United vs Sporting Kansas City preview: Can United change their road mentality?

MLS didn’t do D.C. United any favors with a rather harsh flurry of tough road matches to start the 2013 season. United started the season in a city (Houston) where they have literally never won a match in their history. Then they travel to play the home opener to their most bitter rival (Red Bull) and now United embarks on another death march to another location where they haven’t won since 2007 (Kansas City).

When is this supposed to get easier? Well, if United continues their poor road form, it may never get easier. United will face Sporting Kansas City on Friday night at Sporting Park and there isn’t much optimism surrounding the team at the moment. United hasn’t won in Kansas City since July 4, 2007 when Luciano Emilio scored in their 1-0 win. United has gone win less in seven matches since then and they’ve done it playing in three different places (Arrowhead Stadium, Comerica Park and Sporting Park (formerly Livestrong Sporting Park).

While the defending in their two road matches was mostly good enough to garner results (they did manage to get a point out of Red Bull Arena but only by the skin of their teeth) the offense has been less than stellar. Through both of those matches, United has managed only one shot on goal and rarely have been a threat offensively.

So why is this happening? I think it mostly comes down to the attitude they take into the matches. Head coach Ben Olsen and countless other United players have mentioned ad naseum the soon to be very tiring cliche of “take care of the matches at home and play for a draw on the road”. This to me is loser talk and not relevant to MLS play. MLS teams aren’t going to Old Trafford, La Bombanera or San Siro, there going to Crew Stadium or the mostly empty Home Depot Center when Chivas USA plays or worse yet Gillette Field in Foxborough where you can literally hear the Cotton Candy vendors over the players on the field. Why go into those venues playing predictable and defensive soccer? Granted, there are places in this league where it’s a tough out. Houston, as previously mentioned, is on a 34-game unbeaten streak at home in all competitions and we all know how tough it is to play in Seattle and Portland. Kansas City is no different in that regard as they have pulled off a rags-t0-riches turnaround in their town. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that 7,000 fans at Arrowhead was a common occurence. Now they turn out 18,000 strong on a week-to-week basis and just goes to show the the power of a well placed new stadium. Hmmm, wish we could have one of those..

So I ask again, why is poor road form happening? Why play defensive and predictably scared soccer? My co-host on the UnitedMania.com Podcast Mike Martin says simply “because they stink”. While that is laced with some hyperbole, where there’s smoke there’s fire. United simply have not played well so far through four matches of the season. Key players like captain Dwayne De Rosario and Chris Pontius have been rendered ordinary at best and it all seems to have flowed downhill, at least until it gets to the defense.

Goalkeeper Bill Hamid and the defense for the most part have done their part. They went 80 good minutes in Houston only to be beaten by an unfortunate own-goal from James Riley. After the air was let out of that particular balloon, Houston tacked on another for good measure late in the match. The team then posted back-to-back shutouts with the 0-0 draw in Red Bull drawing a lot of notice. Yes, they were under seige for the entirety of the second half but that was mostly due to the fact that the mental approach going into that game was to bunker in and make life difficult for Red Bull. Well, this of course meant that United had to sacrifice any offensive notions and quite honestly, it’s just not that much fun to see a team that historically attempts to play attractive soccer go against their nature and squeak out results.

To be fair though, this was the model that got United from sixth place in the East to an eventual second place finish after the injury to De Ro in September of last year. In some small way I don’t blame Olsen for going to that well that often because it signified the most successful run Olsen has had as a coach here in DC. However, it has come at a cost. The offense for the most part, going back to that run last season, has been ordinary at best even with the return of DeRo.

Which brings us to the Sporting match. SKC rolled over the previously unbeaten Montreal Impact 2-0 last Saturday and did it in some style. They dominated their Canadian visitors and this was a team (SKC) that had come into that match on the heels of a pair of 0-0 draws. SKC seems to have turned it around while United continues to flounder. United, coming off a 2-1 loss at home to Columbus nearly two weeks ago, don’t play well against this team and their 4-3-3 formation. It’s just a bad matchup for United and they’ve never quite figured out how to combat their particular style of play.

United will welcome back defender Dejan Jakovic to the back line where he was sorely missed in the Columbus game as the Black-and-Red gave up two goals on set pieces and if not for the heroics of Bill Hamid it would have been much worse. United will also most likely slot midfielder Marcos Sanchez into the right side of midfield for the injured Nick DeLeon, another player who’s struggles has mirrored United’s inconsistent start.

