DC looks for reversal of history in San Jose

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.

Cruising United should be wary of lethal Revs

DC has lost just once in their past nine games but they still trail the suddenly surging Revs by two points for the top spot in the East.

United is coming off another solid home win over perennial power Houston and have every right to be feeling good about themselves but they have haven’t established that same swagger on the road and face a Revs team who have suddenly found their offense and ridden two straight five goal wins to the top of the East.

On paper heading into the season the Revs, loaded with offensive talent, would have a scary offense and an probably an equally porous defense while DC, with the addition of solid veterans, would be the team to grind out the close games. Instead, DC started badly and had to live with some wildly high scoring wins and losses while NE couldn’t score, but was grinding out results. The tables have returned to form though except for the fact NE is still not giving up much despite their relatively weak defense on paper.

NE has won due to some fortuitous scheduling lately for sure, but the Revs began to turn it around by inserting second year defender Andrew Farrell into the central defense to plug some leaks and trun ties into wins, but perhaps the biggest key has been Hermann Trophy winning rookie Patrick Mullins playing the point forward in their hybrid 4-5-1 and . Since that has happened, NE has outscored opponents 12-4 with 3 straight wins.

DC, on the other hand has just simply reverted back to the norm for their players. Early on, veteran defenders were making uncharacteristic mistakes and dynamic attackers were anything but. Now, The defense has cut out most of the brutal gaffs. Fabian Espindola has put himself back on pace for his usual 10+ goals a year, Eddie Johnson has also recently found the net and he’s a consistent 12+ goals a year player. But perhaps the biggest key has been the emergence of Chris Rolfe as a pretty solid replacement for the expected production of the truly unfortunate Chris Pontius. With two goals and three assists in his last five games, Rolfe’s calming confidence and competence has been every bit as important as the fiery Espindola’s flamboyance.

It seems doubtful anyone on DC will need a rest despite the game Wednesday and with DC as healthy as they have been any time this year, I would be surprised if there is any changes to the starting lineup. Coach Ben Olsen should trot out EJ and Espy as forwards, although given the chemistry Rolfe displayed next to Espy and EJ’s somewhat petulant body language lately, there has to be a strong urge to sit EJ and play Rolfe up there. However, EJ is your money man and you can’t undercut him like as you will need him down the road, that plus Rolfe’s savvy bouys DC’s still shaky midfield. From there, it’s a no brainer that Lewis Neal, Perry Kitchen and Nick Deleon round out the midfield. Presumably, Sean Franklin is still battling a sore foot, but Chris Korb has been more than solid in the understudy role lately and should join Bobby Boswell, Jeff Parke and Christian Fernandez in front of the Bill Hamid in goal.

NE is almost certainly going to play the same lineup that has been hanging fives on people lately. Former Terp National champion Mullins as the “lone” forward supported by Teal Bunbury, Diego Fagundez and Lee Nguyen in the attack and backed by Andy Dorman and Diago Kobyashi in central midfield. Possibly Kelyn Rowe is ready for the field and he covers much more ground and is the more offensive weapon than Kobyashi, but The Japanese midfielder has been a calming influence so that’s a tossup. Defensively, Chris Tierney, AJ Soares, Farrell, and Darrius Barnes or Kevin Alston have been rock solid in front of Bobby Shuttleworth or Brad Knighton if Shuttlecock is still not back from a concussion.

So, looking at the matchups, nobody has the advantage as this one could go either way barring flukes or bad calls or bad breaks which do seem to happen quite often in this very bitter rivalry going back to the birth of the league. EJ and Espy might well have their speed, strength and guile negated by the equally strong and underrated play of Soares and Farrell. Tierney and Barnes are underrated too and will make Rolfe and Deleon earn their chances especially as Neal is unlikely to be much help. Defensively DC will have their hands full, NE has weapons all over and in fact has gotten goals from practically half their roster. They spread the goals around and attack from all angles switching positions freely all across their attacking line. Perry Kitchen and Boswell and Parke will be the keys for DC. If DC’s central defense can prevent the slippery Mullins from getting much of the ball to lay off to Bunbury and Fagundez allowing them to inflict misery on Fernandez and Korb; and if Kitchen can shut down NE’s most consistent attacker Nguyen, then NE will struggle to score, if not it could be a blood bath.

On paper, both teams have the ability to shut down the other, but it will shut down their own offense as well, so a 1-0 win either way seems likely. However, if there’s an early goal or a bad call or a couple red cards, all possible scenarios in this sometimes crazy series, then either team could win or lose a 5-4 thriller or a 4-0 blowout. Too tough to handicap this one.

Obviously current form is meaningless as both are going well. History isn’t much help either as DC holds the all time edge at 29-25-5, but is 10-16-5 in Boston. However, recently DC hasn’t won in NE in a coon’s age so that’s even less a help. DC did pull off the Massachusetts Miracle up there back in 2003 when legends Marco and Alecko came off the bench to spark 3 goals in the last 7 minutes, with two of those goals deep in stoppage time, to win 4-2 after playing ugly and trailing for 83 minutes, and this current situation does bring to mind that wild game.

So buckle up. Anything could happen in this one.

DC looks to keep the good times rolling

DC United is coming off a spectacular win over league leading Dallas last week to push their unbeaten streak to five games and will be looking to push that to six in Portland if they can take advantage of the defending Western Conference champion’s early season funk.

Last year Portland was nearly unbeatable and cruised to the Western Conference title with a mere five losses on the season and only one loss at home where the Timbers Army reigns supreme, but has struggled to find that form so far this season still being winless eight games into the season. However, after a slow start of their own to the season, DC United has suddenly found the chemistry DC coach Ben Olsen was hoping for when seven new starters were added this past off season. From no goals or shutouts in the first two games of the season, DC has averaged two goals a game over the past five games and has two shutout wins while only allowing one team to score more than one goal, The Fire in a 2-2 draw five weeks ago.

The only concern is the continued frustration on display from their designated player Eddie Johnson who has yet to find the back of the net and came off last week with a tweaked hamstring. It is not a stretch to think the snakebit EJ is a bit frustrated in his lack of production and chagrined to see his running mate Fabian Espindola involved in almost every scoring play as well as his replacement, Conor Doyle forcing the action on the game winning goal against Dallas. Under normal circumstances only a little patience is needed to see EJ start to bag goals at his usual rate in MLS, but with time running out to impress Jurgen Klinnsmann ahead of the World Cup, EJ has to be thinking he needs to get on the score sheet and soon.

