having given up 7 goals in those 7 games, plus being shut out in 3 of their last 4 on the road. However, the Fire has been equally unimpressive at home having lost 2 of their last 3 and are only 4-3-0 overall having given up 5 goals in their last 3 at home. The Fire are also 1-5-2 in their last 8 games having been outscored 15-11 in those matches so they are averaging almost 2 goals a game given up in the last two months.

So there you have it, DC should manage at least a draw given everything, but might well pull out another somewhat surprising win if they play their cards right. DC is already 7 points up on the NE in the East and could put the East on ice for almost a month with a win given the dearth of games coming up due to the Gold Cup. Always a bad idea to look ahead, but getting something in this one takes a lot of pressure off the more difficult games coming up in Toronto and Seattle.

Slumping DC hosts equally unimpressive Revolution

The dog days of summer are upon DC and New England as United is coming off two straight league losses for the first time all year and the Revolution managed their first win in six weeks last weekend.

However, while DC has not looked good in MLS play of late, they did manage a rousing win in the Open Cup while NE got booted from that tournament embarrassingly by a USL side, and both matches will likely have an effect on the league match tomorrow in RFK. DC needed overtime to advance and almost certainly the players who played a big chunk of those 120 minutes won’t be available or will be affected if they do play in this match, and while NE only played 90, they did have three potential starters play the whole match. DC’s win also puts United in another difficult scheduling run with tomorrow’s game now being the third match of a stretch of seven games in twenty days, and the only match in RFK in the whole stretch. Even worse, with Sunday match tomorrow and ending with a Friday match in Seattle, DC faces an absurd 5 matches in 12 days with trips to Chicago and Toronto before a bus ride to Philly and ending with a cross country flight. Clearly roster management will be key going forward.

So, with that in mind, I fully expect all the guys who played the majority of the match in Pittsburgh; Markus Halsti, Kofi Opare, Jairo Arrieta, Conor Doyle and Miguel Aguilar, won’t start or play much tomorrow, which could very well present a problem tactically against NE. But Revolution coach Jay Heaps will have a tactical problem of his own as two of his starting wingers, Kelyn Rowe and Diego Fagundez who have essentially been splitting time at left wing lately, as well as defender London Woodberry, went the distance in the Charlotte loss and NE’s schedule going forward isn’t easy either with them being in the second game of five games in fourteen days, although they don’t have the Open Cup to worry about any more.

With all that in mind, I think Olsen will pull the trigger and start Fabian Espindola and Luis Silva, last year’s team leading goal scorers, together for the first time this season as both have been injured or suspended for most of the year. In midfield it’s virtually a lock that Chris Rolfe, Davy Arnaud, Perry Kitchen and Nick DeLeon will start going left to right, but the defensive line will be interesting given Sean Franklin being out with a twisted ankle as well as Halsti, Opare possibly out, and the tactical situation. Normally, you’d think Chris Korb would play for Franklin and Taylor Kemp on the left with Bobby Boswell and Steve Birnbaum centrally. However, NE’s Teal Bunbury is likely to start on their right wing and he terrorized DC even when NE was down to nine men in DC’s miracle 1-1 draw last time these two teams met. It was obvious neither Korb nor later Kemp could contain him. Olsen could hope Kemp or Korb will do a better job this time around or he could ask Opare to suck it up and play centrally allowing Birnbaum to play left, but whatever he does has to be with keeping Bunbury from running wild in mind.

I think Heaps solves his problem by starting Fagundez, who is coming off a goal of the week last week, and Woodberry and just taking it for granted that the youngsters can recover easily enough to play tomorrow. So it seems pretty likely Heaps sends out Charlie Davies as his lone forward with Fagundez and Bunbury on the left and right wings respectively and Lee Nguyen as the playmaker underneath. Then Scott Caldwell and Andy Dorman, who replaces the injured Jermaine Jones rounding out the midfield. Chris Tierney, Jose Goncalves, Andrew Farrell, and Woodberry across the backline from left to right in front of Bobby Shuttleworth in goal.

