DC seek revenge against Union

East leading DC’s current three game winless streak began with an embarrassing loss in Philly to the lowly Union, and Philly’s current two game win streak began in that match as well. Both teams will have something to prove in RFK tomorrow night.

DC hold on the East has been steadily undermined by a horrid three game road streak that saw the Black and Red inexplicably lose in Philly, then barely scrape a draw against 9 man New England, and then simply gift Portland with a win despite a valiant effort by a makeshift lineup. The Union on the other hand was 1-7-3 and on their way to another disaster season until DC gifted them all the points with a pitiful effort in Philly. That win helped spur a subsequent win in New York and that has propelled the perennial cellar dwellers to the verge of a playoff position in the East. DC may well rue the gift they gave Philly a couple weeks ago.

At least Ben Olsen is likely to trot out his best XI as opposed to the mix and match travesties he has done lately that has certainly been part of the reason for DC’s swoon in the last couple weeks. Still out are forwards Fabian Espindola and Luis Silva, DC’s co- leading scorers last year, but Chris Rolfe and Chris Pontius, as well as midfielder Davy Arnaud should be back in the fold after not even making the trip to Portland. Rested defenders Sean Franklin and Bobby Boswell should be available as well as former starter Steve Birnbaum who played in Portland, but is having a tough time wresting his job back from Kofi Opare.

Meanwhile Philly’s defense is absolutely reeling with injuries, but have their gotten back the majority of their offensive weapons. Their big defensive signing, Steven Vitoria is still out with a hamstring problem, Conor Casey with a quad strain, and Raymond Gaddis with a rolled ankle. But Cristian Maidana, two assists in NY win, and Vincent Nogueira, a goal in NY win are back in form and Philly’s offense is starting to look good again. Plus, the shaky defense in front of the also comical goalkeeping situation in Philly has solidified with two straight shutouts of Eastern conference opponents by the newly signed Brian Sylvestre in the nets.

So, looking at the matchups, I see no reason why Olsen should not go full bore with his best available even though DC faces another three games in eight days, all of them are at home against the weaker teams in the East and he has some intriguing pieces to play with now. I fully expect Jairo Arrieta and Chris Rolfe to start at forward as they give the best shot at actually scoring a goal. You would think it wouldn’t have escaped Olsen’s notice that the 3 game winless streak coincided with 3 games in which DC seriously threatened the opponent’s goal exactly 3 times and scored only once. I also expect Pontius, Perry Kitchen, Arnaud, and Nick DeLeon to play midfield (if Deleon isn’t 100% back, then flip Pontius to the right and start Facundo Coria instead); and Taylor Kemp, Boswell and Franklin to play in defense in front of Bill Hamid. But whether it is Opare or Birnbaum partnering Boswell might be down to a coin flip. I’d go with Opare as he’s in top form and is perhaps the better physical matchup on CJ Sapong who will likely start for Casey, but if it is Fernando Aristeguieta, who was left off Venezuela’s Copa roster and is back with the Union starting, I’d go with Birnbaum who is more experienced overall and Aristeguieta is cagey as well as physical. I would take a hard look at not starting Kemp too, but more on that later.

Which brings us to Philly. It’s really tough luck for Union coach Jim Curtin that Casey went down as it was really his re-emergence that kind of got Philly back to basics and being a consistent threat on offense. Sapong is similar true, but nowhere near as strong, cagey or effective. Aristoguieta is all of those things and will be a problem for DC, but it is unclear whether he will play having just recently made his way back to the States. Still, it remains their wildly attacking oriented midfield that is their strength. They’ll play a form of 4-5-1 with Sapong as the forward and Maidana and Nogueira underneath to support and Andrew Wenger and Sebatian LeToux on the wings. Former DC defensive midfielder Brian Carroll has been a rock too of late and filled in for suspended Maurice Edu in the New York win. Edu is the starter though and unless Curtin wants to play him in defense, Carroll might be back on the bench. In the defense, Sheanon Williams and Fabinho will almost certainly be on the outsides, but if Edu isn’t one of the central spots, it might be former DC defender Ethan White partnered with Richie Marquez the central pairing that shutout NY and White had a hand in DC’s shutout.

So, looking at the matchups and style of play, DC has some advantages, but only if DC’s midfield plays right up to its maximum, too many turnovers or loose defending and Philly will roll over DC mark my words. Philly will pound the ball into Sapong (or Ariteguieta) and look to knock it back to their surging midfield attackers Noguiera and Maidana; or they will seek to get DC unbalanced by getting LeToux and Wenger behind the outside backs. DC has faced many a 4-5-1, but most have been with two holding type players, Philly flips that and plays with one in more of a 4-1-4-1 which will put a lot of pressure on Arnaud and Kitchen to protect the back four and limit Franklin and Kemp getting forward as much. Which is why I’d start Korb instead. LeToux could torch Kemp and if Kemp can’t get forward enough to do what he’s best at, then play Korb to give you a better shot at keeping the lanky Frenchman from causing a lot of problems and accept the loss of offense as the price of doing business.

Offensively, DeLeon and Pontius (or Coria) as well as either Rolfe will be key. Those guys will have to supply the offense and have to get deep enough to allow Franklin and Korb or Kemp to get forward. Pontius and Deleon both love to cut inside and this is a good team to do that on as White and Marquez don’t like to get rushed and forced back on their heels. Edu back there might clean a lot of that up, but then again maybe not as he’s had good games on the backline and some not so good games there. Rolfe plays a role here too if those guys can take advantage of Edu (or Carroll) being caught to one side, then a quick switch and a cut inside creates a 3 on 2 in the middle and crafty guys like Rolfe and Arrieta can punish those situations. LeToux and Wenger don’t like to defend either, so force them back and that’s to DC’s advantage as well.

However, all of that happens because DC plays the ball quickly and has their heads up looking for runs off the ball. Something they haven’t done lately, but Rolfe, Arnaud, and even Arrieta (or Coria and maybe Halsti and Aguilar) have shown they will move the ball quickly and make those runs. However; if goes back to head down dribbling or not moving quickly to create angles, DC will struggle to attack and eventually the defense will make a mistake. Then it’s down to Hamid and hope he pitches a shutout. I would have Pontius and Deleon on a short leash in this one as they tend to dribble right into trouble when open passes are there to be made. Coria was in Philly’s camp and didn’t make the team but he knows them and he has shown some interesting attacking flair and decision making. Also, Miguel Aguilar was not good in Portland, but he has shown the gumption to force the action and it might be nice to see what he can do with some actual starters around him. And play him on the right for goodness sake. He’s used to going around people to the right with no one outside of him, so having him cut inside from the left is encouraging him to dribble into trouble, a habit we don’t want him to learn from DeLeon and Pontius. He’ll grow into that role eventually, use him now playing in a familiar role for goodness sake.

The intangibles favor DC though. Obviously not current form as mentioned, but in RFK that’s a different story. DC is currently on an 18 game unbeaten run in RFK and 19 would tie a team record should DC win or draw. United stands at 4-0-3 in RFK this year and Philly was a woeful 0-4-2 on the road until that win in NY last week. Philly has also only won once in RFK too. DC holds a 2-1-3 edge over their closest rival in RFK, with that lone Philly win back in 2013 and former DC forward Lionard Pajoy got a goal in that match which is all that needs to be mentioned about that game and indeed that season.

So, there you have it. This will be a close one unless DC’s midfield really plays their best soccer of the year. I think the defense can shut down Philly well enough that Hamid can pitch the shut out, but not if DC turns the ball over constantly and is always under siege. DC has some things they can exploit in the Philly defense if they play their cards right. I won’t tempt the soccer gods by saying DC should win given what happened last time I wrote a preview for a Philly match so we’ll just leave it at that.

Depleted DC to face the teetering Timbers

Coming off a couple ugly games amidst a mass of matches, DC adds a cross country trip to face a Portland side reeling from a couple road losses themselves.

After dropping five points in East in their last two matches by losing to bottom dwelling Philly and barely scratching out a draw against nine man New England, DC will look to regroup in the West despite a mass of players being out injured or resting. Of course the injured Fabian Espindola, Luis Silva, Nick DeLeon and Michael Farfan will not be making the cross country trip, but added to that United’s aging midfielder’s Chris Rolfe and Davy Arnaud won’t be making the trip either. With United on the second match of five in 15 days and Portland being 5,000 miles roundtrip, it makes sense to leave some guys home. Luckily, Portland is a little dinged up and not playing that well either with playmaker Diego Valeri out with a rolled ankle as well as coming off two road losses and only four points in their last five matches.