This leaves the dilemma of what to do in the forward and central midfield positions. Olsen came out with an attacking lineup against the Crew (which I wasn’t against BTW) that featured DeRo in the attacking midfield supporting Lionard Pajoy and newcomer Rafael. While this did create more scoring opportunities than in the previous three matches combined, it unhinged United defensively and a lot of mistakes were made, particularly in midfield where you know with DeRo you won’t get the same type of two-way play that Perry Kitchen, or even Marcelo Saragosa provides. So it’s a bit of a double-edged sword in that regard. If you want to put more offense on the field, as they did against Columbus, you may be sacrificing some defensive discipline.

I think after witnesssing what Olsen saw from his squad in terms of turnovers and lost possesion in the Columbus match, Olsen will most likely play it safe and try to slug out a result in Kansas City. We all know what will happen if they do this, Pajoy and DeRo will man the front line, putting Rafael on the bench and he’ll most likely slot Saragosa back alongside Kitchen and the slugfest will ensue with United getting very few chances to play soccer against Sporting’s suffocating pressure.

In a lot of ways, this couldn’t be a worse team for United to play considering their offensive woes. SKC is the most disciplined and regimented defensive team in MLS and they take pride in choking teams off with their high pressure and leaving very little for their opponents to accomplish.

I pretty much have an inkling of what Olsen will do, but if I had my say in the matter, I would juice things up a bit. Considering how difficult it is to play SKC at Sporting Park, why not turn the tables and go at them as opposed to sitting back and letting them dictate play? This is a bit of the Miracle on Ice theory where everyone shook in fear of the mighty Russians but it took an unconventional move by USA coach Herb Brooks to turn the tide. He used the Russian’s own system against them and put them on their heels. Who knows? Maybe Olsen can take a lesson from that.

Here is what I propose for the match on Friday. The usual suspects in the back with Hamid in goal and Riley, Brandon McDonald, Jakovic and Chris Korb from right to left in front of him. The midfield would have Pontius on the left and Sanchez on the right with Kitchen partnered with Raphael Augosto in midfield with DeRo and Rafael up top. I think there is enough youth and energy with this lineup to combat and counter what SKC will throw at United.

This of course means that Olsen will bench Pajoy, a fact that would bring much rejoicing amongst United’s faithful. However, as I have stated on our podcast, Olsen remains loyal to a fault with Pajoy and that goal he scored in the 1-0 win over RSL was a bit of Fools Gold. Olsen didn’t want to hear any criticism of Pajoy after that match because he got the game-winner. However, it’s been a rapid decline for Pajoy since then and honestly the juice isn’t worth the squeeze when Olsen constantly reminds us of how much dirty work Pajoy does for the team. All coaches have blindspots and I think we’ve all found Olsen’s at the moment. Let’s hope that Olsen discovers this fact sooner than later.

So, how is this game going to end up? Well, if United goes with my unconventional thinking, I think a hard fought draw could be in order. However, my head tells me that this will be more of the same old conservative defensive mindset and United will come out with a predictable 2-0 loss at the least. I hope I’m wrong but I just don’t see Olsen as a gambler.

Folks, it might just get worse before it’s gets any better around here.

 

United vs Columbus Preview: United in search of offense

I think it’s safe to say that D.C. United’s early season offensive production has been in a word… Offensive. One goal scored in three matches with only the 1-0 home opening win two weeks ago against Real Salt Lake being the only evidence that United has played some attacking soccer through three weeks of the MLS Season. Even that match saw long stretches of play without any meaningful chances created. The two road matches played by United so far has garnered only one shot on goal through those two matches.

With the Columbus Crew coming to town this weekend, it offers United a chance to rebuild some confidence offensively, but it won’t be easy as the Black-and-Red will be minus a few players due to International commitments. Dejan Jakovic (Canada) and Marcos Sanchez (Panama) will miss the match and this will cause some concern as the defense has been one of the bright spots so far this young season. Columbus will also be missing a key player as striker Jairro Arietta (Costa Rica) will be gone for the visitors.

So, what can United do to turn around a moribund offense so far this season? Well one solution would be to have the players in the attacking positions pick up their play on an individual basis. Lone forward Lionard Pajoy and withdrawn forward and team captain Dwayne De Rosario struggled mightily in last weekend’s 0-0 draw at Red Bull. Pajoy made poor decision after poor decision (further enraging the already frustated fan base that want anyone but Pajoy on the field) and DeRo simply wasn’t connected at any point in the match. This of course usually has a snowball rolling downhill effect and Chris Pontius and Nick DeLeon followed suit with pedestrian efforts too.