Looking at the matchups and tactics, DC could well be a bit of trouble. NE plays more of a 4-3-3 considering the way Bunbury and Fagundez play so high and it totally flummoxed DC up in NE last time these two teams met. If it hadn’t been for Tierney and Nguyen getting somewhat bone headed red cards, NE might well have won that game going away. The way NE attack down the outsides and the way DC defends clogging the middle and often leaving the outside backs with little help outside of Rolfe who defends his side very well, United is prone to being pulled apart. Considering the way Davies is splitting defenders lately if DC’s central pairing gets pulled apart, it could be a bloodbath. However, DC can flip this on them and attack down the wings themselves hoping to force Bunbury and Fagundez or Rowe back on defense but that would require big games from Rolfe and DeLeon. Also, DC’s biggest strength offensively is the play of Espindola pouncing on mistakes or opening room for others and while Espy will no doubt bring it tomorrow, Silva has been terrible of late. Rolfe and DeLeon have been very quiet as well. All four of those guys have to have good games or DC will need some luck to win.

I expect DC to get a goal from a NE mistake as that has been their Achilles heel lately. The Revolution are giving up almost as many goals as they score despite Shuttleworth being lights out so far this year and I don’t see them keeping Espindola or Rolfe from poaching at least one. The rub will be keeping Davies, Bunbury and Fagundez from combining for more than one. I don’t see Nguyen doing much in this game given the wall he will face from Arnaud and Kitchen, but NE’s three attackers will be a handful. If Hamid plays, he might be the difference as he has been the last two years, but as good as Dykstra has been, he isn’t Hamid and I don’t see him pitching a shutout on NE.

At least the intangibles favor DC for the most part. DC is coming off two losses in a row including their last home match while NE won their last outing, but NE won in Foxboro and has been terrible on the road this year and DC’s loss was their first one at home in a year. DC is 5-1-3 in RFK this year and NE is 2-4-1 on the road, losing their last two on the trot and having given up 14 goals in their seven road games, 8 of those in their last 3 road matches. DC also holds the edge against NE in RFK all-time with a 19-9-4 edge since 1996, winning the last two in RFK and 4 of the last 5. In one of the oldest rivalries in MLS, DC holds the all-time edge at 29-26-10 over the years.

So there you go, this one is too close to call. DC hasn’t lost three in a row in over a year and hasn’t even lost two in a row at home in almost two years, but NE holds a lot of the tactical cards and matchups too. However, they stink on the road spilling goals like a leaky paint bucket, and DC seems to get all the luck they need at home outside of a brilliant performance by Giovinco. I expect this one to be close one way or the other. Assuming the soccer gods keep their mitts off the game, I expect both teams to get a goal at least, but who gets two or three is down to which team makes the mistakes on defense. DC has been good at not making mistakes in general, but NE is too good a team to keep playing so poorly on the road. Might be a draw is justice in this one.

DC faces an old friend in US Open Cup

DC United takes on the Pittsburgh Riverhounds in fourth round of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup and while the two sides have only faced each other once before, there has been plenty of familiarity over the years.

DC United, along with the rest of qualifying MLS teams, enters the fourth round of the US Open Cup in Pittsburgh to take on the Riverhounds at their new home, Highmark Stadium situated along the Monongahela River. United defeated the Riverhounds 2-1 in their only meeting on the field way back in the fourth round of the 2003 US Open Cup, but DC’s roots with the Riverhounds go much deeper than that. DC’s current general Manager, Dave Kasper was Pittsburgh’s inaugural GM when the team was founded back in 1998 and joined United at the end of 2001. Throughout the years since, there has been plenty of player transactions back and forth between the clubs.

Pittsburgh has had a rocky run recently and had declared bankruptcy last November, but quickly got its finances back in order and has been a solid team, steadily getting better so far this season. Despite a very unheralded roster almost completely turned over since last year, they have made their way to this round of the Cup without having given up a goal in the tournament and with a surprising 1-0 win over the Tampa Bay Rowdies whose roster boasts plenty of former MLS talent including former DC forward Maicon Santos and coached by former DC coach Thomas Rongen as well. Other MLS ties on Tampa include Marcelo Saragosa, Matt Pickens and guys like Ben Sweat (14th overall pick by Crew) and Martin Nunez, a crafty Uruguyan twice offered MLS contracts only to turn them down, so beating that team clearly shows the Riverhounds can play.