Given the guys left home (midfielders as opposed to aging defenders such as Boswell and/or Franklin) it seems likely DC coach Ben Olsen will go with his usual conservative road lineup and seek to play 10 guys behind the ball and hope to pitch the shut-out and maybe get lucky with a goal for the draw or even pinch an improbable win. And who’s to argue with him? That’s been the formula for success on the road this year. Orlando mauled DC in Florida, but DC pulled out the win with a last second FK. Vancouver out shot DC 16-8 but a red card helped DC to a 2-1 win, and in NE in a game that should have been 4-0 for NE, they inexplicably earned two red cards to gift DC a point. Granted, the Philly and NY road matches were big fat zeros, but there you go. With Valeri out and Portland among the weakest offensive teams in the league, it has all the makings of another impossible point for the current Supporter’s Shield leading DC United and might well end with Olsen giving the finger to all his detractors including me.

So, looking at the lineups, it’s being tweeted DC will likely start Olsen’s old favorite 4-4-2 with Conor Doyle and Jairo Arrieta at forward, Chris Pontius, Perry Kitchen, Markus Halsti and Miguel Aguilar in for Arnaud and Rolfe respectively across midfield, then the usual suspects Taylor Kemp, Kofi Opare, Bobby Boswell and Sean Franklin across the defense in front of Bill Hamid. Portland’s Caleb Porter will almost certainly start Fernando Adi as the lone forward in their hybrid 4-5-1. With former Darlington Nagby playing underneath and Rodney Wallace and Dairon Asprilla on the wings in front of two central teeth-rattlers in Jack Jewsbury and Diego Chara. Across the back, it will likely be Jorge Villafana, Liam Ridgewell, Nat Borchers, and Alvas Powell in front of Ghanaian goalkeeper Kwarasay.

If that’s the case, it will take a miracle for DC to score as Doyle being on the field already makes it 10 on 11 as he will bring nothing to this match even remotely threatening for the likes of Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell. Portland is near the bottom of the West, but not because of defense. They can’t score, but they can defend no problem. So maybe Arrieta, Pontius or even Aguilar surprises them, but more likely than not, DC’s counters will get snuffed out like candle in the wind. I hesitate to point out also that Kemp is perhaps not the man to contain Dairon Asprilla either. I’ve been taking some heat for my bashing of Kemp’s defense, but the little train is scary going at good defenders and Kemp isn’t one of those no matter what anyone thinks, although he is getting better all the time to be fair.

No, if it was me, I’d turn a weakness into a strength. I’d play Chris Korb at left back specifically to kick Asprilla’s shins and then start Kemp at left midfield to get deep down that left hand side and force Asprilla to defend as well keep Powell back on his heels too. That would mean Pontius might have to sit, but so be it. He cuts inside too much to no effect and isn’t dangerous often enough or really good enough defensively consistently to allow DC to have any shot at controlling that left side.

Now starting Kemp in midfield might make it palatable to have Doyle in the match as presumably he’s good in the air and might well finish a Kemp cross. However, I have seen no evidence of him having such skills, nor really much evidence of him being able to get behind anyone or lose his marker at all, so simply having Kemp up there crossing to Borchers and Ridgewell seems a waste. No, starting Pontius at forward, or even another crafty guy like Facundo Coria up top looks like a much better option. Pontius (or Coria) have shown he will make deep runs and go at defenders which Portland’s tall trees won’t like and although he hasn’t really shown much chemistry with Arrieta, considering who’s out, he’s just a far better option than Doyle. Bring Doyle in to pound on those guys when the game is all but over, don’t start him unless there’s a shortage of molasses out there.

So, offensively DC could rule the left side and maybe even the right. Wallace and Villafana are not all that scary. I’d love to see Aguilar going right at Villafana and maybe going by him, but if nothing else it will cause Ridgewell to maybe cheat over opening room for Arrieta and Pontius to find joy in the middle. Aguilar being aggressive should also drag Franklin forward too and frankly he needs the practice in the offensive end of the field as his crosses have been terrible and he’s a better player than that. I’ve gone lightly on him this year as he has often had the most dangerous guy to defend and the toughest defender/winger to go forward against in many games this year, but he really should be a lot better than what we’ve seen so far.

Defensively, if DC contains Asprilla and especially Nagby, then I doubt Portland scores more than one if that. The have been shut out in 3 of their 5 home matches and 6 of 12 matches overall. Adi has been very pedestrian in front of goal and shouldn’t fluster Boswell or Opare, who’s been arguably DC’s best defender of late, at all. In fact, it shocks me Boswell even made this trip. Birnbaum and Opare should be fine handling the big Nigerian forward. Granted that would have meant no veteran leader if Boswell and Arnaud out, but what does that say about Pontius btw? Anyway, Wallace shouldn’t trouble Franklin at all and I think Halsti and Kitchen, who was Nagby’s team-mate at Akron will keep him under wraps for the most part. I love the glimpses of brilliance Nagby gives from time to time, but he still has yet to really show the prodigious talent he has and hopefully he doesn’t find the gumption in this game either.

All the makings of a 0-0 draw for sure and that would be a good result, but if Olsen goes a little unconventional, DC might well pull off more than that. If Halsti shows more of that eye toward quickly springing guys going forward, if Kemp gets enough crosses off to at least two runners in the box often enough, if DC plays relatively mistake free defense and Hamid only has to clean up a few mistakes, DC could win this one easily. If they go out with the lineups and the mentality they have had the last two on the road, it will be a 0-0 slog at best. More likely a 1-0 loss. Of course if they get their requisite beneficial red card or Portland shoots as badly as Orlando did, well then give the soccer gods their due. All hail their friendly nudges to the side of all that is good and pure in the world, long may it continue.

As for the intangibles, they are not too bad for DC considering the game being on the road. DC has lost the last two matches to Portland, but are 1-2-2 against them all time and have actually beaten the Timbers in Portland, something they have never done in RFK. Of course after that 3-2 win in 2011, DC is 0-2-1 in Portland since, but are coming off a draw there last time they visited. Obviously current form favors DC even with the dismal results lately as Portland has been reeling even worse, but it would be good to note that Portland has played 7 of their 12 matches so far this year on the road while DC has played 7 of their 12 at home. Portland is also tough to beat in the Rose City even this year at 1-1-3 on the year, but DC has been decent on the road at 2-2-1 even with criminally wasting points the last couple trips outside RFK.

So, everything points to a 0-0 draw, but I’d like to see some gumption shown by Olsen and DC to give themselves a shot at some unlikely points. Olsen begrudges the rest of the league not giving DC what he feels they are due. Well, now would be a good time to show some imagination and take some points instead of seemingly getting them handed to you. In Vancouver, DC showed a glimpse of what they can do when they are aggressive on the road. So what if all your best offensive players are out, unleash the hounds and see what happens. Might just find out the kids can play if you let them.

DC hoping to fend off the Revolution

It’s a top of the table clash as the two top teams in the East battle in Foxboro tomorrow night with DC looking to shake off a bad loss to Philly and keep themselves ahead of the Revolution in the standings.

Ironically, the two longest unbeaten streaks in MLS this season were both snapped this past week as NE was throttled in KC 4-2 to see their 9 game run end while DC’s horrific stumble in Philly cost them what had been an 8 game run and now the two teams face each other with the Eastern Conference lead at stake. Both teams had rested starters in the midst of a dense run of games and paid the price.

DC coach Ben Olsen also has a couple key injuries to deal with as Fabian Espindola remains out with a balky quad, but this week saw his strike partner, Luis Silva rejoin him on the sidelines with a hamstring problem. Last year, Silva and Espindola combined for 22 goals, but this year neither has played many significant minutes nor have the two played together at all. Their loss has put a serious dent in United’s scoring punch and joining them on the trainer’s table will be winger Nick DeLeon hobbled by a twitchy hamstring of his own. All of which severely limits Olsen’s attacking options with another tough stretch of 5 games in 15 days looming on the horizon starting with the match in Foxboro.

NE on the other hand gets all their rested starters back and while they do have midfielder Andy Dorman suspended and lost defender Darrius Barnes with a torn knee ligament, arguably neither were starters and the loss of Dorman helps in that it puts US international Jermaine Jones back in midfield where he belongs instead of spelling defenders on the backline where he has been dismal at best. Barnes is a bit of a loss, but they have Kevin Alston and London Woodberry as very capable right backs.

So, needless to say Olsen’s attacking options are pretty straight forward until he gets his strikers back. I think it almost certain he plays Chris Pontius and Jairo Arrieta at forward, but I hope he reconsiders as Pontius has not played forward that well and has very little chemistry with Arrieta. Chris Rolfe on the other hand does have chemistry with the crafty Costa Rican so I’d rather see him play up top and drop Pontius back to midfield. Who joins Rolfe or Pontius in midfield will be interesting though. Davy Arnaud is the starter and should play next to Perry Kitchen, but Finnish midfielder Markus Halsti was all that and a bag of chips playing centrally in Philly. I think Olsen goes with Arnaud, especially with the glut of games coming up, but it won’t be long until Halsti is a starter. Replacing DeLeon is also a bit of a conundrum. Olsen has gone with Michael Farfan out there, but he is not a wide player and his talents wasted while his deficiencies are exposed. If it were me, I’d go with Miguel Aguilar and see what you’ve got in him. United has a history of young players seizing a starting job around this time of the season. The flashes he’s shown clearly indicate he’s a guy that could join the likes of guys like Kitchen, Pontius, Andy Najar, Josh Gros, heck Olsen himself back in the day. All guys who stole starting jobs and ran with them.