All of United’s offensive success has to begin in midfield and the midfield was simply overrun last Saturday, particularly Marcelo Saragosa. Unfortunately this is what you get with Saragosa. He’ll run and jump and get in the way, but more often than not he doesn’t connect very well with the defense or the offense and this leaves United having to create offense one-v-one through players like DeLeon, DeRo and Pontius. This of course makes United terribly predictable and easy to defend, as evident by their flat road performances in Houston and New York.

Now, this isn’t any great surprise to anyone who’s followed United recently. It’s the risk this type of formation (4-5-1 or 4-2-3-1) takes when United can’t control tempo. So how does United turn this around against the Crew? While I don’t see Ben making any drastic lineup changes in midfield to help the offense (I think Ben will stubbornly start pretty much the same side save for either Ethan White or Daniel Woolard in place of Jakovic), don’t be surprised to see Ben inject some offensive talent into the match sooner than later if they fall behind or simply don’t create many chances in the first half. Saragosa seems to be the logical replacement by either Raphael Agusto, or bringing in Carlos Ruiz to play alongside Pajoy and drop DeRo into a deeper role in midfield (my preference at the moment).

The absence of Sanchez limits the options for Olsen for this match and that might mean more time on the wing for Kyle Porter. Porter is all about attacking the opposition and so far this season DeLeon hasn’t exaclty covered himself in glory to this point and quite frankly, a timely benching by Olsen might just give DeLeon the jolt he needs to get himself into gear. At this point that would be a bit desperate at this early stage of the season but the offensive woes need to be a concern for Olsen.

As for the visiting Columbus Crew, they come into RFK off a 1-1 home opening draw against San Jose last weekend. Columbus started the season with a 3-0 win over Chivas USA (a win that is looking better and better as Chivas USA improves weekly) followed by a 2-1 loss in Vancouver. The Crew are roughly the same team that was eliminated out of the playoffs at RFK Stadium thanks to United’s thrilling 3-2 stoppage time win in late October. That win was a double-dagger for the Crew as it clinched United’s first playoff berth since 2007.

Columbus is solid defensively with three huge defenders (right back Josh Williams and central defenders Chad Marshall and Glauber) who double as goal scoring threats as evident by Williams and Glauber already scoring goals off set pieces so far this season.

The midfield is young but tough and will most likely see the return of perpetual United-killer Eddie Gaven back into the side after an ankle injury suffered in Vancouver. The loss of Arrieta up top paired with playmaker Federico Higuain will hurt the Crew’s chances but the offseason addition of another United nemesis Dominic Oduro may be the play for the Crew this weekend.

All things being equal, I see a bounce back from United and better effort in creating chances. However, United can’t simply lob crosses into the box because Columbus’ huge backline will easily sort that out. I think a quick attack along the ground can unsettle the Crew defensively and I anticipate United upping the tempo throughout the field and maintaining their solid defense, even with the big loss of Jakovic. Whomever takes his place (most likely Woolard but I wouldn’t be shocked to see White get the call due to his quickness and ability to cover speedsters like Oduro and substitutes Ethan Finley and Ryan Finlay) will quickly have to get in synch with central defensive partner Brandon McDonald and goalkeeper Bill Hamid.

I see a slow start to this match that quickly heats up in the second half and a relatively comfortable 2-0 win for United.

 

United vs. Real Salt Lake Preview

D.C. United opens up the home portion of their 2013 MLS regular season with a matchup against Real Salt Lake this Saturday night at 7pm at RFK Stadium.

United is coming off of a disappointing but ultimately predictable 2-0 loss in Houston last weekend to open up the 2013 campaign. Two late goals sunk United in a very credible defensive effort against a team that simply has their number in the state of Texas (United is winless in 11 matches across all competitions lifetime against Houston). While defense did it’s part through the first 80 minutes of the match, it fell apart in the final ten minutes. Offensively United could only muster a few solid chances and ultimately never even registered a shot on goal. Obviously things must change this weekend in order to avoid another 0-2 start to the season.

Meanwhile, Real Salt Lake is coming off a surprising 2-0 road win in San Jose last weekend courtesy of two fine finishes from their Costa Rican sniper Alvaro Saborio. The scoreline may have flattered RSL a bit as San Jose was dominant in the match but simply couldn’t close the deal. Reigning Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski had seven attempts on goal without scoring, a sure sign that things didn’t go well for the Supporters Shield winners from last season. RSL was patient and clinical in their finishing and were deserved winners at the end of the day.

Looking at this matchup in particular, one has to wonder if Ben Olsen is going to take a more offensive approach to this match as opposed to his three defensive midfielder lineup that he brought out against Houston last weekend. With an 18-match unbeaten streak at RFK on the line, you would think that Olsen will indeed release the hounds and go for an emphatic win.