DC on the other hand is a bit of a wild card considering their history and current situation. They won the Open Cup in 2013, but were summarily drummed from the Cup in their first round match last year in Rochester. Granted it was a game marred by a biblical storm producing two weather delays of over 2 hours in total, but DC coach Ben Olsen followed his tradition of clearing the bench to make his starting XI in that match, as well as an inopportune red card, didn’t help matters either. Chances are that is what he’ll do tomorrow night in Pittsburgh as well, minus the red card hopefully. With a lot of banged up players on the roster and having recently been through quite a rough stretch of games, I don’t see Olsen burning too many starters in this match, although some will certainly be available.

The only regular starters I think likely to start the match are central defenders Bobby Boswell (because Steve Birnbaum is suspended from the red card in last year’s Open Cup loss), Kofi Opare and maybe Taylor Kemp as left back, although it’s possible a guy like Luis Silva or Markus Halsti or even a guy coming back from injury like Chris Pontius gets a start to get some game fitness, but I doubt it. More likely those guys come off the bench if they make the trip at all. I suspect Olsen starts all the players from the bottom of the bench in the remaining seven to eight field positions. I’m thinking along the lines of Conor Doyle and Facundo Coria as forwards, Luke Mishu, Collin Martin, Jared Jeffrey, and Miguel Aguilar across midfield from left to right, then Kemp, Opare, Boswell and Jalen Robinson left to right across the backline in front of Andrew Dykstra or possibly Travis Worra in the nets. Maybe a guy like Silva, Pontius, or Michael Farfan gets in there if healthy, but I suspect Olsen would rather see what his young guns can do against third tier opposition. Could be a Michael Seaton sighting too if he is in country and still in between loan deals.

The Riverhounds used a roster mostly full of players unknown to me to oust the Rowdies, but one name stood out. Midfielder Danny Earls is the current Riverhounds captain and the Irish midfielder has played against DC before in the Open Cup for Rochester as well as 18 appearances for Colorado when they won an MLS Cup in 2010. English midfielder Rob Vincent is clearly a danger man as well with goals in both Open Cup matches for Pittsburgh including the lone goal in the Rowdies win. He also has a total of 11 goals in 14 appearances so far this year. Looks like they play a sort of 4-3-3 with Vincent and Scotsman Kevin Kerr the wide players around center forward Miro Cabrilo, with Earls and Ghanaian Stephen Opai pinched in behind them. Also looks like they win mostly with strong midfield play and a recently tightened up defense. Almost all their wins this year being by one goal and barely averaging over 1.5 goals per match.

As for current form, that couldn’t be worse for DC as they are coming off their second loss in a row and fourth loss in their last seven games, while Pittsburgh has a seven game unbeaten streak as well as won 8 of 10 at home this year. They did lose their last match due to an untimely red card (Earls of course) but were on a six game unbeaten streak in all competitions before that. On the bright side, DC is 31-11-4 (2-2 in PKs after official draws) in the Open Cup overall and 8-2-1 (PK win over Hershey after a draw) overall against the third division (USL) although those two losses came on the road. DC is 19-4-2 overall against lower divisions in the Open Cup, but only 5-4-0 on the road in their first Open Cup match. Pittsburgh has a 1-3 record against MLS teams in the Open Cup, but have never lost by more than 1 and they beat Colorado 2-0 back in 2001 to make the quarterfinals which is the farthest they ever gone in this tournament. Since that win they have lost to the Fire twice, 3-2 in 2002 and 2-1 last year, sandwiched around that DC 2-1 win in 2003. Pittsburgh is also 9-10-3 overall in the tournament.

DC tends to be an all or nothing team in the Open Cup, if they get past their opener, they usually advance pretty far having made the finals five times (3 championships) and the semi-finals three more times for eight final fours in 19 years; however they have been tossed in the first round four times and did not play in the tournament three more times. So, they have made the final four or busted out early 12 of 16 Open Cups they have played in. Tomorrow night’s match could easily make or break DC’s Open Cup run this year and it being the last major trophy the team has won makes this tournament special.