Defensively, Olsen probably needs to start thinking of getting Bobby Boswell and Sean Franklin a rest, but I don’t think both will miss time in the same game. Boswell should start this one and not even go to Portland. Franklin might sit this one out which is no problem as Chris Korb could easily play there leaving Taylor Kemp on the left. Kofi Opare has been playing very well in central defense, but Steve Birnbaum has to be close to starting or maybe even Halsti plays there to get him acclimated for spelling Boswell in the near future. All good options to have in front of Bill Hamid in goal. DC has kept a tight ship so far this year, but NE is arguably the best attacking team DC has faced to date. The Revs couldn’t score early, but are making up for it now and for DC to have a chance, Hamid will have to don his cape this weekend for sure.

NE on the other hand is likely to go with Juan Aguedelo at forward with Lee Nguyen playing underneath him. Kelyn Rowe will play one wing and likely Teal Bunbury the other. Maybe Diego Fagundez gets another shot, but Bunbury has been more effective. In midfield, it should be Jones and Scott Caldwell holding down the Fort so to speak. In defense, Chris Tierney should be back on the left, Jose Goncalves in the center with Andrew Farrell back beside him and Alston or Woodberry on the right in front of Bobby Shuttleworth. It was nice for Brad Knoghton to get a look, but he looked terrible in KC and Shuttleworth is getting a reputation for some wicked saves and is a big reason NE is where they are now after not being able to score the first month of the season.

So, looking at the tactics and matchups it looks pretty grim for DC. Its true NE is built and plays pretty similar to Columbus and DC handled the Crew easily enough. However, NE’s attackers are better more like the weapons NY has and DC hasn’t handled the Red Bulls well this year at all. Defensively, Rowe and Bunbury both are slashers with vision so they can beat you with a dagger pass if you lay back or get behind you if you play them tight. Nguyen hasn’t shown the MVP level play of last year, but he is warming up for sure and starting to click with Agedelo who leads NE in scoring. All of which is trouble for DC in particular Rowe and Bunbury going at Kemp and Korb. DC will have to play to force NE wide by clogging up the middle which I think they will do well enough, unfortunately that only gets them a 0-0 raw unless they score and that doesn’t seem likely at all.

Offensively, with Arnaud and the outside backs likely pinned back, it will be all on Arrieta and Rolfe or Pontius to create out of nothing against two very good center backs in Goncalves and Farrell. Nor will anyone do well against Tierney who is maybe the most under-rated defender in the league. I do like Aguilar’s chances to surprise him though, but Farfan has got no shot of outplaying Tierney. Pontius or Rolfe is the lone matchup that favors DC in that Alston is definitely the weak link in their defense, unfortunately he is also faster than any attacker we have so even if he gets beat, he’ll outrun any DC player to get back in time to make a play no doubt. And DC has to get some joy attacking wide because if Tierney and Alston spend more time in DC’s half then their own, United has none chance in this game.

Very likely this plays out as a 0-0 slog for a while, but NE is too good to not score at least one and that will likely be all it takes as I can’t see any way DC scores unless the soccer gods get involved on the side of all that is good pure in this world. Olsen’s road philosophy has opened up to be a lot more threatening and not as much of a gritty street fight as we’ve seen in the past, but for this particular game, parking the bus might be the best thing. Hamid and hope for a lucky bounce might just do the trick. Olsen has been piling up the points with smoke and mirrors for going on two years now, maybe his team finds a way in this one too. Even a draw would speak volumes to DC’s stalwart defense and veteran leadership. A win and DC puts a hammerlock on the East lead for a bit with games in hand, even a draw extends their lead a bit until New York plays, but a loss would drop DC out of first.

The intangibles are no help either by the way. NE is on a 3 game winless streak, but have been light’s out at home and hasn’t lost in Foxboro since last July. This year, they are 3-0-3 so far and have given up only 3 goals, never more than 1 to any opponent, while DC is 2-2 on the road and coming off a loss. As mentioned both teams got a long unbeaten streak ended in their last match, but DC’s loss to a woeful Philly side is much worse than the Revs getting jobbed in KC. DC does hold the all-time edge over NE at 29-26-9 since 1996, but DC is a pitiful 10-17-5 in NE and in fact only have one win there since a 3-0 win in 2007. Olsen did scrape out a 2-1 win in 2012 but that only makes DC 1-5-2 there since the Supporter’s Shield winning years of long ago. DC is a paltry 3-8-4 in NE this century and one of those wins was an absolute miracle. The Massachusetts Miracle in fact. Look it up, one of the most thrilling endings in MLS history.

DC Travels to Philly to take on the Union

DC heads to Philly looking to extend its eight game unbeaten streak against a Philadelphia side that is reeling through a five game winless streak.

This match sees two teams charging in opposite directions as DC took over sole possession of the Eastern Conference lead with their midweek comeback win over Orlando while the Union are plummeting down the table having lost seven of their last nine matches and are coming off a thorough dismantling in Vancouver last week. The team’s rosters are going in different directions as well as DC is nearing full strength with a number of players returning from injury while Philly is getting rocked with key injuries.

A full roster is a good problem for DC’s Ben Olsen to have as he now has some choices to make in his starting XI and with United playing the second of eight games in four weeks, being able to rest some of his aging players might be crucial as the MLS season drags into the heat of the summer. Of course designated player Eddie Johnson is not available as his career appears to be over and team MVP Fabian Espindola has a knock to his quad that kept him out against Orlando, but that’s about it for the players likely out for this match. Last year’s rookie sensation, Steve Birnbaum, and this year’s biggest off-season acquisition, midfielder/defender Markus Halsti, should be available for selection for the first time in weeks. Philadelphia on the other hand will be dealing with the loss of the key defensive leader Steve Vitoria who was their big defensive signing this winter and have been reeling with a goalkeeper carousel of injuries and poor form.

So given the situation, it is a bit of a crapshoot to figure out the lineups, but I do think Olsen tipped is hand a bit in the midweek game as he rested Chris Rolfe for most of the game only bringing him on to score the game-winner late in the match and given the way some players performed in roles maybe not suited for them. Chris Pontius Started at forward and was largely ineffective until he dropped back into midfield later in the match, same with Michael Farfan who got his first start as a wide midfielder and was pretty underwhelming in that role. Olsen brought on Jairo Arrieta and Rolfe to play those positions and they teamed up for the game winning goal. Farfan has been effective in the middle, but lacks the speed to cover enough ground as a wide player, especially in transition which is crucial to DC’s counter attack and their defensive posture after a turnover. Pontius has just simply failed to regain his form as a forward, but is still a very effective midfielder.

So, I suspect Olsen rewards Arrieta with a start at forward with Luis Silva playing underneath him in a kind of hybrid 4-5-1. In midfield, Rolfe should be good to go and Olsen has favored Nick Deleon on the opposite side, but with DeLeon being a bit erratic as well as having picked up a slight hamstring twinge, I think Pontius gets the other wing midfield role with Perry Kitchen and Davy Arnaud in the middle. In defense, Olsen has been juggling Chris Korb and Taylor Kemp on the left but I think with Philly having a crowded midfield and relatively weak wing players having Kemp out there for his wide play on offense gives him the edge over Korb for this match. Kofi Opare scored the tying goal against Orlando and has been an able fill in for Birnbaum when he rolled his ankle five weeks ago, but if Birnbaum is ready to start, this would be a good game to ease him back into the starting lineup to get his game fitness back. Then Bobby Boswell and Sean Franklin have been iron men across the rest of the backline in front of Bill Hamid.

Philly on the other hand has some real problems in their defense with the loss of Vitoria and the hideous play of their goalkeepers in general. Rais Mbolhi has been banished for his awful play, then their rookie backup, John McCarthy looked promising out of the gate, but pulled up lame at the first post and their former number one pick, Andre Blake has been unable to see the field and is now injured too. Youngster Brian Sylvestre on loan from the Carolina Railhawks looked pretty good in Vancouver and is likely to start again, but he also got shelled in Vancouver so we’ll see. As for the defense, without Vitoria and Carlos Valdes, Maurice Edu has had a run at center back which didn’t look promising at all and he is now back in midfield where he can do less damage. Former DC defender Ethan White has been largely ineffective and then last week, another rookie, Richie Marquez got a shot, but then got tossed for a reckless hack in Vancouver and will be suspended for the DC match.