Portland on the other hand has been about as unlucky this year as it was lucky last year. No doubt the schedule has done them no favors with their first four on the road in Dallas, Houston, Colorado and RSL all tough places to get points this year. However, it is the points they’ve dropped at home that have really hurt. They haven’t lost at home, but they haven’t won either. Four draws to start off their home campaign and aside from the wild 4-4 draw with Seattle, Portland had winnable games against Philly, Chicago, and ChivasUSA that they let slip away. All the bounces that went their way at home last year have been going against them, but also last year’s wondercoach Caleb Porter could do no wrong, but his tinkering with the lineup this year has not done anyone any good, especially his erratic forwards corps that simply has not been able to find consistent chemistry or even a consistent group of starters.

Last week it was Gaston Fernandez who got his turn at point forward and he scored the tying goal in Houston. With Kalif Al Hassan taking some of the pressure off Darlington Nagby and Diego Valeri, Portland’s attack is starting to show signs of coming together, but then again the draw in Houston was Portland’s fifth of the season without a win. Fernandez was also the starter earlier in the season and scored Portland’s first two goals of the season, yet he was dropped in favor of Maximiliano Urruti until this past week, so who knows what Porter will do this time around.

Portland’s strengths are clearly it’s tough and dynamic midfield and generally stout defense. Playmaker Diego Valeri was newcomer of the year last year with a double double in goals and assists, while Diego Chara and Wil Johnson make life miserable for opponents as well as tossing in some crucial goals from time to time. Defensively, Portland has been prone to give up chances and soft goals, but they keep the game close regardless of mistakes or how good the attacking team is. Argentine central defender Norberto Paparatto has had some shaky moments adjusting to MLS, but Gambians Pa Modou Kah and Mamadou Danso have been solid backing him up. Fixtures at outside back have been Michael Harrington and Jack Jewsbury in front of former keeper of the year in Donovan Ricketts.

It would seem likely Ben Olsen goes with the same starting XI as last week, the only question being whether or not EJ or possibly Sean Franklin, who both came off with slight injuries last week, are able to go. But if either or both are unavailable, DC has solid replacements in Doyle or even Luis Silva for EJ and Chris Korb for Franklin. I think it likely both EJ and Franklin start however. Franklin didn’t look like his knock was serious, and EJ will want to be on the field every chance he can get before the World Cup camp opens in a few weeks. That would make DC’s lineup EJ and Espindola at forward, Nick Deleon, Davy Arnaud, Chris Rolfe and Perry Kitchen in midfield, and Franklin, Bobby Boswell, Jeff Parke, and Christian Fernandez along the backline in front of Bill Hamid in pretty much a straight up 4-4-2.

So looking at the matchups, DC has some areas of concern, but also some good areas of the field they can attack. Portland plays a hybrid 4-3-3 for the most part and tends to play somewhat narrow which plays into DC’s strengths down the middle defensively. I do not see Urruti or Fernandez being too much of a difficulty for Parke and Boswell and given the way Kitchen and Arnaud have largely eliminated guys like Gonzalo Higuain and Mauro Diaz recently, Valeri might well find DC’s a defense a tough row to hoe as well. The only real concern for me is Darlington Nagby who does present a matchup problem wherever he lines up as our outside backs do have a tendency to lose quick shifty guys like Nagby. Offensively, DC likes to attack wide and should be able to stretch Portland out of shape if DC avoids the temptation to play too defensively on the road in front of a tough crowd. DeLeon and Rolfe are playing as good as we’ve ever seen from them right now and should be able to unbalance Portland’s defenses. EJ’s speed and strength are a problem for anybody and with Espindola as hot as anyone in the league right now, should DC come in playing like it was a home game and dictate the rhythm, Portland’s funk might well continue despite their desperation to please the perhaps the best stadium environment in MLS.

DC won their first ever meeting in Portland in 2011 and haven’t beaten them since, so not too many positives from history in their favor, but it’s a new day dawning for United fans as years of misery seem to be coming to a close. DC has become the solid team that was expected of them after overhauling their starting corps from last year. United’s defense has tightened up their communication and occasional sloppy play at times to be in the running for pitching a shut out in any given game. Arnaud and Rolfe have solidified the relatively weak midfield DC started the season with, allowing Deleon to become a lot more dynamic without feeling like he is carrying the sole burden for generating chances. Espindola looks to be on pace for his usual 10 plus goals a season and has been involved with 7 of DC’s 10 goals this year. Once EJ gets off the schneid and starts bagging his usual 12 plus goals a season, DC is going to be a tough team for anyone to beat.

They are not an elite team yet, but they are solidly in the upper middle class and might be moving on up if the rest of the league continues to overlook their dramatic progress after the last few years of misery. DC is the league doormat no longer. Overlook them at your peril.

Next step for DC United is a win

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It starts tomorrow. (Fingers crossed)

DC needs to play a lot better to put out the Fire

Obviously this season has not gone as expected for DC United and they are currently hovering over the slippery slope of despair at 0-2, but there’s a very simple recipe for notching that first win and it’s to simply get Eddie Johnson the ball and let him beat out the Fire.

He is the biggest of DC’s off season acquisitions and was recently rewarded with the big contract he has wanted since coming back to MLS. So DC has shown him the money, now Eddie Johnson has to show us the goals. Unfortunately, he has been largely invisible in United’s first two matches. That has to change if DC is going to turn their ship around and start finding ways to win games.

Two shots on goal in two games by the whole team is about as ugly a stat as it gets, but it is not all EJ’s fault as some other telling stats show that the attackers around him have averaged less than three completed passes apiece to him in the attacking third of the field. That’s appalling. If they won’t get him the ball in dangerous spots, it’s tough for him to impact the game and he was brought in to be the game changer. He needs to be regularly getting on the end of crosses, balls over the top, as well as set pieces for DC to be successful.

It is obvious DC wants to attack the wide spaces having picked up attacking fullbacks in Christian Fernandez and Sean Franklin, and the Fire are weakest defensively at outside backs. So it should be a steady diet of wide players whipping balls into the box where EJ only has to use his quickness and physicality to beat the Fire’s stout central defenders a few times to give DC a good chance at getting their first couple goals of the season. Even if the Fire concentrate their efforts to eliminate EJ from the game, he should draw so much attention that trailing DC attackers could capitalize.

Defensively, DC simply has to cut out the crucial and extremely avoidable mistakes that have dogged them so far this season. All the goals they have given up were simple missed assignments such as Nick DeLeon gifting the Crew their first goal of the year, or flat out mind-boggling bad plays like Bobby Boswell sprinting back to keep Gilberto onside and allow for Jermaine Defoe to eventually win the game for TFC last week.