The Lamar Hunt US Open Cup is the oldest continuously running cup competition in the United States and among the oldest in the world. It was established in 1914 and remains a single elimination tournament open to all levels of amateur and professional soccer. The winning team gets its name engraved on the Dewar Challenge Trophy which has been permanently retired and is on display at the US Soccer House in Chicago. MLS teams enter the draw in the fourth round.

Note: Ben Olsen is the only player in the modern era, beginning in 1995, to win the Open Cup as a player and a coach. Some of the player movement between the clubs over the years: DC signed Brazilian forward Thiago Martins, the reigning A league MVP after he scored the lone goal for Pittsburgh in that 2003 match with DC. Former DC players, Greg Janicki and Boyzz Khumalo were lured away from Pittsburgh in 2008 as well. And players have gone the other way as Abdul Thompson Conteh scored 14 goals for DC back in 2001, but was released in 2002 to sign with Pittsburgh. Former DC forward Joseph Ngwenya made his way to the Riverhounds via the Richmond Kickers after being released by DC as well.

DC hopes to regain winning ways in Orlando

League leading DC United is scuffling lately coming off their first home loss in almost a year and are hoping to regain their form in Orlando with the surprising Lions on a four game unbeaten run of their own.

After a brutal stretch of six games in twenty-one days that saw United lose three of those matches and play badly in most of them including a 2-1 loss to Toronto that snapped a 16 game unbeaten run in RFK, DC has finally had a solid week to recover and get somewhat healthier. Orlando on the other hand is on a burst of good form that has seen them rocket up the Eastern Conference on the wings of a four game unbeaten streak including a come from behind win last week in Chicago.

Suddenly clicking on offense, Orlando has become a serious threat in the East. The Lions started the season as mostly just Kaka surrounded by kids, but those kids have grown up recently to take the pressure off Kaka trying to win games almost single handedly. Mostly behind the emergence of number one draft pick Cyle Larin who has four goals in his last six games, Orlando is piling up the goals lately with 13 goals in their last 6 games after only 6 in their first 8 games. In their current four game unbeaten streak, Kaka still leads with 3 goals, all PKs, and OG has two, but Pedro Ribiero has chipped in a goal and forced one of the own goals in the Chicago win. Youth Designated Player Carlos Rivas has also shown flashes of brilliance after injuries derailed his season early on, and while he hasn’t scored yet he did force the other own goal in Chicago. All this supplements Kaka’s team leading six goals on the year with three of them coming recently, all from the penalty spot.

However as usual, DC dodges a bullet as the Lions will be without number one draft pick Cyle Larin who leads all rookies with five goals on the year. Orlando will also likely be without US International Brek Shea who has been away with the Nats in Europe. Even though Shea didn’t play in Germany mid-week, I don’t see him starting after traveling back and having been out of the lineup during much of Orlando’s current surge. The Lions will be without central midfielder Darwin Ceren as well, who is away with El Salvador for World Cup qualifiers and that is a big loss as he has become a key element on both sides of the ball in Orlando’s midfield with twelve starts and a goal in the current run. DC loses Finnish International Markus Halsti who will be hoping to resurrect Finland’s chances against Hungary today in European qualifying.

DC coach Ben Olsen might well see the return of his team leading scoring tandem from last year as it appears Fabian Espindola and Luis Silva could be available to start this match. Both players have been largely unavailable this year through suspension and injury, but Espindola has been transformative for DC United when on the field with one goal and four assists in four games, three of them starts. Silva has had only has one start and has barely played with Espindola all year, but came off the bench to score the winner in Orlando for his only goal of the year. The two of them combined for 22 goals last year and might be exactly what United needs to get out of this current road funk. DC’s training room remains busy however, as it seems likely Chris Pontius (hip), Bill Hamid (finger), Taylor Kemp (the dreaded groin injury), Chris Korb (quad), Michael Farfan (hamstring) and Miguel Aguilar (knee) are all unlikely to be available.