It seems likely Philly coach Jim Curtin will go with his usual 4-5-1 with the big Venezuelan, Fernando Aristguieta as the lone forward with Cristian Maidana playing underneath him. Across the midfield Andrew Wenger has been starting over Sebastian LeToux on one wing lately with the speedy and unpredictable Eric Ayuk Mbu on the other. Zach Pfeffer has been holding down the middle with Edu while the crafty Vincent Nogeira works himself back to fitness after bouncing back and forth from the injured list most of the season. Given the lack of warm bodies, it seems likely the Brazilian Fabinho gets a start on the outside allowing Raymond Gaddis to join Ethan White in the center of defense with Sheanon Williams playing the other outside back in front of Sylvestre in goal.

That is not a lineup that should put much fear into anyone. DC has advantages in nearly all areas offensively and defensively. Obviously Silva and Arrieta are crafty enough to get around White and Gaddis, Williams will be tough for Rolfe to exploit often, but he has proven efficient when he does get the better of his defender and he’ll get chances. DeLeon on the other side should have the edge over Fabinho who has been less than thrilling when he’s seen the field. Especially as Philly’s wingers rarely defend very well if they ever bother to defend at all. Kemp and Franklin should both be able to help in the attack and could swing things totally in DC’s favor. Philly does clog the middle well, but DC doesn’t attack down the center much anyway unless it’s a quick counter off a mistake which negates them being able set their defense.

Defensively, Mbu is frightening but totally erratic and he doesn’t seem to mesh well in their offense, so he could be a handful for Kemp, but Birnbaum or Opare have the athleticism to manage him if Kemp is caught upfield. Aristeguieta is a beast and has a deadly shot, but nothing Boswell hasn’t handled well in this league for the past ten years. Maidana and Pfeffer or Noguiera are very crafty, but Kitchen and Arnaud are easily their match.

Both teams play a similar style in the sense that they try to stay tight defensively and pounce on counters or force mistakes. Unfortunately for Philly, DC simply has better players for those roles even if Espindola doesn’t play a minute. I fully expect this to be an ugly midfield battle at first, but then DC will exploit a Philly mistake and pretty much cruise to victory from there, assuming the soccer gods keep their nose out of things and everyone plays to their abilities. Philly’s defense is simply too threadbare to keep United off the scoreboard for the match barring celestial interference, and even if Philly grinds out a goal, DC will wear them down in the end much like they did against Orlando.

DC even has the edge in the intangibles too. Their record is 5-4-3 all time against Philly and 3-3-0 in Philadelphia but swept Philly last year with two 1-0 wins. Obviously DC is the much hotter team in MLS right now with 3 wins in the last 4 games, while Philly has lost 4 straight. Philly is also a paltry 1-3-1 at home having lost their last 2, and 3 of their last 4 at home, while DC is 2-1-0 on the road having won their last 2 after an early season loss in NY.

No matter how you slice it, DC is the big favorite on paper and soccer gods willing should add three more points to the coffers on Sunday.

DC takes on the Crew in RFK

DC United riding a five game unbeaten streak hosts the red hot Columbus Crew in RFK tomorrow night looking to hold the surging Crew at bay in the East.

DC had been grinding out results a little unconvincingly, but got a signature win last week in Vancouver toppling the Western Conference leaders 2-1. Granted, the brain cramp by Matias Laba gifted them a long stretch of eleven on ten, but DC did put together a total team effort to come back after going down 1 zip in first two minutes. The Crew on the other hand, also started the season slowly, but have been thumping the bottom of the division at home lately, outscoring Philly and Orlando 7-1 in the last two weeks.

One of the oldest rivalries in MLS, DC and the Crew have mostly traded success since the early days when they dominated the East. Since the epic playoff series in ’99 and Marco’s dominating performance clinching that series, the Crew and DC fortunes have rarely crossed past in a meaningful way. When DC was up, the Crew were down and vice versa, but this year is shaping up as a throwback to the old days if these two teams keep going as they have been going so far. And it will be a classic matchup too as DC is tighter defensively, but less likely to score while the Crew are explosive offensively, but prone to giving up some goals too.

DC has some good news too as they look to be welcoming back defending goalkeeper of the year Bill Hamid who hasn’t played in two weeks due to a thigh bruise. He has practiced all week and should be back in the lineup against the Crew. No disrespect to Travis Worra who got a credible first win when Dykstra rolled an ankle in Vancouver, but Hamid being back between the pipes is huge, especially going against a Crew team that loves to shoot the ball. It looks like Davy Arnaud and Taylor Kemp are back as well from a slight groin injury and the flu respectively which caused them to miss the Vancouver match.

DC also matches up very well against the Crew too. Columbus plays that dreaded 4-5-1 hybrid as well all the teams that have given DC trouble this year, but the Crew’s forwards and playmaker Federico Higuain are much less likely to put much pressure on the ball defensively which should allow DC to play out of the back rather than punt the ball upfield aimlessly which they tend to do when flustered. The more possession DC has, the less the Crew’s dynamic attack can roll at them in waves. Conversely, the Crew ravages weak teams obviously, but aside from Kei Kamara they don’t have a scorer that really puts fear into a defender. These guys punish mistakes and can counter like Wellington at Waterloo, but if you play solid defense then they can struggle to really break you down which has happened when they have played the tougher teams this year like Houston and Vancouver. DC generally plays solid defensively, so there’s every reason to think they can contain the Crew, especially as Columbus has only scored twice on the road so far this year.

Looking at the lineups, it’s tough to say what Olsen does. He could go with Chris Rolfe next to Fabian Espindola to reward him for the game-winner against Vancouver, or he could go with Luis Silva and re-unite the 1-2 scoring threat that combined for 22 goals last year. That would almost certainly push Rolfe back to midfield, but that’s been his best position since he’s arrived in DC. In midfield, if Rolfe starts at forward, then it will almost certainly be Chris Pontius, Perry Kitchen and Nick DeLeon, but should Olsen reward Michael Farfan for his assist and overall good play alongside Kitchen? Or go back to Arnaud, who has been a key player but isn’t getting any younger? Even left back is a decision as Kemp is back, but Chris Korb played very well against the ‘Caps. For sure, it will be Bobby Boswell, Sean Franklin, and Kofi Opare for the still injured Steve Birnbaum across the backline in front of Hamid, but Kemp or Korb is a tougher call.

What I think Olsen will do is go back to his “starters” so Kemp and Arnaud return to the lineup with Rolfe back in midfield sending Pontius to the bench and replacing Korb and Farfan. Offensively, that’s the more potent lineup for sure, but defensively it might well give up too much especially Kemp. The Crew rely on slashers like Justin Meram and Ethan Findlay coming off the shoulder of defenders to collect balls knocked down by Kamara or sent through by Higuain or played back and forth between them all. Higuain orchestrated all the attacks against Philly, but got no goals or assists as it was Findlay and Kamara playing to each other that cracked the Union like Stonewall Jackson at Bull Run. Kemp could easily be a liability being on the wrong side of Meram or Findlay at the wrong time. Korb could too for sure, but he is the better pure defender if the lesser attacker.

For the Crew, they seem set in their lineup. Meram, Kamara, and Findlay as forwards, Higuain, Tony Tchani, and Mohammed Saeid for injured Will Trapp in midfield and Waylon Francis, Michael Parkhurst and Hernan Grana in the defense. Parkhurst’s partner Emanuel Pogatetz strained a hammy against Philly and might play, but if not veteran Tyson Wahl filled in well enough in central defense in front of Steve Clark in goal.

Defensively, if Kitchen and Arnaud contain, and soccer gods willing, even outplay Higuain and Tchani, then I think Boswell and Opare negate Kamara and the rest of the defense keeps wraps on Meram and Findlay and Columbus will struggle to score, especially if Rolfe and more importantly DeLeon continue to show up defensively against Francis and Grana marauding upfield. Also Hamid, who just signed a contract extension meaning DC will at least get something when he’s sold hopefully after MLS Cup this year at the earliest, has simply been a wall in the nets. Aside from NY’s kryptonite, he’s been superman for over a year and he alone could keep the Crew’s road woes going. The Crew haven’t really shown any dead ball prowess to fear either as all of their goals but one corner kick score have come from the run of play and DC has defended set pieces pretty well so far anyway.

Offensively, DC really has to pull apart Parkhurst and Pogatetz (or Wahl) to give Espy and Silva room to operate. Grana and Francis are attack minded wing backs and can be exposed, but Parkhurst and Co. have covered for them nicely and snuffed out trouble before it happens usually. However, if DC gets Rolfe and DeLeon deep allowing Kemp and Franklin to push up and keep the ball moving from side to side, their centerbacks might get pulled apart and Espy can pounce. Similarly, if Arnaud (or Farfan) can get the ball up quickly into that pocket behind Saeid and in front of their backline, then Espy and Silva can work their magic to each other and get around those two center backs before the Crew can recover.