The Fire attack has players that all like to interchange positions and attack fluidly, but they always eventually end up being most dangerous right down the center of the field, so if DC can clog up the middle of the field, the Fire do not seem likely to score more than one goal. It should be a simple game plan defensively. Plant Boswell, Jeff Parke and Perry Kitchen keeping them tight in the center of the field and allowing them use their brains to keep the Fire from finding holes created by their constant switching and movement. Do that and the Fire should not score more than one goal.

Offensively, the game plan is even easier. Pound the ball to EJ in the box as often as possible. Granted, Bakary Soumare and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado looked very good in shutting down Henry and Tim Cahill last week, but EJ is a lot more physical than Henry and much quicker than Tim Cahill. If he gets on the end of plays in the box five or more times, he is almost certainly going to tie the game if not win it outright.

Almost certainly DC and the Fire will play the same starting lineups from last week, so looking at the matchups, DC does have the necessary edge in key areas, especially out wide, to accomplish their goals if they play well.

That most especially means DeLeon, Luis Silva, and Davy Arnaud (or Kyle Porter or Lewis Neal) if Arnaud is still out from the head butt from Michael Bradley) MUST play a lot better than they have been playing. United’s midfield has been a complete mess, but the Fire’s lineup favors DC’s midfield to come out of their slump with their weakest defenders Matt Watson and Gregg Cochrane (or Gonzalo Segares if he’s back form injury) on the outsides. In addition, Harrison Shipp and Benjy Joya are dynamic young attackers, but they aren’t much yet in terms of defensive help. Assuming Franklin and Fernandez get upfield as well, the Fire could be in real trouble on the wings. Silva is unlikely to find much joy inside going against Larentowicz straight up, but if the Ginger Assassin is pulled wide to help scythe down DC wingers, Silva might find tons of room to operate for the first time this year.

Defensively, Boswell and Parke are very familiar with Mike Magee and Quincy Amarikwa. Magee won an MVP trophy by finding those little spaces and holes in a defense to get off his deadly accurate shots, but he does not typically beat a defender with speed which are Boswell and Parke’s biggest weakness. In fact their strength is in positioning and intelligence to close down those little spaces Magee wants to exploit. Amarikwa is more the speed and power player, but he is also well known and can be negated with superior positioning as well.

Kitchen and Franklin have the intelligence and experience to be effective against the crafty old Alex and shifty young Shipp respectively, but another DC player that simply has to play a lot better and closer to his obvious abilities is left back Christian Fernandez. The Spanish back has shown flashes of brilliance in attack and some solid play overall defensively, but he has also been prone to bad turnovers and some horrendous marking decisions and communication problems. If he has another bad game, the very dynamic Joya will crucify DC. Arnaud (or even better Lewis Neal) had better help out on Joya. Hopefully, Hamid has another blinder and stones the chances Joya is likely to create, or failing that at least keep the damage to a single goal.
Bottom line is that DC has not even come close to their capabilities so far this season, but the Fire present them with some glorious matchups that could get them out their funk if they are ready to cut out the stupid mistakes and play to their strengths.

Historically, matches in RFK against the Fire, especially those in the rain, have been some barnburners and this match is shaping up that way. Looking at the weather tomorrow, two infamous early season matches against immediately sprung to mind. The glorious win in a deluge in 2000 when the Fire of Nowak, Stoitchkov, and Razov were beaten by two stoppage time goals from Ben Olsen and Jaime Moreno, and Boswell scoring a header late to beat the Fire 4-3 in 2006 when he was on his way to earning defender of the year.

DC is 11-8-4 against the Fire in RFK, and while most of that damage has been done by the Fire in recent dismal seasons as the Fire have won three of the last four times they visited RFK, United also has a history of getting their first points of the year in RFK against the Fire, having done that an incredible four times over the years including that dramatic win in 2000. DC started the season 0-2 that year as well, but perhaps that analogy should stop right there.

And don’t look for any coaching statistics to bouy your spirits! Olsen is a lackluster 1-4-3 against the Fire, while former DC assistant coach Frank Yallop is a whopping 10-5-5 against United.

A loss would be a lot more devastating than a simple 0-3 start to the season. It’s still too early to push the panic button, but at the very least DC has to show they can play smarter and that their off season acquisitions really are going to turn their fortunes around. The next three matches are in RFK with NE in RFK in two weeks is another winnable match. DC simply has to get some points in the next two matches or the perhaps find themselves sinking back into the futility of the past few years that they hoped have left behind with the drastic overhaul of their roster.

Eddie Johnson is the key. If DC figures out how to get him the ball regularly, they become a dangerous team, if not, it could be another long dreary season.

DC Faces Tough Test in Toronto

The new look DC United got some old results in their home opener two weeks ago and now has to head into Toronto looking to get back on track against a revamped Toronto team that was a whole lot more impressive in their win in Seattle.

DC United replaced seven starters this past off-season and unfortunately fell 3-0 to the Crew in an auspiciously bad beginning to their 2014 campaign to restore their respectability. Usually a trip to perennially inept Toronto would be just the cure, but where DC took small prudent steps forward in upgrading their roster, TFC went whole hog and splashed the cash with big time players right down the spine of the team, and those guys won their season opener for only the second time in their history in perhaps the most daunting place to play in MLS by beating Seattle 2-1.

Just for comparison, DC brought in Eddie Johnson and Fabian Espindola, both solid MLS veterans, to provide the scoring. TFC brought in long time premier league forward Jermaine Defoe and a veteran of the Brazilian league, Gilberto who will likely make his season debut for TFC tomorrow, to provide their scoring. In midfield, DC brought in Davy Arnaud, TFC brought in Michael Bradley. TFC revamped their defense as well as DC did, but those guys held a pre-season favorite in Seattle to a single goal on the road, while DC’s backline gave up 3 to a very lightly regarded Crew offense at home. And that’s not even mentioning their acquisition of the Brazilian number one keeper in Julio Cesar.

Bottom line is that TFC went big in the off-season while DC went less big and probably got the results they deserved in their first action this season. But one game does not a season make. TFC had more than a few shaky moments in Seattle and their roster is somewhat top and bottom heavy meaning that due to the salary cap they have the horses out of the gate for sure, but their depth drops off like the Marianas Trench, while DC has less expensive talent at the gun, but more options to play with off the bench which can change a match in a good way.

Looking critically at DC’s opening loss, DC played well in the opening minutes of the match when their outside backs bombed up the field and discombobulated the Crew for about 15 minutes. When pushing the play with numbers up, DC looked good. Unfortunately, a bad defensive mistake by Nick DeLeon led to giving up a very bad goal early on which put DC on the defensive. Then it looked like the heads went down and a few minutes later after a fairly soft PK awarded against them pretty much doomed the team to a loss.