So, looking into my crystal ball because of course DC United never lets on who even travels with the team, much less who might start, I think Espindola starts up top with Jairo Arrieta as I just don’t think Olsen risks Silva to start just yet and Arrieta has been playing well for the most part. In midfield it should Chris Rolfe, Perry Kitchen, Davy Arnaud, and likely Nick DeLeon going left to right. I don’t see either Kemp or Korb being ready to start, so it seems pretty likely Steve Birnbaum fills in on the left for another game next to Kofi Opare and Bobby Boswell in central defense. Hopefully Sean Franklin is available to play on the right. Franklin apparently rolled an ankle and is questionable for this match. Should he not start, it wouldn’t surprise me to see rookie Luke Mishu get another start either on the right, or shifting Birnbaum to the right and playing his more natural left back. Andrew Dykstra seems likely to get another start in goal as Hamid works through an apparent myriad of health problems lately.

Orlando plays a 4-5-1 with Ribiero spearheading the attack and Kaka running the show underneath him. The rest of midfield might be interesting though. I think it likely Orlando coach Adrian Heath plays Eric Avila, Cristian Higuita, Amobi Okugo and former DC midfielder Lewis Neal across the midfield from right to left as that was the group that earned the Chicago win with Okugo being the natural replacement for Ceren. However, given the way DC plays, not attacking much up the middle, Heath might get decide to push Neal, who is a much better two way player, inside next to Higuita and keep the more defensive minded Okugo on the bench. That has the added bonus of getting the dynamic Rivas (or maybe Brek Shea) on the field terrorizing a banged up Franklin or an out of positon Birnbaum or even the rookie Mishu down their left side. On defense, the only question is whether Shea plays left back or not. If he does, Luke Boden heads to the bench, if not Boden plays on their left. The rest of the defense should be Sean St. Ledger next to Aurelien Collin in central defense with Rafael Ramos on the right in front of Talley Hall.

So, looking at those matchups and tactics DC could be in some trouble. Orlando plays the exact same style as DC in that they defend first and seek to counterattack by pouncing on mistakes, but recently they have shown a much more dynamic flow of play where they attack quickly in waves of sustained pressure. When Orlando attacks, Kaka is obviously the key as he is world class at finding spaces to create havoc, and Ribiero has been clever in getting behind defenses giving him room to operate as well as being available for balls over the top. Avila and Ramos have both been very effective attacking the right side with Ramos especially whipping balls into the box. Obviously Rivas or Shea can unbalance the left side too, so if DC isn’t careful it could be a another siege where Orlando runs wild all over DC’s defense, but this time around they might well finish their chances and rout United. Birnbaum and Franklin or Mishu simply have to be rock solid and even then likely need help from Rolfe and DeLeon. Plus, Kitchen and Arnaud have to be almost perfect against Kaka. At best, absent good fortune from the soccer gods, DC is looking at giving up a goal or two. Orlando’s offense is just too good lately and without Hamid’s magic, even Dykstra’s excellent play of late isn’t likely to keep a clean sheet.

On the bright side, Orlando’s defense is nowhere near as good as their offense so they will give up some goals too. They have scored 19 goals in 14 games, but given up 19 goals too. Offensively, you have to like the sneaky Arrieta and the very effective Espindola going against the teeth rattling tandem of Collin and St. Ledger, especially if Rolfe can get forward at times too. DeLeon could cause some serious problems for the left side as well if Shea is out. Boden is their weak link and Rivas won’t defend without a gun to his head, although Neal would likely negate DeLeon if he plays out there. So DC should get a goal or two themselves making this match a toss up on paper. As is often the case mistakes and set pieces could decide this one and DC has the edge here in general as DC doesn’t make mistakes often and their set pieces are a lot more effective with Espindola and Rolfe on the field.