All in all, this game is definitely winnable for DC barring interference from the soccer gods, and given Baldomero the Blind Toldedo being the center ref, fingers crossed on that. Still, DC has only lost once at home since the opener against the Crew last year (Seattle last June) and on paper there’s nothing here to say DC can’t keep fortress RFK pure for another week. The Crew have been stomping the weak lately, but haven’t shown much against good teams or on the road yet this season. DC has been both good and lucky at home for over a year now which is always a tough combination to beat.

Which is good since the intangibles don’t really scream for a DC victory for the most part. DC’s all time record against the Crew is 25-24-10 but they haven’t actually beaten the Crew at all since 2012, Columbus going 3-0-2 against DC since and last two were draws. Of course at RFK DC is a very healthy 18-8-4 against the Crew overall, scoring 57 goals for, against 41 for the Crew, but then again DC hasn’t beaten Columbus here since in three years either, the Crew winning two of last three with a draw as well at RFK since DC swept the Crew in 2012. However, Columbus still haven’t yet won on the road so far this year coming off two draws in NE and Vancouver after losing in Houston opening week. DC on the other hand is undefeated at home, coming off two straight draws, NY and Houston, but did beat LA and Montreal albeit a bit unconvincingly.

So there you have it. I’ve been pounding the team and Olsen for weeks and they’ve proved me wrong grinding out improbable points weekly, so I’ve simply got to drink the cool-aid. However, that cool-aid is a lot easier to take after DC’s performance in Vancouver. They went down early in a place they had never scored much less won and could have folded up their tent, but didn’t. They got right back into it with Boswell’s first goal in almost exactly a year, earned the extra man honestly, had to play their third keeper in his first ever MLS match, and didn’t let a still dangerous 10 man Vancouver team get much of a sniff after that, putting away the game nicely on a lovely play to free Rolfe for the winner. DC punched above their weight last year mainly due to limiting mistakes and timely goals, it seems that formula is still working.

DC takes on best in west in Vancouver

DC is off to their best start since the Supporter’s Shield winning side of 2006 and shares the lead in the East, but the Whitecaps are off to the best start in their history and lead the West for the first time this deep into any season.

Unfortunately, after two straight disappointing draws at home, DC would have to get back to their winning ways in a place they have never won against an opponent they haven’t beaten since 2011 if they hope to keep pace with the elite in the league. DC won ugly early on, and has improved since, but that hasn’t yet translated into wins after giving up a 90th goal to NY and a soft goal to Houston to drop 4 points in their last two matches. United will be looking to last year’s talisman, forward Fabian Espindola finally back from his six match ban to start the season to bring the scoring touch that saw him lead the team in goals last year and be the team MVP.

Vancouver on the other hand has been nothing if not efficient having won 5 of their last 7, with 4 of their 5 wins by shutout, and they have shutout DC the last two times they have hosted United. They have ridden Uruguayan newcomer, Octavio Rivero, who leads MLS in scoring this year with 5 goals in 8 matches, 2 of them game winners. But the ‘Caps are led by league MVP runner up last year, Chilean playmaker Pedro Morales who has added three assists in the last four matches he’s played this year after a slow start to the season.

Once again this is another matchup of the new wave of MLS playing a version of the 4-5-1 against Olsen’s tried and true 4-4-2. So far it has been mixed success for DC, with United beating a listless Montreal and scraping by a depleted LA and Orlando scoring winners against each in the 90th minute. But DC were crushed by NY, and while they took leads on NY and Houston respectively both adjusted their formations for the second half. DC couldn’t hold either of them off and had to settle for the draw in both matches.

Vancouver’s version is very much an attack minded 4-2-3-1 much like NY, Orlando, and the way LA played us when they were missing the key components of their usual 4-4-2. Vancouver sits Mathias Laba and Russell Teibert (or sometimes Gerson Koffie) behind playmaker Morales. While Darren Mattocks and Nicolas Mezquida (or Kekutah Manneh) patrol the wings outside central striker Rivero. For Vancouver, Mattocks has emerged as the free roamer who can combine up top with Rivero much the way Lloyd Sam has that role with NY, Kevin Molino for Orlando, and Villareal played that role with LA. Of note is that in all of those cases, DC did not do much to contain those threats and mostly survived those matchups because Orlando and LA either missed the broad side of the barn or despaired when Bill Hamid put on his cape.

Vancouver’s attack can strike in many ways, 10 goals in 8 games and only shut out once in the feisty loss to San Jose that saw Morales tossed. Rivero and Mattocks lately have shown they can put away crosses clinically and Vancouver has the wingers capable of launching those crosses consistently. The ‘Caps may well have the best counter attack in the league with Morales as Magic Johnson running showtime; as well as hitting pin point freekicks, and they have Mattocks to overload an area pulling defenses out of shape to be exploited if opponent’s midfielders are not wicked sharp following midfield runners. DC has been guilty of letting in goals in all those ways lately. Everyone except Boswell are vulnerable on crosses and set pieces, DC’s transition defense is appalling for the most part, and as mentioned they have survived the overloads mostly through Hamid and poor shooting. The other times, it was late runners like Sam and Ricardo Clarke, or almost all the soccer playing males of Alajuela, who punished them.

The ‘Caps have given up goals too though, 7 of them, but have spaced them out with only 4 goals given up in the 7 games since Toronto hung 3 on them in their opener, and two of those in the Columbus tie two weeks ago. Most of their goals come from one on one defensive mistakes. Poor clearances by defenders or even keeper David Ousted, or poor marking or poor concentration mistakes usually made by their relatively weak central defenders, Pah Modou Kah and the big Jamoke, Kendall Waston.

With their tactics and weaknesses in mind, Olsen has some decisions to make. Obviously, what to do with Espindola is the most important, but being on the road and facing some daunting attackers is another. Olsen will of course think defense first, but in this case I agree with him. I hate the pack it in tactics for the road, but in this specific case it can work and surprise Vancouver if DC plays it right.

So, thinking defensively first, Olsen should obviously pray that Hamid’s thigh bruise has healed. Hamid hides a multitude of defensive sins for sure. Dykstra is capable, but obviously not Hamid and enough said on that. Also, Olsen really should consider starting Chris Korb over Taylor Kemp. Kemp is getting better as a defender, but especially with Birnbaum still out and Opare beginning to show cracks, Korb would go a long way to tightening up that side of the field where Mezquida and Morales will surely look to expose. Olsen also should again start Michael Farfan over Nick DeLeon. As Farfan showed against Houston, he’s not flashy, but he’s a far better defender and doesn’t turn the ball over anywhere near as much either. Of course you lose offense with DeLeon and Kemp, but keeping a lid on this game is a lot better than hoping to outscore Vancouver.

On the flip side, I think Olsen should roll the dice and start both Espindola and Luis Silva. Their chemistry last year carried the team down the stretch and the quicker they regain it the better for DC. They scored the majority of their goals by pouncing on mistakes anyway, so DC going defensive from the start shouldn’t be too much trouble. Just start them to harass Vancouver’s possibly shaky central defense into mistakes, or make sure you also start the cagey two way vets, Chris Rolfe and Davy Arnaud (and to a lesser extent Farfan) to keep things tight but more importantly look up and spring Silva and Espy downfield as often as possible. Frustrate the ‘Caps physically and tactically and look to pounce on a mistakes is how SJ and the Crew both surprised Vancouver. Play tight, hope for a lead, then bring off Silva for Pontius and hope hatred of humanity carries Espindola to the final whistle.

Even if the lead doesn’t come, 0-0 is the result DC has left Vancouver with the past two years and that’s not bad at all considering the circumstances. In fact, there has only been one goal scored between both teams the last three years. Vancouver scored a 1-0 victory here last around those two scoreless draws there. Then again, if the soccer gods forbid and DC does fall behind, you still have DeLeon, Pontius, and maybe even the feisty Miguel Aguilar off the bench to provide a spark for the attack instead of the usual Conor Doyle to provide nails for the coffin.

Looking at the intangibles is grim, but has to be done I suppose. DC hasn’t beaten Vancouver since a 4-0 win in RFK in Vancouver’s expansion season and hasn’t even scored against the ‘Caps since the return leg 1-2 loss later that season. Current form isn’t much help either, as mentioned both are compiling points fairly well right now although DC with draws and Vancouver with wins sandwiched around the SJ loss. DC is 1-1 on the road outscored 2-1 losing to NY then beating Orlando; while Vancouver has won 3 straight at home since losing to TFC scoring 2 goals a game in beating LA and Portland and tying the Crew the last time playing in BC Place.

I think it interesting to note that in 2014, DC had a fairly shaky start but crept back in with some solid draws and big win in their sixth match 4-1 over Dallas. Their seventh match was in Portland and DC came back twice after falling behind and fully deserved a valiant point only lose horrifically in the 94th minute. However, DC barely looked back after that. Hardly a bobble along the way as they marched through the rest of the season right to an Eastern Conference title. In 2006, the last time DC ever started this good and their second best start ever, DC lost their 6th game, but then rattled off a 14 game unbeaten streak before grinding their way to a Supporter’s Shield. Interestingly, both teams were bounced in the first round mostly because they lacked depth and refused to adjust their tactics when circumstances arise.