When DC looked good, the wing backs were up and the midfield compressed so that DeLeon and Davy Arnaud were close to Luis Silva allowing for them to play the quick short passing style all of them excel at. Unfortunately after the two goals were ceded, the wing backs stayed home more, DeLeon and Arnaud drifted wide, Silva was isolated and hardly any balls made it to either Fabian Espindola or Eddie Johnson (EJ) for most of the rest of the match, not to mention the room that shift afforded to Higuain who burned DC all night.

However, the insertion of Lewis Neal changed the match in that he simply got his head up and bypassed midfield to look for EJ over the top and it nearly worked a couple of times and he also helped keep Higuain under wraps with a few choice body checks to make sure. Now, DC has had two weeks to work out their strategy against TFC, but the bottom line is that DC needs to impose their will on the game and for the most part that will has to be finding EJ going one on one, or getting behind defenses as much as possible, and it does no good for Espindola to run himself into the ground if there are not enough players upfield to take advantages of any mistakes he makes defenders makes with his pressure.

To me it seems simple, commit to bombing your wing backs upfield, play almost a 3-5-2 where Kitchen sits in front of central defenders Bobby Boswell and Jeff Parke, compress the midfield since it is your weakest link right now, so flood it with numbers, and look to spring EJ or pounce on a mistake forced by Espindola’ pressure or simply cash in on some freekicks as that was another strength DC displayed. I would start the same starting XI with the caveat only that if DeLeon is not up to the job, Neal should replace him. Not as flashy a player as DeLeon, but he gets the job done more often than not and is much more a two way player that fits in with Kitchen and Arnaud better as long as DeLeon is not bringing his shooting boots or his defensive head to the game. I like his talent and upside, but if he’s not going to affect the game on the scoresheet, then he’s a liability right now.

Coincidentally, that is a good strategy to use against TFC. Toronto’s strengths are right down the middle and their wings were not very impressive. Flood the middle and help negate what Michael Bradley is going to do against most teams in MLS this year, collapse on Defoe and obviously eliminate mistakes which he will clearly pounce on ruthlessly. Counter attack against TFC’s relatively soft central defenders.

I expect DC to start the exact same starting lineup (unless maybe Neal does start over DeLeon) and I expect the same starting lineup for TFC. So former DC MLS Cup winner Ryan Nelsen will trot out Defoe, and former DC MLS MVP Dwayne DeRosario as forwards. In midfield, Alvaro Rey, Jackson Goncalves, and Jonathan Osorio will join future MLS MVP Michael Bradley, and along the backline it should be Justin Morrow, Steven Caldwell, Doneil Henry, and Bradley Orr, now that he’s back from injury, across the backline from left to right in front of Cesar in goal.

So, looking at the matchups, offensively, I like Arnaud and Sean Franklin going up against Rey and Morrow and Deleon or Neal and Cristian Fernandez going up against Jackson and Orr. I doubt Silva does anything against Bradley, but I think EJ and Espindola can find some space against Caldwell and Henry to finish chances provided from the outsides or from balls over the top.

Defensively, well it doesn’t look as good obviously. But, assuming Boswell, Parke and Kitchen play to their strengths which is positioning and smarts, they should win most of their battles with Defoe and Osorio who seem to rely more on craft and opportunism than outright physical domination. DC is also clearly hoping for the DeRo of 2013 to show up as opposed to the DeRo of 2012 who lit up his old teams to the tune of enough goals to secure an MVP trophy, but enough said about that.

If we’re looking at trends, DC has historically done well in TFC (who hasn’t?) but this is clearly not your father’s TFC team nor is it the DC of 2010 or 2013, or the improbable Eastern Conference champions of 2012 or the Supporter’s Shield or Open Cup winning teams of 2007 and 2008. I suspect trends will have nothing to do with this match, but it would be nice if they did as DC is 6-3 in BMO field outscoring them 11-8, and 10-5 over TFC lifetime outscoring them 35-25.

A DC victory is obviously a stretch. TFC is too talented in most starting positions, but an improbable win or a good solid well-earned draw could go a long way toward giving DC some momentum in the old team building department. It can’t have sat well that the new look team played like and got the results of the last year’s epically bad squad. A point, or soccer gods willing, a miraculous win in Toronto and there could be a whole lot of gelling going on in DC.

This team has potential, all they need is some results to point them on the right path.

New Look DC United Hosts Crew to open 2014 Campaign

After a horrific 2013 season, DC United made sweeping changes to their starting lineup and likely seven new starters will be on display for their 2014 season opener at RFK against the Columbus Crew.

DC United set records for futility last season with an inept offense and suffered from atrocious defending all of which combined to garner a paltry three wins last season. To address those specific defects, United’s brainstaff used this off-season to completely change the starting forward and defensive lines as well as bolster the midfield and bench with some fresh new faces.

Likely the key to United’s offensive turnaround, if there is one, will be the performance of US International forward Eddie Johnson. DC traded for the disgruntled former Seattle marksman and yesterday fulfilled their pledge to upgrade his contract to designated player status. When at his best, Eddie Johnson is as dangerous a forward as their is in MLS. With Seattle the past two years he scored 23 goals in 56 matches for the perennial Western power. Along with former RSL and NY forward Argentine forward, Fabian Espindola, those two will be expected to score in buckets for a team that didn’t have a single player score more than three goals for the entire season last year.

United also shipped out or released its entire defensive corps and brought in former MLS defender of the year Bobby Boswell as the likely captain of the team. He will lead a revamped defense alongside veteran central defenderJeff Parke and Spanish defender Christian Fernandez will man the left side of United’s defense while former Los Angeles Galaxy defender Sean Franklin will patrol the right flank.

United’s midfield remains largely intact even to the point of Chris Pontius being not quite ready to return from off season surgery. However, the addition of former KC and Montreal midfielder Davy Arnaud should help steady a still very young United midfield corps made up of stalwart Perry Kitchen and young American attackers Luis Silva and Nick DeLeon.

The injection of EJ and Espindola add speed and some precision in front of goal that United has lacked for years which should lead to a much more precise counterattacking style of play as well as some deadly accuracy on set pieces. Both are also well respected for their hard work in harassing defenders which will help DC from being caught out on turnovers or long balls over the top as well.

The addition of Fernandez and Franklin as wing defenders sends a clear message that DC expects their wing backs to get up into the attack regularly, something which United hasn’t done since Andy Najar left, and hasn’t done on both sides of the field since The Bruce was the coach. With United lacking clear wing players for the most part this should lend itself toward United allowing their outside midfield players to play more narrow (which most of them would rather do anyway) and putting teams on their heels defensively.