And you hope it plays out that way as the intangibles certainly don’t favor DC despite DC having already beaten expansion Orlando twice in the only two matches they’ve played. Both those wins were darn near flukes as Orlando created boatloads of chances but just couldn’t score and Collin getting injured in one of them didn’t hurt DC either. Looking at current form, Orlando is on a four game unbeaten streak as mentioned, and they are 1-0-2 at home lately after starting the season 0-3-1 in the Citrus bowl. They tied the Crew and thrashed LA in their last two at home. DC, on the other hand has been dreadful on the road lately with only a pitiful point against nine man NE sandwiched in between two 1-0 losses in Philly and Portland in their last three away from RFK.

So there you have it. Should be a wild one in Florida tomorrow evening. I expect both teams to score at least two and who gets the third could go either way. In fact, if Larin and Ceren and Shea were all available, I’d pick Orlando to win going away, but Olsen always seems to catch teams at the right times it seems. Still, if the soccer gods had any justice, they’d balance the scales after helping DC win the first two matches despite arguably being out played by Orlando in both of them. However, Olsen seems to have the magic touch in tight games especially with Espindola in the lineup. You can’t win them all of course as the TFC loss attests, but Olsen and DC have been winning a lot of them the past year and a half and it’s tough to bet against them getting a result in this one even with a banged up defense and poor road form recently.

DC hosts Toronto FC

DC United, riding a team record 20 game home unbeaten streak hosts TFC, who is undefeated in their last three on the road and is even hotter than the best team in the East.

DC United is cruising away with the Eastern Conference at the moment, but the hottest team in the East could very well be Toronto FC who have 13 points in their last 5 games while DC has garnered a mere 10 in the same span despite a home winning streak. It really is a tale of two cities as DC has played 9 of their 15 at home where they have yet to lose in almost a year, while TFC have played 8 of 11 on the road including their first 7 on the road while their home stadium was renovated. However, after a rough stretch early on, Toronto is undefeated in their last 3 on the road and facing a DC team that has seemingly forgot how to lose in fortress RFK.

OK, so here is where I usually discuss who is missing and why they are important, but you know what, apparently it is not important. I don’t know what deals DC coach Ben Olsen has made with the devil, but he apparently can’t lose in RFK no matter what lineup he trots out there. A center back as left back, your most dangerous player suspended, forwards as midfielders, midfielders as forwards, backup goalkeepers at the last minute, playing three holding central midfielders together, etc. Not to even mention the still extensive injury list. Doesn’t matter, apparently DC will find a way, even if it means the soccer gods have to pony up a PK to make it happen like they did against Philly.

First of all, let me say I have been pretty hard on Olsen for his player management and tactics so far this season, but there is no denying the fact this team is night and day different when Fabian Espindola is on the field. All of a sudden, DC’s attack has teeth when Espy is on the field when it is pretty much gumming their food without him. Olsen has had him for three games and he’s had 1 goal and 2 assists and got an opponent sent off in those three games, all of them wins. Without him, it has been scoring by committee, Arrieta first, then Pontius when he broke down, Rolfe picked up when Pontius folded, Kitchen even tossed his hat in the ring for a game, now back to Arrieta, but Espy was the straw stirring the drink in his goals in the 3-1 win against Chicago last time out.

What I would say in my defense is that hopefully Olsen has noticed that Arrieta is very crafty and needs a crafty guy to work with, that Conor Doyle is not a forward and should play in midfield, that Miguel Aguilar is not a left mid, that Nick DeLeon might well be a better forward option than a starting midfielder, and most important of all that he has options tactically with this team if he uses guys in ways that highlight their strengths and hide their weaknesses. Doyle case in point. The guy is not a forward. Doesn’t stretch the defense, not particularly physically gifted or deadly in the box to warrant playing him up top, but whoa nelly, his work rate and first time passing ability is killer in midfield. I have been killing DC players who dribble head down into turnovers, but Doyle hits a first time ball damn near every time and connects on most of them. However, even if he doesn’t connect he scares the bejeezus out of defenders because he does it all the time. Defenders love to defend dribblers in MLS. There’s no Messi’s out there. Nobody is all that scary off the dribble, but hit quick passes regularly and you get every defenders attention right quick.