My guess at the lineup will see United employ a few changes to get more offense into the team. I think the substitution at halftime last weekend of James Riley for Daniel Woolard was more than just fear of Woolard picking up a second yellow. Although Riley gave up the game-winning goal via the dreaded own-goal, his ability to get upfield and also to get more speed overall into the oustide channels will be a key in this match. Chris Korb will switch over to the left and the usual combo of BMac and Dejan Jakovic will be in place. Let’s hope BMac gets his poor performance in Houston out of his system as he just didn’t seem to be locked in as well as he should have been.

In midfield I also see some changes which would be bringing in Marcos Sanchez into the team which could possibly move Chris Pontius into the DeRo role (DeRo of course is serving the second game of his two-game suspension for his preseason headbutting of former United midfielder Danny Cruz) in support of lone striker Lionard Pajoy. This move would flip Nick DeLeon over to the left side of midfield with Sanchez on the right. However, Olsen could just as easily inject Sanchez into the withdrawn forward role and keep Pontius and DeLeon in their usual spots. Off the bench United should have plenty of striker firepower should it be needed. Olsen said earlier this week that Carlos Ruiz is getting more and more integrated into the squad during training and we’ve still haven’t seen the debut of Rafael either.

Either way, I think it’s important that Olsen and his squad take the match to RSL. Watching the team capitulate to Houston was tough to watch and you could almost predict that type of effort once you saw John Thorrington pressed into central midfield as the lineups were revealed. While you can’t blame the loss on that one move, Thorrington didn’t exactly cover himself in glory either and honestly he wsa put in a tough position with the suspension to DeRo at end of last week.

Looking at what RSL can offer is pretty simple. The team depth that once enveloped the squad is all but gone. Traded away in the offseason were stalwarts Will Johnson, Jamison Olave and Fabian Espindola. Additionally, usual starters Chris Wingert, Nat Borchers and Javier Morales missed their opener through injury and all are doubts for this match as well.

With that in mind, the lineup that took the field against San Jose will probably be the exact same with maybe the lone exception being Ned Grabavoy slotting into midfield for Khari Stephenson. While the lineup doesn’t exactly wow you with quality, particulary in the inexperienced back four, they did manage to pull off one of the surprising results last weekend so that in itself should not be overlooked.  Also of concern for United fans is the return of Robbie Findley alongside United-killer Saborio. While Findley doesn’t have the scoring success against United that Saborio has, his speed threat will be big in a match that I expect United to dominate possession. The counter attack ability of RSL could be deadly in this match.

Now we’ll get to arguably the weakest part of my particular game – the prediction. While I did predict a loss last week in Houston, that wasn’t exactly going out on a limb. For this match, I do see an improved performance by United in terms of dictating the tempo and creating chances and I also predict a good bounce back performance from BMac too.

I think United takes this one in a close 2-1 win with Pontius and Ruiz getting the goals. That’s right, Ruiz getting the game-winner in the second half.

United vs Houston Pregame: Season opener has United at Houston House of Horrors

 

[UPDATED]Dwayne De Rosario has indeed been suspended for two matches and fined for his altercation with Danny Cruz

The last time D.C. United officially had taken the field outside of RFK Stadium was the first leg of the Eastern Conference finals against the Houston Dynamo in Houston this past November.

 That 3-1 loss was chock full of agonizing moments that all worked against United, not the least of which was the 45th minute non-call by referee Ricardo Salazar on an Andre Hannualt tackle from behind that should have been a straight red and left United with a 1-0 lead at the break at the very least (United still would have had a direct free kick straight at goal from 22 yards – though arguing they would have scored would have been optimistic at best seeing as United didn’t score a single goal off of a direct free kick all season long). I highly doubt United would have given up three second half goals with a man advantage and would have most likely been in the drivers seat heading back to RFK Stadium just six days later. As it happens, the call didn’t materialize and United’s defense collapsed in the second half and Houston took a huge advantage into RFK that turned into a second consecutive MLS Cup final appearance.

 Thus is the tragic history of D.C. United in the city of Houston. Doesn’t matter if the match is played in Houston’s shiny brand new BBVA Compass Stadium or the old Robertson Stadium on the campus of the University of Houston. United simply has been a non-factor and an almost automatic three points for the Dynamo. Here’s the gruesome tale of the tape:

 9 matches played in MLS competition (including last seasons playoffs) – 0 wins, 8 losses and 1 draw. 5 goals scored and 20 goals allowed.

 Ouch….