To protect behind these guys bombing up the wings DC head coach Ben Olsen appears to have settled on sitting Perry Kitchen right in front of Boswell and Parke to force opponents to attack wide and send crosses in that will be eaten up by Boswell and Parke who are both exemplary in the air. But a key for this style to work is a commitment to track back and help by midfielders as well as quick transitions out of the back to exploit opponents tempted too far forward.

The Columbus Crew also made some startling changes heading into this season. Most notably by trading away their longest serving and almost iconic defender Chad Marshall as well as their big money defender Glauber in addition to the rather surprising retirement of longtime midfielder Eddie Gaven . In their place new Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter has brought in former MLS defender of the year Michael Parkhurst and Costa Rican central defender Giancarlo Gonzalez, as well as added a slick young midfielder from LA in Hector Jimenez who has lit it up late in the pre-season for the Crew.

The Crew also brought in some new elements in their team by signing former US youth International Steve Clark from the Norwegian first division in goal and picking up journeyman midfielder Daniel Paladini as well as  defender Tyson Wahl.

Outside of the loss of Gaven and to a lesser extent, Dilly Duka, their attack remains the same orchestra conducted by Gonazalo Higuain with the solos provided by Costa Rican Jairo Arrieta and the speedy but erratic Dominic Oduro at forward. Oduro, who has tortured United during his spotty career, is suspended for the opener having received a red card in the last match of the season last year.

Obviously both teams will be a bit disjointed with so many new faces in their starting XI, but perhaps each are further along than expected as both teams won their respective preseason tournaments just before tomorrow’s season opener. DC captured the Charleston Challenge Cup over Houston and Seattle, while the Crew shocked the defending MLS Cup champions Sporting KC with a victory in the Disney Pro Soccer Classic with both sides going undefeated in their respective tournaments.

Looking at the likely matchups is obviously dicey this early in the season, but United’s system and personnel are a very good matchup against the Crew. Columbus has always tried to work through Higuain and up to Arrieta slashing in on goal, but United’s central defensive triangle of Kitchen, Boswell and Parke should thwart that plan well enough on balance. Should the Crew attack wide, Jimenez and Bernardo Anor are less of a threat than Higuain as Columbus have no true aerial threats to trouble the likes of Boswell, Parke or Hamid coming off his line even should they get to the endline.

Going the other way Eddie Johnson will be a handful as a welcome back to MLS for Parkhurst as will the feisty Espindola in welcoming Gonzalez to MLS. In addition, while Paladini in not the guy you want to meet in a dark alley, he is also settling into a new team while having to deal with essentially three attacking midfielders in DeLeon, Silva, and Arnaud all slashing inside from time to time. If Arnor and Jimenez don’t help out, Paladini could be easily overrun, giving DC the advantage.

It’s also a rare season opener at home for DC United and in MLS the winning percentage for season openers at home has to be in the 70% range. Granted that is not completely true for United as they have won only one home season opener since 2001, but then again it was the Crew they beat 3-1 in the 2011 home opener and they have had very few home season openers over the years. Although this is the third season opener at home in the last four years, DC United has only hosted a season opener seven times total in their now nineteen year history. However, DC is a mere 3-2-1 in previous home season openers and a paltry 5-4-4 in home openers overall since the turn of the century.

Historically, the Crew have not fared well in RFK either. They did win here last season (who didn’t?) but they are a woeful 7-18-3 all time in RFK and even with their stellar record in Ohio, still remain a dismal 23-25-8 against United all time.

It’s really tough to say this coming off the horrific season DC had last year, but they addressed their major deficiencies in the off season and the team does look to have the makings of a team that will be very hard to score on as well as having a decent chance to score from EJ stretching the defense or from turnovers created by the tenacious Espindola or from a multitude of options coming through midfield or off of set plays.

Barring horrific bad luck or hideous underperformance, DC should see a victory that will go a long way to putting the horror of 2013 behind them.

Note: Unable to come to contract terms with Professional Soccer Referees Organization (PSRO, the Professional Referees Organization (PRO) that provides referees for MLS matches will use replacement referees for the opening games of the MLS season. The DC United match will be refereed by Andres Pfefferkorn an experienced NASL referee.

DC Might Have a Problem with Houston

Currently bottom of the table and mired in a five game losing streak with seeming nothing but misery in sight, DC United will have to find something special as they face one of their toughest conference foes in the high flying Houston Dynamo who are off to their best start ever and tied for the top of the East.

OK folks, Chris is out of town this week, so I will be setting up the crime scene in RFK and then conducting the autopsy tomorrow night, so buckle up! If you’re looking for a ray of sunshine or some lipstick on this pig and think I’m the guy that will give it to you, well guess what, you might actually be right about that for once.

No, I have not taken leave of my senses. I am well aware that these two teams have been heading in vastly different directions since meeting in the Eastern Conference Championship last fall. In fact, they have been going in different directions since the end of 2007 when Houston became a perennial threat for the MLS Cup and DC became pretty much an embarrassing afterthought around the league.

To make matters worse, Houston just beat LA in the Toolbox and is unbeaten in their last four games, while DC has been lucky their losing streak isn’t a bit longer than the five it stands at now. However, I have seen signs of life in DC lately and Houston does have a habit of playing down to its opponents on the road, especially in RFK where they haven’t won since 2010 (and let’s just not discuss that season any further).

To start off with DC really didn’t deserve the shellacking they got in Columbus. It was a 3-0 loss, but nowhere near that bad in reality. Arguably DC outplayed the Crew for the majority of the match. DC’s moribund offense so far this season finally created plenty of chances and took six shots on goal as well as two off the woodwork, the problem was none of them went in. The Crew created few chances and just happened to score on all three of their shots on goal. That’s the cruelty of soccer sometimes.

It really is unfortunate that Ben Olsen was absolutely punished for making some changes that actually helped the team pay a much better game overall than they have for most of this season. The defense played a howler for sure, but they play their normal defensive game and DC walks out of there with a point at least.

Yes, and if frogs had wings they wouldn’t bump their tails when they jump I can hear you saying. Look, I’m just saying for one of the rare games in the last calendar year DC got a lot less than it deserved instead of a lot more than it deserved which has happened quite a bit more often, especially towards the end of last year. But this year isn’t much better with that point in NY being an absolute felony and DC has turned one goal into all four of its points this year. Hardly inspiring, I admit.

So try this on for size. Houston beat LA for their first road win of the season, but they have largely been inept on the road and have been for the past couple seasons. The pitiful tie in Toronto and loss in Portland are usually what Houston produces on the road. Even better Houston loses quite regularly in RFK as well going 2-4-1 in the regular season since their creation in 2006.