This match has 0-0 written all over it, but I can’t shake the premonition of a 2-1 loss tomorrow. Still, more importantly I will be looking to see if Olsen will begin to show the ability or even the inclination to adapt to the way the league is changing. I believe it has to happen sometime if DC is ever to find the promised land again.

DC and the Dynamo

Fresh off giving up another late goal to NY, DC United hosts a team they are not sad at all to only play once a year in the Houston Dynamo at RFK tomorrow night.

A thorn in their side ever since their inception in 2006, DC is definitely not sorry to see Houston moved to Western Conference this year meaning they now only face each other once a year. Nice for this one to be in RFK to boot as DC won in Houston for only the first time ever last year. Since their inception in 2006, Houston’s ascendency has roughly mirrored United’s demise. Aside from last year’s glimmer of possibility, United’s last run of league success was back to back Supporter’s Shield’s in ’06 and ’07, but Houston won the MLS Cups both of those years, and knocked DC from the playoffs in 2012 enroute to the Dynamo’s fourth trip to the MLS Cup final in six years as DC wallowed.

However, defending Eastern Conference champion United sits at 3-1-1 riding a three game unbeaten streak and hasn’t lost at home in their last 14 matches, but suffice it say it hasn’t all been rosy in RFK of late despite the results. DC defeated a listless Montreal and a depleted Galaxy with pretty unconvincing play and somewhat miraculous 1-0 scorelines, then looked good going 2-0 up on NY before Olsen got outcoached allowing NY to come back and tie it up 2-2 after being over matched in NY losing that one handily 0-2. Still, DC is leading the East while Houston is barely hanging on to sixth in the West at 2-2-2.

Both teams have shown the ability to keep it tight in the back, but also a pretty shaky touch in front of goal. Houston’s defense has been absolutely stunning however. Outside of an own goal, they have only allowed defending league MVP Robbie Keane and MVP runner up Obafemi Martin to notch one goal each against them in 6 games. A year removed from their worst defensive performance ever, Houston appears to have re-discovered how to lock it down under new coach Owen Coyle.

A big key for both has been the play of their goalkeepers. United pretty much relies on Hamid and hope, but Houston is absolutely beholding to Deric and the dominoes falling their way. Tyler Deric has been sick this season with save of the week three weeks running at one point, highest save percentage in the league at 91.3 (for you hockey fans tuning in because of Caps angst) and .5 goals against average that would be even better than that if he hadn’t sportingly slapped one into his own net to throw a bone to the other net-minders in the league.

A former forward himself, Coyle has shown no inclination to jazz up Houston’s offense, perhaps merely waiting out the arrival of Cubo Torres, preferring instead to park the bus playing essentially a 4-6-0 and rely on set pieces and the odd mistake for offense. Not too dissimilar to United’s approach under Olsen I might add. Doesn’t exactly make for a mouth-watering matchup in RFK for sure, but both teams do have an ace or two in their sleeve. Giles Barnes, who has 3 goals in his last 5 games against DC and the winner last week against Montreal, has been the point of the spear for Houston as Ramblin’ Ray would say, and they have a trump card in Will Bruin who has killed United with 9 of his 35 career goals coming against DC. United on the other hand has last year’s second leading scorer Luis Silva virtually all the way back to starting and both Chris Rolfe and Chris Pontius who were a big part of DC’s sweep of Houston last season.

Looking at the lineups is a bit tricky. Silva should be ready to start and go 60, but Houston is so good defensively, it might be better to go with Silva off the bench against a tired defense and keep the continuity the team has built over the first 5 games. Also, Nick DeLeon has been an Olsen favorite and he might be back from his hamstring troubles, but Michael Farfan was a more than solid replacement. He doesn’t have the flashes of brilliance, but Farfan does bring intelligence, more defensive effectiveness, and a heck of a lot less turnovers. In my opinion, Farfan should start and DeLeon settle into his likely career role as a spark off the bench. Houston has a couple likely out as well, Oscar Boniek-Garcia with a balky knee from the Montreal win and probably new defender Raul Rodriguez who got clocked in the head by Deric in the Seattle loss a couple weeks ago.

So, considering the styles of play and looking into my crystal ball, I think Olsen goes with Pontius, Arrieta, Rolfe, Davy Arnaud, Perry Kitchen, and Farfan across the midfield from left to right. Then Taylor Kemp, Kofi Opare, Bobby Boswell, and Sean Franklin going from left to right in front of Bill Hamid.  Houston will almost certainly go with Barnes as their only “forward” with Brad Davis, Nathan Sturgis, and Rob Lovejoy, who had a goal and assist in the dismantling of Montreal last week, in front of hard men Luis Garrido and Ricardo Clark sweeping up in front of a back four of the ageless DaMarcus Beasly, David Horst, Jermaine Taylor, and Kofi Sarkodie going left to right in front of Deric.

Looking at the matchups is a bit deceiving, of far more importance is how United handles that amorphous attack coming from Davis, Sturgis, and Lovejoy in support of Barnes. DC had serious trouble with a similar overload in central attack in NY and lost handily. Olsen compensated to take the 2-0 lead against NY last game, but it took NY coach Jesse March 45 minutes to realize he could pull Dax McCarty, the hero in the first NY game, and change his tactics to a 4-3-3 and pretty much dominate the rest of the way, and Olsen’s answer was Conor Doyle and grasping at straws as NY stormed back to tie. It’s true I am hard on Olsen, but the defending coach of the year is getting outsmarted pretty regularly and always seems to be a game behind in the evolution of his thinking.

Starting Farfan was huge in terms of allowing Kitchen and Arnaud to stay connected in midfield and stifling NY at first, and it should work against Houston too. Farfan will go a long way to handling Davis especially as long as DC stays away from too many FK’s allowing Kitchen and Arnaud to throttle the center of the field defensively and even get forward turning Houston’s strength against them as their attackers will have to defend more than they’d like. Kemp also showed remarkable improvement in his defense against NY so he should be able to contain Lovejoy well enough leaving Boswell and Barnes to trade off on chasing Barnes and Ricardo Clark coming from making the run from a deep position.

However, if Coyle is any kind of fantasy fan, he knows the rule of thumb is to have Bruin on your team whenever he plays DC. When he brings in the Bear to shift more towards a true 4-5-1 with a center forward how DC handle’s that is the question. Boswell is key here. How he communicates with Opare is crucial to keeping DC’s lines intact and connected. If DC gets pulled apart by width, Bruin will have room and could cause havoc.

In the attack, DC simply has to get balls into the box from Rolfe, Kemp and god willing Franklin from wide play, as well as the odd ball over the top to Arrieta and Pontius behind Taylor and Horst. They will find no joy attacking down the center against Garrido and Clark. Their only chance down the middle is when those teeth-rattlers give up a freekick and sorry to say, but outside of a Silva being gifted a hideous wall, DC’s freekick plays have been abysmal. Barely even going forward much less being threatening. Crosses won’t work either, but they should at least open space in the middle for DC to quick pass into a chance here and there. Hopefully they put one in as Houston won’t give up much.

Looking at the intangibles, DC is coming off a home tie that should feel like a loss and Houston of a rousing home win. Interestingly, both teams have faced Montreal going paws up after an emotional midweek CCL travel game, but Houston won easily, while DC barely scraped by the Impact. DC is 2-0-1 at home and Houston is 0-1-1 on the road albeit against LA and Seattle. Overall records head to head show Houston up handily 13-6-2 against United outscoring DC 37-21 all time, but DC has managed a slight advantage at RFK going 5-4-1, albeit grimly outscored 14-16 by the Orange Crush in RFK. But DC did win the last one in DC against the Dynamo 2-0 as long as you studiously forget the 0-4 and 1-2 losses in the previous two at RFK.

On paper, this match has all the makings of a 0-0 snoozer, maybe 1-0 zero either way depending on a mistake or a brilliant play here or there. I think a tie is most likely but barring something surreal, it will ultimately come down to Hamid or Deric outplaying the other.

Depleted DC faces Orlando for first time

Fresh off their first victory over the Galaxy in seven years but reeling with injuries, DC travels to Orlando to face Orlando City on a purple monstrosity.

DC United has been clinical at home with two 1-0 wins over less than impressive opposition, but the fact they are grinding out points when not playing particularly well and with some key injuries and absences does bode well heading into Orlando and facing an expansion team that is definitely punching above their weight so far this season. But pulling off surprises on the field is nothing compared to what they have done to their field in the Citrus Bowl where they have installed purple grass. Not painted purple grass, actual grass colored purple that was grown specially for them and required a special dispensation from FIFA to be used. This abomination is no doubt newsworthy, but let’s hope OCSC keeps their marketing shenanigans to a minimum.