 

Top that off with the breaking news that team captain Dwayne De Rosario is most likely to be suspended for the match because of a head-butting incident last weekend against ex-teammate Danny Cruz in the final match of the preseason, and the news just doesn’t get any better. I highly doubt another team in MLS can boast a record of such mediocrity and futility through their history at an opponents home field. United definitely has its work cut out for them but they do have some things to hang their hats on heading into this match.

 One, the Dynamo haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory so far this preseason. Yes, I know preseason results matter about as much as a cool glass of milk to Mike Martin on a bar-hopping tour, but it is a hopeful indication of the team just not gelling at the moment. Secondly, the weather is going to be very comfortable on Saturday evening. A high of 60 degrees is expected during the daytime and this should quell any notion of having to play in Houston’s famous 10-inch thick humidity.

 And lastly, it just seems about damn time that United get their act together and not mail in a road performance in Houston. Perhaps they can use the potential DeRo suspension to their benefit. Maybe even use the non-call in the playoffs as further motivation.

 Let’s assume DeRo won’t be available. This will leave head coach Ben Olsen with some moves to make in his absence. The easiest and most likely of which would be to move Chris Pontius from his left midfield to the forward line in support of Lionard Pajoy. Now Olsen will have a few options on the left side of midfield. He can use rookie Kyle Porter, a natural lefty who impressed tremendously in preseason, or he could flip Nick DeLeon over to that spot. Olsen could also go the cautious route and start Lewis Neal on the left and leave DeLeon on the right. Another intriguing option would be Panamanian midfielder Marcos Sanchez. Sanchez’ visa issues have been cleared up and he would be available to play.

 Everywhere else in the lineup it seems rather predictable. Bill Hamid in goal with a defensive lineup from right to left of Chris Korb, Brandon McDonald, Dejan Jakovic and Daniel Woolard seems to be an easy call. In midfield the question depends on what Olsen will do with the DeRo suspension but my gut tells me that Sanchez will play on the right, DeLeon on the left with Perry Kitchen and Marcelo Saragosa roaming central midfield.

 As for the Dynamo, injury concerns with newly acquired Omar Cummings might see him come off the bench with Cam Weaver and United-killer Will Bruin up top.

 Midfield should see Brad Davis on the left with Oscar Boniek Garcia on the right and Giles Barnes and Adam Moffet patrolling the center of the park. In defense the Dynamo will most likely go from right to left with Kofi Sarkodie, Bobby Boswell, Jermaine Taylor and Corey Ashe with Tally Hall in the nets.

 History and my brain tells me that United doesn’t have a chance in this match. For whatever reason at whatever time of the year, United just doesn’t seem to focus when playing in Houston and honestly, they just have never matched up with the very disciplined Dom Kinnear-coached Dynamo. The Law of Averages and my heart says that United will have to win at some point, but with this last-minute distraction of the impending De Rosario suspension, this will give United the requisite excuse to mail in another bland performance on Saturday night

On the bright side of things, this is the only matchup in Houston this year and it will be out of the way after Week 1. Unless of course they meet deep in the playoffs. Even knowing United’s paltry history in Houston, if you were to give me that scenario in the playoffs, I’d take it and run to the hills..

DC Could Use a Draw in Portland

Last year, a late season draw doomed DC from the playoffs, but what a difference a year makes as DC is riding a three game win streak this late in the season for the first time since 2004, so a road point is more than enough for DC.

OK, I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid. I’ve been convinced white is black and black is white. DC is playing uglier than a mud fence, but they are winning and now truly hold their playoff destiny in their hands. I’ve been critical and skeptical waiting for fate to crush our hopes like every year, but there’s no denying United’s success in spite of their deficiencies and their history.

So, for the first time in a long time, DC fans just sit back and enjoy the match on Saturday night. No chewing nails worrying about a win, and frankly even a draw is unnecessary. DC has 50 points and needs essentially 55 points to pretty much assure themselves of a playoff spot barring a staggering win out by two of Columbus, Houston, or Red Bull which is unlikely. Houston maybe, but not either of the other two.

Basically, DC needs two wins, or one win and two draws. Now, of course it would be grand if DC rolled the lowly Portland Timbers as well as dropped TFC like a stone to wrap things up before even facing Columbus or the Fire, but I say that’s the coward’s way out! Win in Toronto for sure, but put some pressure on that Crew home match. What’s the point clinching a playoff berth against skells and heading into the playoffs against, you know, other playoff teams and not having had any real pressure or experience in producing against a playoff team this season.

Now, just for grins, I’ll break down the match for you. Of course DC on paper should win, and of course given their road form should lose, but as the Philly game showed Ben is simply magic lately, so what’s to worry about? If the game is going badly, good old Benny will sub in the the goal they need to win or tie. Even if the breaks finally go against DC, so what? They got the cupcakes in Toronto and need to show their bad intent on the Crew at home after that, so those are the crucial matches.