DC is well rested and getting healthier while Houston had a game Sunday and a cross country flight in the past few days. Heck, the law of averages says DC will get at least three or four more wins this season just by dumb luck if 2010 is any indication and this team is better than that one for sure.

So, let’s break it down. Given the incomprehensible post-game quotes and evidence to date, coach Ben Olsen will continue his man love for Lionard Pajoy and start him alongside Dwayne De Rosario as forwards most likely. I would love to see Rafael Teixiera playing alongside DeRo, or even Carlos Ruiz for that matter, but I doubt Ben sits Pajoy or DeRo to make that happen, and if he moves DeRo to midfield to make it happen, then DC is doomed.

In midfield, Pontius and DeLeon are creeping closer to fitness, but won’t start or play is my guess. So, midfield will likely be Marcos Sanchez, Perry Kitchen and Kyle Porter almost certainly. Kitchen’s partner is a bit of a crapshoot as Ben loves Marcelo Saragosa in there to muddy up the game, but Raphael Augusto actually gives DC a chance to win, so it being a home game, my fingers are crossed Ben plays the talented Brazilian next to Kitchen. If it was me, I’d play their draftee out of UMD, Taylor Kemp instead of Sanchez on that left hand side too. Houston will play Oscar Boniek-Garcia on that side and he’s a handful for anyone, much less the tiny Panamanian, but I don’t see Ben taking the plunge on that one either.

In defense, it’s virtually a lock that Olsen plays Daniel Woolard, Brandon McDonald, Dejan Jakovic, and Chris Korb. I personally would go with James Riley on the left and move Korb to the left and Woolard to the bench as DC really needs more out of their outside backs and Riley brings it more than Woolard, but I don’t see that happening either. Hamid will be in goal of course and another game like he had in NY would certainly go a long way to helping DC get some joy against Houston in this one.

As for Houston, given the travel and spate of games they’ve had, coach Dominic Kinnear could certainly make some changes, but he usually keeps a pretty rock solid starting XI together pretty consistently all through the first part of the season, something I wish Olsen would learn to do btw, so other than inserting Brad back into the lineup coming back from suspension, I expect him to start a pretty similar team to the one that beat LA, and it really doesn’t matter too much anyway as whoever he puts in there fits into his system and plays pretty similar to the guy he’s replacing, another thing Olsen should be taking notes on.

So, my money is on Giles Barnes and it’s a stone cold lock he’s partnering United Killer Will Bruin, whose goal scoring prowess against us is just too depressing to elaborate on, at forward. Midfield will be the Scotsman Andrew Driver, whose goal beat LA, Ricardo Clark, Brad Davis, and Boniek-Garcia. Maybe Kinnear keeps Moffat in there, sits Barnes, and plays Davis as the other forward, but I don’t think so as he likes to keep his guys in spots where they will play regularly rather than move them all over the field (ahem, another lesson Olsen could take note of). Defense will be Kofi Sarkodie, former DC defender Bobby Boswell, Jamaican Jermaine Taylor, and Corey Ashe from right to left in front of Talley Hall.

So, looking at the matchups, DC is obviously in some trouble if Houston plays their A game and DC bunkers into their turtle shell defense. If that happens, it’s a brutal 3-0 loss, so not even worth mentioning things like matchups. No, DC has to play like they did against Columbus, but without the howling mistakes in defense and Houston has to be a little off, which they have shown in playing down to their opponents on the road.

Normally, I like to think about the matchups going forward first, but since this is a Ben Olsen team, let’s start with the defensive side. In the run of play, it will be the wings where DC is in the biggest trouble. Boniek-Garcia will be a handful for Woolard or Korb, which is why I would rather see Kemp on that side, but maybe Sanchez will get in the way enough to be helpful. Driver is a solid unflashy type that will trouble Korb or James too, but I like Porter’s ability to help out so I think he’s the lesser problem. However, either of them peppering balls into the area to Bruin or over the top to Barnes could be disaster.

Kitchen and Saragosa or Augusto will also have their hands full against Davis in the run of play, and if DC gives up too many fouls, Davis will crucify them with freekicks. Rico making late runs will be troubling too, but he does much less of that on the road than usual, although he will have fond memories of his last visit to RFK.

However, I think it likely BMac comes back with a wicked strong game to make up for his Columbus debacle and shuts down Bruin. Barnes is a bit flighty and might just take himself out of the game as he’s a wanderer who hurts Bruin’s game as well with his disappearing act. Now, his speed alone is trouble, but Jakovic impressed me in Columbus running down Dominic Oduro from behind, so he’s the lesser concern for me as well.

Houston will win midfield almost certainly, but if DC stays compact and keeps Bruin locked up tight, they can keep Houston in check for the most part. Houston has scored in every match here since 2009, so I expect them to score again, but if the defense keeps it close, DC has a chance.

So, where will the goals come from? Obviously, I think they will come from Gladiator or Ruiz who have shown a propensity to actually shoot at the goal when they get the ball, but Olsen still has hope that Pajoy will set up DeRo and company storming out of the midfield on late runs and that actually happened a few times in Columbus. DeRo had a point blank shot foot saved after a set up by Pajoy late in that one. The Colombian also sent Sanchez in on goal late too. Pajoy himself actually cracked a first time shot ON GOAL and at the death smacked the crossbar as I sat in disbelief. I figured he must have been aiming at the corner flag and missed, but hey if that’s what Olsen is seeing in practice, then maybe he sets something up in this one.

More likely I see Pajoy battering and being battered by Boswell and Taylor, hopefully getting one or both of them sent off with his antics. It’s not pretty, but it would be helpful. With luck maybe he’s sent off too and Ben would be forced to play someone else, and bonus, start someone else against Dallas. Oh, be still my beating heart!

Obviously, on paper this is a bloodbath but as mentioned, historically DC has found a way past Houston in RFK in the regular season and soccer gods willing, will catch Houston looking past the league’s cellar dwellers or surprise a tired team coming off a rousing win in LA. DC deserved a lot better in their last outing, another solid performance and surely the gods right the scales in their favor.

DC will win again in RFK. Tomorrow in front of those few hundreds, who will brave the weather and the early kickoff on a weeknight and not be watching the Caps or going to the Nats game across the river, in order to see the worst team in MLS, who has lost their last three on the trot in what was known of formerly as fortress RFK, play against one of the best teams in the league is as good a time as any.

Those valiant hundreds deserve to see DC pull off the improbable.

United vs Columbus Preview: Can United stop the rot? [Update – Pontius injured; not available]

D.C. United is currently on a four-game losing streak and in spite of the offense finally coming to life in last weekend’s 3-2 loss at home to the Philadelphia Union, the confidence that rode underdog United to the Eastern Conference finals last season has all but eroded.