As for the latest on the injury list for DC is starting central defender Steve Birnbaum who rolled an ankle five minutes into the LA win and is out four to six weeks. He joins Eddie Johnson and unfortunately the guy signed to replace him, Finnish defender Markus Halsti who remains out with a bum knee. Of course, Fabian Espindola still has this game and three more to complete his suspension as well. DC does have forward Luis Silva nearly ready to return, in addition to midfielder Michael Farfan who did get some minutes at the end of the NY debacle, but options for DC coach Ben Olsen are thin for sure.Orlando also has some injury concerns as well, but will be bolstered by the return of their internationals.

Incredibly, despite being an expansion team and playing perhaps the least attractive soccer overall of any team outside of Colorado, Orlando has ridden a surprisingly strong defense and a few moments of Kaka brilliance to a 1-1-2 record and is only a point behind DC in the standings. Obviously, Kaka is the key to their success. His shot got the miracle deflection to tie NYCFC in their home opener, he scored and set up the two goals in 90 seconds that tied the Impact in Montreal last week and when Vancouver throttled him in week three, Orlando had no answer. However, rookie Pedro Ribiero has also been key as well scoring Kaka’s assist in Montreal and it was his hustle that forced Houston’s goalkeeper in to one of the most improbable own goals in soccer history.

Looking at the lineup’s DC should be pretty predictable as they are pretty much down to the nubs in terms of options. There’s no way Silva is ready to start, so it will be the Montreal hero Jairo Arrieta and the LA hero Chris Pontius scorers of DC’s only two goals this season at forward. In midfield, it is almost certainly to be Chris Rolfe, Davy Arnaud, Perry Kitchen, and Nick DeLeon going from left to right, although Farfan could start DeLeon as a tactical decision if he’s ready and Olsen wants to try something new, but more on that later. In defense, Taylor Kemp should get the start on the left, Kofi Opare the central partner for Bobby Boswell, and Sean Franklin on the right in front of Bill Hamid.

As for Orlando, that’s much more of a crapshoot. They’ve played more tactical variations than any team in the league in their first four games and have clearly not settled some positions. Seems likely Ribiero starts as their lone forward with Kaka roaming underneath him. Then in their crowded midfield, it’ll be some mix of Kevin Molino, Bryan Rochez, Eric Avila, Amobi Okugo, Darwin Ceren, Maybe Cyle Larin who just scored for Canada, etc. Orlando coach Adrian Heath has plenty of interchangeable parts on offense depending on what he wants to do. Same with the defense, he’d been playing four in the back, but the team scored two goals playing a hybrid 5 man backline in Montreal for example. I don’t think he does that again however as I think he goes four in the back which most likely will be Brek Shea fresh off a goal against the Swiss, Seb Hines or Sean St. Ledger, Aurelien Collin and Rafael Ramos in front of former goalkeep of the year Donovan Ricketts.

Looking at the tactics and matchups DC does have advantages, but in a matchup of two teams known so far for pretty tight defense and limited offense relying mostly on seizing opportunities, it’s more a matter of forcing mistakes rather than straight up tactics. Of course DC will go 4-4-2 as they have no imagination but it would be prudent to note that Orlando will play a five man midfield of some sort very similar to the Red Bull midfield that dismantled DC with ease. When DC is attacking, they simply have to get Kemp and Franklin forward or they have little hope of scoring outside of luck. If they get Kemp and to a lesser extent Franklin, who will have to be careful with Brek Shea and the soft defending DeLeon in front of him, then DC can stretch Orlando and beat them especially with Collin being foul prone and giving up set pieces.

It’s defensively where DC has to tighten up quite a bit or they are doomed. If they give Kaka the room they gave Kljestan and Felipe, he’ll hang a hat-trick on them especially as Kaka drifts to the right and the left side of DC’s defense is the weakest with Kemp not being the greatest at staying goal side his man and Opare being less than impressive when covering open space. With the speedy Rochez or Molino roaming that side as well, Kitchen or Arnaud simply have to be sharp to cover that central space and help the left side too because if it’s left up to Rolfe to always track back DC’s offense might go into witness protection it will be so invisible.

There’s plenty of variations for this to play out too, but the bottom line is Kitchen and Arnaud have to be able to handle the center of midfield with as little help from Pontius or Opare as possible. If they shut down Kaka, that’s most of the heavy digging done. Then Boswell and Hamid have to be smart with Ribiero and Opare has to help Kemp control that left side. Which means Franklin has to handle Shea pretty much on his lonesome. All of which is reasonable, fingers crossed with Opare. Then on offense, Collin is good but is shocked that anyone thinks he’s ever made a foul ever and Hines and St. Ledger are just teeth rattlers, Pontius and Arrieta are clever enough to get around them or force a crucial mistake. Neither Shea or Ramos are all that impressive defensively either so DeLeon or Rolfe can find some joy too assuming they can get up the field often enough.

Current form suggests a 1-1 draw and I think it plays out that way. It’s about time Orlando’s smoke and mirrors gets exposed and about time for DC to show they can play reasonable soccer on the road even if it is on a purple field. Kaka will score or set up one, but I think Rolfe or Pontius gets the other on a counter or an Orlando mistake. We’ll see.

LA's Robbie Keanne beats United defender Dejan Jakovic to the ball; Photo: Tony Quinn.

DC host a Galaxy without a few stars

DC hopes to rebound from a woeful performance last week by catching the Galaxy at a good time when most of their big stars are away.

Unfortunately for DC, while the Galaxy will be without their top two scorers in league MVP Robbie Keane and young superstar Gyasi Zardes, as well as starting keeper Jaime Pinedo, they do have Edson Buddle and Alan Gordon and they beat DC handily last year 4-1 without Keane and Zardes. Beefeater Gordon hung two of those goals on DC to boot and Buddle has scored more than 100 MLS goals so it’s not like LA is toothless. Of course the Galaxy are also defending champions and have won 3 of the last 4 titles under former United coach Bruce Arena, so this is not a team that will go down easily no matter who they are missing.

DC on the other hand is the defending Eastern Conference champions, but they won that by playing relatively injury and mistake free the entire season. That is not the case now. They are buried under injuries and one crucial suspension as well as seeing veteran players make truly shocking gaffes on both ends of the field. Granted, United started last season with a couple ugly games to begin the year before rebounding to virtually run the table, but this situation in no way mirrors last year.

DC was completely overhauled before last season and had seven new starters to integrate into the team in those first few ugly games. This year the team is virtually intact except for injuries to Luis Silva and the suspension of Fabian Espindola. It was supposed to be a strength of this team to be able to return virtually all of their starters from last year, but it hasn’t worked out that way at all. Outside of a few good plays here and there in the first few games, DC has looked confused and disjointed with mistakes aplenty.

Ben Olsen seems to think it is merely mental mistakes and not playing hard enough, but that’s naïve at best, insulting at worst. This team has shown very little organization offensively and is being tactically overwhelmed regularly and that is on Olsen. Teams from Costa Rica to the Jersey swamps have figured out that you can overwhelm DC’s pitiful midfield which has a domino effect on pulling DC’s defense too far apart and makes them prone to mistakes through being disconnected. And it’s becoming increasingly obvious neither Olsen nor the players are capable of figuring out how to adjust either before the game or during it.

Teams also don’t need to worry too much about DC’s pedestrian attack. Playing an archaic 4-4-2, DC is built to attack on the wings, but rarely does it effectively. More often than not an attack on the wing fizzles into someone dribbling into a herd for a turnover, or they turn and back pass for a defender to hoof it upfield to a flailing forward with defenders draped all over him. United is only truly threatening when they’re gifted a turnover in a good spot and sometimes not even then.

Last year, DC had these same problems on offense, but Espindola and Silva were able to mask the issues by finding each other in the seams of the opposing defense, and also finding the back of the net more often than not. So DC essentially scored enough to win close games as the defense hardly put a foot wrong. Without them and with Pontius playing like a shadow of his former self and Nick DeLeon dribbling himself into trouble constantly, DC’s offense is pretty much down to whatever the cagey veterans Chris Rolfe, Jairo Arrieta, and Davy Arnaud can conjure up usually out of nothing. You can bet the house Arena will have noticed and will come in here with a plan. It’s not for nothing Olsen has never beaten The Bruce in the four years he’s been DC’s coach.

Looking at the lineups, Olsen has almost no option but to go with the same starting XI from the New York debacle. Arrieta and Pontius as forwards, Rolfe, Arnaud, Kitchen and DeLeon in midfield and Chris Korb, Steve Birnbaum, Bobby Boswell, and former Galaxy right back Sean Franklin in the defense in front of Bill Hamid in goal. Maybe Taylor Kemp gets the start for Korb if he’s ready for 90 minutes, we’ll see. It’s my guess Arena goes with Buddle and Gordon at forward, Jose Villareal, Juninho, Baggio Husidic, and Stefan Ishizaki in midfield, then Dan Gargan, Omar Gonzalez, Leonardo, and Robbie Rogers in front of Brian Rowe. However, he may well rotate Gordon and Buddle allowing him to start an extra midfielder attacker like Mika Vayrynen if he knows Buddle can’t go 90 as he’s just back from an injury.