As usual, Olsen’s lineup decisions are pure speculation.  They are for Portland too I might add, so pretty cagy of Olsen I am coming to realize. For instance, Branko Boskovic, Marcelo Saragosa, Lewis Neal, Mike Chabala, and Long Tan have all started two of DC’s last four road matches, with Andy Najar two starts in midfield and two at right back, so good luck guessing Olsen’s midfield or tactics.

My guess, Olsen goes conservative like he did in Philly and rolls out the 4-5-1 again, both to reward Boskovic and to confound a Portland team that is pretty darn decent at home, as much as possible.

So, with Maicon Santos looking hobbled again limping out of the Chivas game and Hamdi Salihi firmly planted back on the bench, I see Pajoy the magic man lately trotting out again as the lone forward to ensure 87 minutes of crap surrounding one glorious play that decides the game.

In midfield, I see Chris Pontius, Boskovic (for only 60 min of course! He’ll come off so Santos can score the winner off the bench), Lewis Neal, Perry Kitchen, and Nick DeLeon stretched out from left to right. Now, Olsen could very easily plant Boskovic right back on the bench, and perhaps justifiably in this particular match as it sets up better for him to come off the bench rather than slog away at their 5 man midfield for the first 60 min. However, Olsen says he rewards production and Boskovic made the play that got DC all the points in a game they did not play particularly well. For Olsen to bench him after that sends an ugly message, especially if he starts the dreadful Pajoy again, but not Boskovic.

Almost certainly, Olsen sends out Chris Korb, Brandon McDonald, Dejan Jakovic, and Andy Najar from left to right in front of Bill Hamid. Maybe, Olsen gives Robbie Russell the start, allowing Najar a shot in midfield, pushing Neal to the bench so he can come on for Boskovic and score the winner, and giving Pontius a start as the lone forward. Oh be still my beating heart, no chance of that.

As for Portland, with their misfiring big gun, Chris Kris Boyd done for a while with a groin injury, Portland has been rotating former Union forward Danny Mwanga and the lumbering Bright Dike as their lone forward. Currently, Mwanga is the more successful with the two goals that tied the league leading Earthquakes in San Jose and the lone goal in the RSL loss at home recently, so it will likley be him to start, but DC better be ready to get their fingers on the Dike or it could be trouble. He’s a beast with a poor touch, similar to oh say, Lenhart who lit up DC for 3 a while back.

In midfield, it’s been Frank Songo’o, Darlington Nagby, Jack Jewsbury, Rodney Wallace, and Sal Zizzo going left to right in more of a 4-2-3-1 than a true 4-5-1. In the back, it’s been pretty consistently Steve Smith, Hanyer Mosquera, David Horst and Koske Kimura going left to right in front of third string keeper, Joe Bendik. Although Lovel Palmer got a shot at right back recently, it was rather unsuccessful, so I doubt Portland reprises that. Also, both Donovan Ricketts (shoulder) and number two Jake Gleeson (hand bruise) might be coming close to returning to the field, but the youngster has played well so unless those guys are 100%, I doubt either starts.

So, looking at the matchups, it’s another jammed up midfield with 10 players clawing and scratching the ball back and forth hoping for a breakthrough, probably pretty similar to the Philly match. So, barring an early goal to shake things up, it’ll be another 60 minutes of crap TV until the game opens up late and one play decides the match.

Oh, right! The matchups! Let’s see. The aging, but still clever Songo’o will pose problems for DeLeon and Najar, and Nagby is usually good for a silly play or two that might surprise Kitchen who was selected one place behind him in the draft. But, other than that all other matchups sway DC’s way. Just not by very much.

I can see Pajoy slipping around the towering Horst for his usual one good play. Pontius will cause Kimura enormous troubles, but I can see Jewsbury or Wallace sliding out to ease that concern. Which might leave more room for Boskovic or Neal to operate inside, but that’s a stretch really given the way Portland plays at home and DC plays on the road. DeLeon could pull off surprise as he almost did with some cagey shooting against Chivas, etc. But overall, no big advantages for DC.

But none really for Portland either. Mwanga or Dike is a handful and Nagby is tricky, but Jakovic and McDonald should be solid enough to snuff them out for the most part. Songo’o as mentioned could be tough, but Najar is nothing if not combative, Zizzo might get a sniff catching Korb out a couple times, but overall nothing too horrible should happen for DC.