For most of United’s dreadful start to the 2013 MLS campaign, it’s been a lack of offense that has crippled the Black-and-Red in their seven matches played (1 win, 5 losses, 1 draw). In the forementioned match last weekend the defense was the culprit as United fell behind 2-0 after just 11 minutes had elapsed. Unexpectedly however United did come straight back with their most impressive buildup to a goal this season through Perry Kitchen to give United brief hope of a comeback.

That all but ended when Jack McInerney scored his second goal of the match a few minutes later, again on poor defensive marking from United. Although Lionard Pajoy’s goal two minutes after the break gave United another chance at life, yet they rarely threatened the Union goal again and fell for the third straight game at home and fourth game overall.

This losing streak started at the hands of this weekend’s opponents the Columbus Crew when they waltzed  into RFK  on March 23rd and bossed United around and came out with a well deserved 2-1 win.  What earmarked that match was the relative low soccer IQ of United on the day as they gave up countless free kicks to a team that thrives on such situations and scored both of their goals on free kicks. If not for the goaltending heroics of Bill Hamid on that afternoon, Columbus may have netted 5 or 6 goals.

For the most part this season United has been sound defensively but that first Columbus match saw the cracks in United’s foundation that eventually crumbled last weekend against Philadelphia. One has to hope that United will play a much smarter match this time around and do their best not to concede silly free kick situations in their defensive half of the field.

Josh Williams scored against United in that first matchup and Chad Marshall has always been a stellar set piece threat. Even with their top player Federico Higuain struggling, the Crew are essentially where everyone expects them to be, right in the middle of the Eastern Conference fight with a record of 2-2-3.

On the opposite side of the ledger are struggling United. This team simply can not put together a solid 90 minutes of soccer. When the offense struggles, as is has for most of the season, the defense is usually there to bail them out and keep them in games. However, the one time United did break out offensively (and saying a team broke out with 2 goals is disengenuous at best) the defense completely fell apart.

Ben Olsen had some harsh words for his team midweek by saying that their current problems are on them, not the coaching staff that claimed they were prepared for the matches. Olsen is absolutely right. It’s always about the players and while most of us can quibble about the players he chooses to run out week after week (i,e. Lionard Pajoy) the fact of the matter is that the key players for this team have been mediocre at best. That means you Chris Pontius and Dwayne De Rosario. You are the team leaders and you need to guide this team out of it’s funk. There is no help on the bench though most people wouldn’t mind seeing anyone else besides Pajoy get a run out. This isn’t to say that coaching doesn’t play a role in matches. It does, but not to the degree that most people think it does.

Having said that, it’s quite baffling why Olsen has stuck with Pajoy this long. The goal he scored last weekend pretty much secured his spot in the lineup and that has to gall most if not all of United’s loyal fan base. Not many people including media and the fan base can put a finger on why Olsen has such a soft spot for Pajoy. Olsen tells us it’s mostly the intangibles that keep Pajoy on the field. A conversation during the nationally televised match on ESPN2 against Philadelphia between play-by-play man Adrian Healey and color commentator Taylor Twellman pretty much summed up the feeling about the Olsen-Pajoy dynamic.

“Olsen says that he likes forwards that work hard”, said Healey. ” I like my forwards to score goals”, Twellman shot back without hesitation. That is it in a nutshell.

Getting back to the matchup this weekend, United are in a very difficult position. Knowing that they’ve already dropped a match against Columbus and knowing how Columbus generates most of their offense, it seems logical that Olsen most likely will slip back into his preferred 4-5-1 formation to help defend and counter. Yes, it flies against what most of us want to see this team do, but if you look really closely at how this team has played this season, the 4-5-1 gives them the best chance at a result.

United went with the 4-5-1 and went 1-1-1 in their first three matches. After that Olsen decided that he needed more offense on the field and United has gone 0-4-0 with his two forward formation since that time. Look, I’m a two forward guy. I don’t believe for one minute that this group of players can be successful over the long haul of a season with a lone forward, particularly if that guy is going to be Pajoy.

In the absence of anyone else stepping up and taking over that spot, which includes De Rosario, Carlos Ruiz and the young DP Rafael,  this means that we can expect to see Pajoy manning that spot until which time someone can start pounding in goals.

In midfield Olsen started Marcelo Saragosa in the place of Raphael Augusto last weekend and quickly made the switch back to Augusto at halftime. While that didn’t make too much of a difference, I’d like to see Augusto continue to gain experience in these tough matches. United may also have the services of Marco Sanchez who missed last weekend with an ankle sprain. Sanchez however has been underwhelming at best and his slight frame was pushed around too easily in the last matchup between the sides so I think we’ll see a substitutes role for him. Kitchen will marshall the middle of the field as usual and will have Pontius on one side and Kyle Porter most likely on the other.

As for the defense, it was woeful last weekend but Brandon McDonald and Dejan Jakovic aren’t going anwhere anytime soon in the middle. Chris Korb will continue at right back as will Daniel Woolard at left back in spite of one the worst defense performances he’s ever had in a United shirt last weekend. Hamid of course will man the nets.

For the Crew they are coming off their worst performance of the season as they dropped a 1-0 decision in Chicago in which they didn’t even force a single save from goalkeeper Sean Johnson. The loss snapped a four-game unbeaten streak that started in D.C.

Their lineup hasn’t changed much since their visit to DC in late March so we expect the usual suspects for them this time around as well. The only possible change could be to sit rookie Ben Speas and switch forward Dominic Oduro over to his spot to allow Costa Rican striker Jairo Arrieta into the lineup. However, Speas did score against United in the first matchup and he’s obviously a much better defender than Oduro could ever hope to be. With United most likely taking a defense first policy, my guess is that Arrieta is out of luck for a start for Columbus’ at the beginning of the Crew’s three-game homestand.

Now, on to the prediction. This one is going to be pretty simple. I’ve seen no evidence to date that United is capable of outplaying anyone much less Columbus on their home field. United will have to outplay Columbus to get a result and Crew Stadium hasn’t seen a win from United since 2007 and the Black-and-Red have yet to even score a goal on the road in three matches so far this season. Sounds good doesn’t it?

Not likely. With United’s fragile state of mind, it will take an effort unforseen in quite some time for United to pull off a win. I predict the losing streak will reach five games and United will continue their scoreless streak on the road with a 2-o loss to the Crew.