DeLeon is an active guy in the sense he defends like the old saying about a lazy dog, “well a burglar might well twist an ankle stepping over him”. However he attacks like the dickens, which in midfield more often than not means dribbling into trouble. As a forward though, he stretches defenses in a way Doyle will never do and is crafty enough to work with guys like Espy, Arrieta and Rolfe and even better get behind defenses to put the fear of god into them opening room for others to come in underneath. Aguilar on the left, dribbles into the defense and often into trouble much to the relief of the opposing right back. On the right he stretches people and terrifies the left back who has no help except the sideline. But Espy is the straw that stirs the drink. He can create absolute havoc all by his lonesome that nobody in MLS wants to defend and I will go so far as to say that as long as DC has Espindola and Hamid, Olsen will be in the running for coach of the year.

OK, so if we are discounting whoever Olsen starts because we know they will do the job, then let’s see what TFC is planning to do to DC in RFK. Toronto normally plays a 4-5-1 hybrid where Sebastian Giovinco plays so high up it could be a 4-4-2, but without Jozy Altidore who is out injured and who stays high, Luke Moore and Giovinco will alternate pressure and it really is a 4-5-1, especially as Michael Bradley will be out after beating Holland with the Nats today. Look for Warren Crevalle, who scored a goal last time out versus San Jose to slide inside to a holding role while former Dallas attacker Jackson pulls the wide right duty.

So, TFC will likely play Moore as a lone forward with Giovinco playing very close underneath and not defending much if at all. In midfield, I expect they will play Jackson, Crevalle, Benoit Cheyrou, and Jonathan Osorio right to left. In defense, they will almost certainly play Ashtone Morgan, Damon Perquis, and Justin Morrow in the back, but who will pair with Perquis in the middle is interesting. Eriq Zavaleta maybe perhaps earned it with his play of late, but Nick Hagglund is now healthy to help reinstate Tornoto’s devastated central defense.

Giovinco has a goal or an assist in 9 of 11 games he’s played in this year and the fact TFC has only played 11 games to DC’s 15 it is important to note. Anyway, he is obviously the danger man, and I gotta mention in the old Ben Olsen rabbit’s foot category, if Jozy was playing in this game; uh yeah, DC not favored except for home form that is almost like black magic. But, like LA earlier this year, DC catches a break and won’t face Jozy and the Ant.

Be that as it may, TFC will seek to flood Giovinco with the ball centrally to let his magic open up DC. Now, DC should be able to block that with any combination of Kitchen, Halsti or Arnaud. So TFC coach Greg Vanney should be looking to exploit some issues on the outsides of DC’s defense. The wildly attacking Jackson and the very under-rated Osorio could cause lots of problems for Kemp, Korb, Birnbaum or whoever on the left side of defense, as well as Franklin or whoever on the right.

With that in mind, and assuming Kemp and Korb are out again, Birnbaum is interestingly a good option out wide left. He won’t get beat down the line or inside, he is a threat on set pieces, and he’ll make some noises on offense at least as good as Korb when DC has sustained pressure forward. With Franklin on the right, then DC should be able to button up shop and make it tough for TFC to score.

On the offensive side, TFC is vulnerable down the middle in central defense, and out wide with Jackson and Osorio who defend like they are forced to scrape something off their shoe after a walk in the dog park. Don’t get me wrong, both are fast and physical, but neither really stands up an attacker. Guys like Rolfe, DeLeon, and Coria all have good shots to best them and steam in straight at Morrow and Morgan as outside backs, neither of which are all that frightening either. If DC can hold TFC defenders back on their heels for any length of time, crafty guys like Espy, Arrieta, et al. will score.

Given TFC’s history, even the intangibles favor DC despite the current records being a bit skewed. DC has only 10 point in their last 5 games while TFC has 13 over the same span, and TFC has also gone 2-0-1 in their last three on the road, but DC has gone 6-0-3 at home so far this year and hasn’t lost in RFK since last June. However, it’s important to note DC has played 9 of 15 at home heading into this one while TFC has played 8 of 11 on the road. DC owns the all time record versus TFC at 12-6-3 and the record in RFK against TFC at 5-2-3. DC also hasn’t lost to TFC since

So there you have it, DC should win and probably will avoid a loss, but you never know. The referee is Jair Marrufo and I’ll just leave it at that.