DC even holds the edge in head to head as they tied them here 1-1 and won the match there 3-2 in the only two times they have ever played in Portland’s expansion year. Of course this year, Portland is 7-4-4 at home including wins over San Jose and Seattle earlier this summer and KC earlier this year. They also are currently 2-0-2 at home since losing 1-0 to Chivas back in July including a tie with Seattle in their last home match.

On the other hand, DC is a dreadful 4-9-1 on the road overall and outside of two stolen 1 goal wins in Philly, United is 0-7-0 with 5 of them shutout losses since back to back wins in NE and TFC back in the Spring. Even counting that startling win in Philly ten days ago, DC is 1-6-0 in their last 7 on the road. Although DC is undefeated this year against the Pacific Northwest with two 0-0 draws with Vancouver and Seattle so far, so they got that going for them.

So, nothing to see here folks. The game is shaping up as a 0-0 tie and that would be just fine with DC.

Discordant DC Needs Points in Philly

United got the three points they needed against NE, but far from showing DC is on the way towards a playoff berth for the first time since 2007, that win exposed even more questions than the win answered. Now, the team has to pull together, instead of drift apart, for crucial road points to keep themselves firmly in the playoff hunt.

DC coach Ben Olsen pulled a rabbit out of the hat in finding a way past the Revs, but despite the win, he spent the rest of the week defending his management moves. Olsen was honored with the Hall of Tradition before the match and subbed in the winning goal against an arch rival at home, but spent the week defending his team management skills and parsing his words about a player’s fitness. Obviously, not the type of momentum he wanted to generate at this crucial time of the season.

Former designated player, Branko Boskovic who was expected to shoulder more of the load now that DC talisman Dwayne De Rosario has been lost for the season (essentially), lashed out with disbelief that he was yanked from the NE match clearly indicating he feels he is being treated unfairly. And while Olsen struck lightning in a bottle as Boskovic’ replacement scored the winning goal, Boskovic’ impressions of unfairness are easily backed up by facts and Olsen’s own words.

Without a doubt, Olsen has treated his high paid talent (outside of DeRo) pretty shabbily this season. Designated player Hamdi Salihi is seen as a luxury off the bench, Boskovic has been consistently the first one off the field despite his obvious influence on games, expected defensive leader Emiliano Dudar has barely cracked the starting lineup and been benched almost every time for every little mistake meanwhile other more pedestrian players seem to play with impunity despite mistakes.

Now, whether this schism is actually affecting the team remains to be seen, but it is worth noting that DC has seemed more than a little fractured this summer with notable squabbles and shouting matches amongst team-mates on the field. Ironically, most prevalent in the match against Philly at RFK last month where DC stumbled their way to a underwhelming draw with the lowly Union in a match with 9 cards, 3 of them red, and DC players at each other’s throats by the end.

Interestingly, it is Olsen’s seeming preference for ditch diggers as opposed to architects that has exacerbated this problem. With so many lunch pail carriers on the field, United is almost certain to be in tight games that are decided by the slimmest margins, as indeed most of their games are lately. The slightest errors are magnified exponentially and as points slip away, player’s emotions explode.

On top of that, Olsen’s complete lack of any consistent system leaves the team always grasping and looking lost on the field. By changing tactics and starters pretty much week to week based on the opponent or on the latest player to meet his fancy, team unity and organization disintegrates ingloriously.

A case in point will be this game in Philly. Now, I can name the predicted starters for almost any team in the league with startling accuracy simply based upon watching them each weekend. But, predicting DC’s lineup? The team I watch and read everything about each and every week? I barely peg more than 7 starters on a regular basis. Will Boskovic start in Philly? Will Neal get rewarded for his goal? Will Pajoy finally see the bench after his pretty poor game? Pontius at forward? Najar in midfield? Dudar? Saragosa? Who knows? Now, if DC had traded for someone this week, at least I could be assured of one starter, but no such luck this week. No, Olsen does not dictate to other teams, he game plans against them and hopes to win the scraps.

My best guess of Olsen’s inscrutable mind is that he trots out Lionard Pajoy and Maicon Santos again as he seems to value their industry despite their pretty ineffective threats on goal. Olsen also seems to favor Marcelo Saragosa in a central role next to Perry Kitchen against teams that flood the center of the field as Philly tends to do with their hybrid 4-3-3/4-5-1. Olsen also seems to be wedded with Pontius and Najar in midfield despite the fact both are liabilities defensively as a pitiful NE team showed clearly. Which leaves Andy Najar cemented into the right back role which he plays decently but his talent is largely wasted there.