 

[UPDATE – Chris Pontius injured and did not make the trip to Columbus – United’s next match after Columbus is not until May 8th – reports has the injury at a few weeks at least]

United vs Red Bull Preview: United searching for goals

As D.C. United gets set to face their most bitter rivals New York Red Bull this Saturday evening at 7pm at RFK Stadium, one can’t wonder what to think what has happened to both of these teams during the early portion of this season. Both teams were on the short list to fight for Eastern Conference supremecy with the likes of the Houston Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City, leaving the rest of the conference to fend for themselves.

Well, it hasn’t exactly started this way as United is mired in a two-game losing streak while Red Bull is struggling away from Red Bull Arena. Red Bull has lost three and drawn one match away from home while the Black-and-Red have lost two and drawn one away from RFK.  At least Red Bull has managed to score some goals on the road which should give them a bit of hope heading into the match as opposed to United who have failed to score in any road game and has been shutout in 3 of it’s five matches so far.

Very few chances have been created through those five matches and blame is being spread all over the place from the usual scapegoat of Lionard Pajoy to pretty much anyone in the midfield positions going forward. All have had culpability in this very slow start to the season.

While I’m not ready to compare it to the start of the record-breaking 2010 season (for all the wrong reasons), there has to be some natural hesitation in thinking things are starting to play themselves out in the same fashion. Undoubtedly this current squad has oodles more talent than anything United could offer in 2010. However, the same type of struggles are currently being seen on the field. The offense simply isn’t clicking at the moment and that has to be the number one concern of head coach Ben Olsen.

Captain Dwayne De Rosario seems set to return to the lineup accoring to Olsen midweek and that could help things except that DeRo has been less than stellar in the two matches has has played for United this season. That being said, his game-winning ability, even in the face of an unproductive start to the season, is reason enough to put him in the lineup.

While most, if not all, United fans are in agreement that Pajoy needs to find some splinter time, Olsen disagreed earlier this week when he defended Pajoy in saying that everyone is struggling, not just Lio. Well, quite simply that dog don’t hunt for me. Pajoy does bring the grit and energy that Olsen desires, but he fails completely where it matters most, on the scoreboard. His first-half stoppage time miss this past weekend in Kansas City was a perfect example of the frustration in dealing with Pajoy.

That being said the offense, or what little there is of  it, has become a teamwide disfunction so far this season. Olsen can’t quite figure out the combination of players to put out there because even his best players are struggling. Chris Pontius has two shots on goal through five matches. Pajoy has just one shot on goal through five matches.  Let me repeat that, United’s “top” striker has one shot on goal in five matches. That in a word is pathetic. Trust me, you don’t want to know the rest of the stat line of the remainig players as it is very reminiscent of 2010 and we really don’t want to go down that road.

As for the opposition Red Bull, they have struggled as well but at least they are scoring goals and that to me is ultimately more tolerable than what United is producing at the moment. Three weeks ago these teams clashed in New Jersey and United somehow escaped with a 0-0 draw. United were dominated in that match, particularly in the second half, but managed to cling on to the point through the skin of their teeth. And Bill Hamid.

What can United do on Saturday to turn things around? Well, I actually liked the lineup we saw in KC last weekend, in spite of producing very few scoring chances. Inserting Raphael Augusto into central midfield with Perry Kitchen was a big step, although I thought for most of the match that Kitchen seemed the one who was willing to step into attack moreso than Augusto. I’d like to see Augusto a bit higher up in the field rather than Kitchen.

Additionally, we saw two forwards deployed by Olsen for the second straight match and it would have been interesting had DeRo been healthy and available to play. Would DeRo have supplanted Pajoy in the lineup? This weekend might just give us that answer. At least I hope it does.

Midfielder Marcos Sanchez wore the goat horns for his poor decision making that helped put in motion the game-winning sequence for Sporting last weekend, but I would like to see him continue in that outside midfield role. I’d also like to see Pontius get more involved in the offense. Just like many of his teammates at the moment, he’s trying to do too much himself and he’s getting turned over too often.

In the defense, we saw a surprise return with Daniel Woolard at left back and he excelled as he usually does in defending a very active Sporting side. However, what you also get from Woolard is literally no overlap play and with Korb being equally ineffective on the right side in terms of pushing the attack, it’s no wonder the offense sputtered as it did.

Now, that being said, let me say this in slight defense of what we’ve seen from United so far. Just look at United’s road schedule so far. At Houston, at Red Bull and at Sporting Kansas City. I doubt any team in MLS, even the defending MLS Cup champion Los Angeles Galaxy would like to have that road threesome to start the year. It’s not an excuse, it’s a reality that playing in those venues is difficult. United has already played at three of the toughest venues in the league and things just might improve because of that fact alone.

I felt that needed to be said to all those out there that have already given up on this team and have United slotted to pick 1st or 2nd in next years SuperDraft. Yeah, you’re out there. I read it every day on the forums. United still have 30 matches to play and plenty of time to right the ship. (PollyAnna portion of the preview is now complete)

As for Red Bull, they hope to add striker Fabian Espindola back into the mix so they can send French forward Peguy Luyindula back to the bench. Luyindula has been the target of Red Bull fans frustration (not unlike Pajoy) for blowing many sitters in his first few matches with the club. My guess is that Espindola slides into the lineup alongside Thierry Henry.

The midfield will most likely continue with Erik Alexander, Dax McCarty, Tim Cahill and Juninho in the fold while former United player Brandon Barklage will man the right back position with Jamison Olave and Markus Holggerson in central defense and Heath Pearce at left back. Luis Robles looks set to keep the goalkeeper spot warm until either Kevin Hartman gets in shape or long-time injured Ryan Meara returns.

I would think that United will start the same lineup as they did in Kansas City with hopefully the one exception being DeRo recalled into Pajoy’s forward position. One can dare to dream can’t he?

As for the match itself, I expect a better offensive thrust from United from what we’ve seen recently. If this does not happen within the first 20-30 minutes then I don’t expect United to get anything from this match as whatever confidence they have will evaporate if they fall behind. United’s lack of punch in the offensive third makes it almost mandatory that they take the lead just to instill a bit of belief amongst themselves. As I’ve said countless times, confidence and attitude is everthing in this game and if you have neither, you usually lose. I can stomach United losing this match against Red Bull if they can show me some signs of life offensively. At least you will have something to build on. But if they continue their seeming strategy of ‘we’ll only go forward looking to score until after we’ve fallen behind”, then this team will continue to lose.

Attitude folks, it’s all about attitude..

Rivalry matches usually take the current form of teams and throws it right out the window. I fully expect this to happen and I think we’ll see a much more entertaining brand of soccer from United. While I can’t bring myself to predict a win (because quite frankly there is no evidence so far that tells me United is ready to break out and score four goals), I will go the safe route and say this will end up in a 1-1 draw.

How’s that for fence sitting?