The top team in the East on a two game road winning streak traveling to the last place team in the West who are on a three game losing streak is usually a sign for optimism, but with DC’s sketchy history in San Jose, United should be wary of any hint of over-confidence.
DC United is fresh of two solid road wins over TFC and Montreal sandwiched around a hard luck home loss to Seattle in RFK. The two game road winning streak is the first such streak since United’s last Supporter’s Shield winning season in 2007, and vaulted the team into a two point lead in the East, but winning in Canada is one thing, winning in San Jose is quite another given DC’s history there. San Jose on the other hand has indeed struggled this year and has lost their last three in a row all by 1-0 score-lines, including their last two at home, but SJ keeper Jon Busch is kryptonite against DC, Chris Wondolowski is back from Brazil and Steven Lenhart is a United killer if there ever was one.
With no news of DC leading scorer Espindola being anywhere near being back from a knee injury or about Jeff Parke’s foot being any better, I expect Ben Olsen to trot out the same starting XI that won in Toronto. That would mean Eddie Johnson at forward with Luis Silva playing underneath him and a midfield of Nick Deleon, Davy Arnaud, Perry Kitchen, and Chris Rolfe. In defense, with the recent departure of Spanish left back Christian Fernandez and return of Sean Franklin from injury it is a lock that Chris Korb plays the left side, while rookie Steve Birnbaum starts for Parke for the fifth straight game next to captain Bobby Boswell and Franklin on the right in front of Bill Hamid in goal.
SJ most likely inserts its returning World Cup players to jolt a lethargic and anemic team of late. I have no doubt Wondolowski will start looking to put that agonizing miss against Belgium behind him and SJ Frank Yallop would have to have a brain cramp to not start Lenhart who has something like 6 goals in 6 games against DC in his checkered career.
Bringing back Wondo will put likely Khari Stephenson back in his usual midfield slot and probably send Cordell Cato to the bench since Shea Salinas seems to still be out injured. New signing Yannick Djalo likely patrols the other flank with Corsican midfielder Jean Baptiste Pierazzi and Sam Cronin in the center. Seems likely former DC defender Brandon Barklage plays at right back, but Honduran Victor Bernardez takes over for Ty Harden in central defense next to Jason Hernandez, as Clarence Goodson appears to be out for at least another week, and English veteran Jordan Stewart on the left in front Busch in goal.
Even with SJ playing a pretty traditional 4-4-2 against United’s hybrid 4-5-1, the two teams do actually match up quite well against each other and it’s pretty even all over the field on paper if not in results. Offensively, DC tries to overload the sides by getting wingbacks forward or looking for counter attacks through the middle or over the top. SJ plays similarly but has been missing some style in midfield with Shea Salinas out injured and Djalo still rounding into form since being acquired as well as Wondolowski missing time which hasn’t helped. All of which has led a league low 15 goals in 15 games and barely any scoring lately. DC has been more effective in the attack with a slightly above league average 24 goals, but it has been goals by committee for the most part since Espindola injured his knee. Interestingly, both teams have given up slightly more than a goal a game defensively, but DC’s greater offensive results has pretty much been the difference between leading the East versus last in the West.
With so much parity on paper, the two key matchups for me that may well decide the game will be how well Rolfe can cause problems against Barklage down DC’s left side and how well rookie Birnbaum does against Lenhart. Semi-tough has always used every hook and crook to get over on defenders and while Birnbaum has done very well against slick snipers like Jairo Arrieta, Kenny Cooper, and Jermaine Defoe in recent weeks, the hammerhead Lenhart is a whole different kind of shark. No doubt Boswell will battle him like a couple of junk yard dogs scrapping for a hubcap as the preferred matchup, but there will be times Birnbaum will be the matchup and he has to be impervious to Lenhart’s dark arts if DC is to keep him in check.
Offensively, if Rolfe can shake loose and cause problems on the left, that might well create space for himself as well as perhaps give EJ and Silva some room to get themselves back on the score sheet. Silva hasn’t scored or even been effective outside of the Montreal hat-trick, and EJ has waffled between an out of sync bitter lone wolf and a hard working force opening space for others but not himself and he rarely on target with his shots in either case. Hernandez or Ty Harden for that matter are definitely the weak link in that defense and if either Silva or EJ can shake off the cobwebs, DC has a big advantage there, but that’s a big if considering their play of late.
And no looking for good vibes on the road to help a visiting team out either! DC has only won once in SJ since 1998, a 2011 victory behind Dwayne De Rosario’s brace in his MVP season. United is a putrid 3-8-6 in SJ and considering 2 of those wins came in ’97 and ’98, that means DC has gone 1-8-6 since then. Incredibly, considering United’s four Supporter’s Shields, DC overall record isn’t much better at 12-16-6 against SJ all time. However, United did get one of their three wins in 2013 with a 1-0 victory the last time these two teams faced each other in RFK behind a Chris Pontius penalty kick.
Current form is a lot more promising for the good guys however. After going 0-2 on the road to start the season, DC has rebounded nicely to win 3 of their last 4 including the last two in a row as mentioned. United is also a 3-1-1 in their last five and are only one win away from tripling their dismal win total from last year. SJ on the other hand is spiraling the bowl currently. They have lost three in a row and four of their last six. Their home record is a middling 3-3-3 with only 3 shutouts. Looking at the numbers, DC is 3-3 and scores 1.8 goals a game on the road and hasn’t been shutout on the road since the second game of the season. SJ gives up a goal a game at home on average and barely scores more than that.
So, current form says DC draws or wins a tight one by one goal, but history says DC only wins in SJ once every decade although we do get a draw there every five years or so. DC is riding a wave and even has a lot of room to improve while San Jose is having a painful season and is banged up and bitter, but they do hold some sort of whammy over United in their house. DC should be able to get a win all things considered, but unless the soccer gods sit this one out like they did for DeRo back in 2011, a draw does seem the most likely result.