So, looking at the matchups and likely tactics, DC should be happy the tricky and precise Keane and speedy and powerful Zardes aren’t here because the aging Buddle and the teeth rattling Gordon are better matchups for DC’s central defense, but that’s where the good news ends. Villareal with a goal and an assist already this season will be a handful for Franklin and the rugged Ishizaki is an absolute nightmare for Korb or Kemp as Kemp has trouble defending anyone and Korb does not do well with big guys with skill who can fend him off or simply round him on the dribble. If Ishizaki gets five or six crosses in the box, then Gordon will bundle at least one in for sure.

All of which is also very bad news for DC’s offense which really needs to have Franklin and Korb or even better Kemp get forward into the attack. Franklin has been hesitant this year for some reason, but if he’s stuck back keeping Villareal from causing trouble and if Korb or Kemp contributes very little too, United is down to hoof it and hope. Which is unfortunate because that means Rolfe and DeLeon will have to stay wider and not come inside where they do their best work. LA has a bit of a soft spot as Juninho really is the only cover for the backline as Husidic doesn’t like to defend. So, unless the outside backs or even Arnaud gets forward enough to unbalance LA’s midfield defense, DC will be playing pretty much straight up and I don’t see Rolfe getting much joy against Gargan or Pontius and Arrieta getting over or around Gonzalez or Leonardo that much nor will DeLeon be much trouble for Rogers.

No matter how you break it down, DC just doesn’t have the talent or the form to pull off anything other than a tie against LA. DC would have to play their absolute best and LA be a bit off for there to even be hope of a win. DC just has too many key injuries right now and has yet to show any decent form or even a coherent style of play. Add in mistakes and you get the travesty we saw in New York. But even taking away those defensive mistakes, you just don’t see where the goals will come from in this game as LA isn’t likely to make a ton of mistakes. DC will have to be precise in the few chances they will get and they have yet to show that they can be that precise in front of goal.

It doesn’t help that LA has no reason to fear DC or RFK either. Incredibly, United hasn’t beaten the Galaxy since Gallardo was roaming DC’s midfield in 2008. DC has gone 0-3-4 against LA since. LA is also the only visiting team to have a winning record in RFK as well as the lead in head to head regular season meetings all-time as well. DC is 8-9-4 in RFK against LA, but three of last four matches in RFK have been draws so that’s something. DC is 13-19-9 all-time against LA, although United has beaten their biggest league wide rival twice in Cup finals.

Now I’d like nothing better than to be proven wrong, but everything points to a draw at best, more likely a loss. We’ll see. Recent history points to a draw and I remember a high draft pick back in 2009 making his first start in the first game of the season and scoring the tying goal in a 2-2 draw with the Galaxy in LA. Perhaps a certain electrifying high draft pick Miguel Aguilar, who just got his paperwork straightened out and is available, starts or comes off the bench and scores the tying goal in this one.

DC needs to find their edge against Red Bulls

In a rematch of last year’s first round playoff exit, DC United faces the New York Red Bulls in Harrison NJ no doubt with a small measure of revenge on their minds.

DC was the Eastern Conference champions last year when New York drummed them out of the MLS Cup playoffs far too easily. So while a win tomorrow won’t make up for that completely, spoiling NY’s home opener should be a prime motivator for DC to regain that chip on their shoulder they had all last season that propelled them to the greatest turnaround in league history from last in 2013 to first in 2014.

And make no mistake, regaining that edge is crucial to United’s success. On paper, DC has nowhere near the talent level of the majority of teams in MLS, and so far this year is even further decimated by injuries and a suspension, so their main source of success will come more often than not from their cohesion as a group and the mentality to prove detractors wrong.

That edge to their game which earned them the best record in the East last year has been glaringly absent so far this season. From the paws up performance in Costa Rica and subsequent exit from the CONCACAF Champions League to the pretty uninspiring win over the emotionally drained Montreal in DC’s home opener two weeks ago.
New York should be a good opponent to find that fire again. Not only a long time traditional rival but a team in transition as well having fired manager Mike Petke despite his success; and losing their most talented player with the retirement of Thierry Henry, and their best defender by far with the trade of Jamison Olave back to Real Salt Lake.

League leading scorer, NY forward Bradley Wright-Phillips, returns and will surely be a threat, but he’s a player that relies on other to set him up and Henry was their main threat to do that. Now newcomers, Felipe from Montreal and Sacha Kljestan in a revamped midfield have to figure out how to get BWP the ball enough times to make up for his horrid strike rate. He led the league in goals last year tying the MLS single season record, but he also had to have set the record for botched opportunities that will never be equalled. If he’d have scored all those wasted sitters, he’d have set a scoring record no one would touch in a 100 years.

As for DC, they have to contend with the loss of most of their top three scorers from last year. Leading scorer Fabian Espindola is serving the second game of a six game suspension for pushing a referee at the end of that playoff loss to Red Bull in last year’s final game. There is also the continued absence of their other designated player, Eddie Johnson due to apparently some sort of a heart ailment that has him sidelined indefinitely as well as Luis Silva struggling to return from a hamstring injury.

Picking up the slack has been newly acquired Costa Rican forward Jairo Arrieta, who was about the only player to play well against Alajuelense and scorer of the winning goal against Montreal, and Chris Pontius who should have scored against Montreal if the soccer gods had been paying attention.

Looking at the lineups, with no news that Silva or the newly acquired Finnish defender Markus Halsti are ready to return, it seems likely DC will trot out the exact same group that squeaked by Montreal. Bill Hamid in goal, defenders Chris Korb, Steve Birnbaum, Bobby Boswell, and Sean Franklin going left to right in front of Hamid. The midfield will almost certainly be Chris Rolfe, Davy Arnaud, Perry Kitchen, and Nick DeLeon supporting a forward line of Arrieta and Pontius.

For NY, it will be former DC draftee, Luis Robles in the nets with likely the newly signed left back, Kemar Lawrence from Jamaica in place of the injured Roy Miller. NY’s French connection central defense of Ronald Zubar and Damian Perrinelle might be broken up by Zubar carrying a knock picked up in their draw with KC in week one. Should Zubar not start, it will be homegrown Matt Miazga taking his place with Chris Duvall at right back. NY’s five man midfield will be former Carolina Railhawk, Mike Grella, Kljestan, Dax McCarty, Felipe, and speedster Lloyd Sam on the right supporting lone forward BWP.

So, matchupwise, DC could be in some trouble in midfield as NY floods forward in a similar way that Alajuelense used to expose serious flaws in United’s defensive structures unless they are 100% sharp mentally. Centrally, DC should be fine as Boswell and Birnbaum will negate BWP and Felipe when he ranges forward, as well as Kitchen and Arnaud handling Kljestan and McCarty well enough.

The key will be who wins the wings. If Rolfe and Korb outplay Sam and Duvall, as well as DeLeon and Franklin keep Sam and Grella honest, then DC will have the edge. However, if Rolfe or more likely Deleon get caught upfield too much, then DC’s defense will get stretched and out of shape to the point where mistakes happen far too often, and they’ll just have to rely on BWP missing his chances.

In particular that matchup of Korb against Sam will be crucial. Korb has played well defensively, but Sam is a game changer who has to be kept quiet or DC will be in real trouble. Sam scored the tying goal in KC last week as well as the winning goal when NY beat DC in the last regular season matchup in RBA. If Korb repeatedly needs help from Rolfe, DC’s offense will suffer. If he gets beat pulling Birnbaum or a central midfielder out of position too often, DC’s defense will likely struggle even worse.

In terms of current form, Red Bull gave Sporting KC all they could handle in Kansas City a couple weeks ago. If they’d have finished better, they’d have beat KC. However, they didn’t, even with a man advantage so their offense is a bit suspect right now. As is their defense which gave KC plenty of chances including a missed PK. DC isn’t much better though. They missed chances to put away a listless Montreal team that barely put up a fight. Both defenses got lucky as much as showed good form as well.

DC recent record in Red Bull Arena isn’t too good lately either. DC hasn’t won in RBA since 2012, and 1-4-1 there since DeLeon knocked them out of the playoffs in the snow game. United is ahead all time though at 33-23-9 over their most hated rival in the East. In addition, DC is 13-13-5 all time in New Jersey having outscored NY 50 to 41 in their house.

Too close to call this one. New York has the home opener edge and the more talented although getting the new chemistry right hasn’t quite showed up yet. On the other hand, DC is the more consistent team in terms of chemistry having made few changes since last year, but the results aren’t there yet. As with all DC-New York games, there will be drama as well.