Now, possibly with Robbie Russell back, Najar will get another shot at midfield, hopefully pushing Pontius up to forward, but that seems a stretch given Russell’s interminable time off recovering from a foot injury. As for Dudar making an appearance that is of course possible, but only if Olsen sits Brandon McDonald for the first time all year. So not likely, and he’d have to be demented to sit Dejan Jakovic, so almost certainly BMac and canny Canuck start in central defense. Which leaves Chris Korb as a virtual lock at left back, unless of course Mike Chabala had a good couple days of practice.

We’ll see. Maybe we should make it a drinking game. A beer for every starter I predict correctly in the correct position. Mom would like that. I’d finish the game sober which has been an elusive goal since DC started cratering in June.

As for Philly, coach John Hackworth has been pretty consistent, which you would think is an argument against consistency in a team, but the man simply has no talent. He’s playing virtually a youth team in a man’s league. Granted, former DC midfielder Brian Carroll and central defender Carlos Valdes bring up the average, but the rest of the team are closer to puberty than they are to planning for their next career after soccer.

After jettisoning Pajoy (thanks.), Hackworth has thrown teenager Jack McInerney to the wolves as the lone forward with a predictable lack of success. He usually has Michael Farfan as the quasi playmaker, but he’s out with yellow card accumulation, so it’s exceedingly likely mercurial Colombian attacker, Roger Torres gets the nod to show if he can show the consistency Hackworth demands. Maybe there’s a Keon Daniel sighting instead, but he’s a little long in the tooth for a Hackworth attacker, so I doubt it.

Rounding out the midfield should be old DC favorites, Freddy Adu and Danny Cruz as well as Michael LaHoud alongside Brian Carroll. It’s a stone cold lock Hackworth starts Gabriel Farfan, Valdes, Amobi Okugo, and Sheanon Williams across the defense from left to right in front of former Terp, Zac McMath in goal.

So, looking at the matchups, DC obviously has some serious advantages if this match were played at home where they seem to manage to pull out results. Since it’s on the road where they don’t, the game will be a lot closer than the players on paper might suggest.

Pontius might have a chance against the elegant and effective Okugo or the teeth-rattling Valdez, but neither Pajoy or Santos will. Well, unless Santos has one of his rare blinders. That’s sort of like predicting a sunspot. Pontius will also struggle against the under-rated Willliams in addition to the scrappy Cruz helping out on that side too. DeLeon might see some joy against Farfan on the other side, as will Pontius when they inevitably switch sides every 40 minutes like clockwork, but Lahoud will muddy those waters and with everyone else being useless, there’s no one to cross to anyway.

Possibly Boskovic swings this match DC’s way, but I doubt he starts, with Olsen undoubtedly thinking that Carroll and Lahoud will hamper him right from the gun. Better to bring him in later when those guys are tired. Well, unless the game is out of reach by then, or there’s an injury of some sort. Even if he does start, the game will go 0-0 until he’s yanked. That’s Boskovic’ luck with this team so far.

Still, the flip side is promising. As bad as DC’s defense can be, Philly’s offense is even worse (second worst in the league), especially without M. Farfan who leads them in goals, points, shots, you name it. Maybe Freddy or Torres pulls off some magic, but not if DC’s defense plays half way decently. However, Philly doesn’t give up many goals either with the league’s third best defense behind only Kansas City and Seattle, so DC’s struggles on the road might continue despite their vaunted offense (4th best in the league).

So, expect this match to be a slugfest like the first two matches between these clubs earlier this year. One mistake likely decides the match as in when Pontius stole the points in Philly earlier totally against the run of play in a match DC should have shared the points at best. Or when DeRo missed the second PK to leave that match drawn in RFK last month. This match will be that close too, barring a shocking reversal of form from either side.

And don’t think the trends help DC either. Before the unearned win there this year, DC was 0-2 in Philly and ominously it was the 3-2 loss late last year that sparked DC’s 6 game winless streak to end the season and DC’s playoff hopes. DC is still only 2-2-2 against their pesky neighbors to the north overall as well. Of course, Philly is mired in an 8 game winless streak currently while United is coming off the NE win and is 2-1-2 in their last 5.

However, DC is a dreadful 0-6-0, with four of those being shutout losses, on the road since that win in Philly in mid June, and The Union are 2-2-1 in their last 5 at home with the draw being 0-0 with RSL barely three weeks ago.

So, an apparently touchy and bad tempered DC team with a recent run of hideous form on the road and an uninspiring history in Philly specifically; really needs to pull themselves together and find a way to overcome a stingy Union defense with the willingness and knowhow to put DC on monkey tilt in a crucial game. A team that would love nothing more than to spoil DC’s playoff run. Again.

DeRo during the pre-game ceremonies prior to United's 3-2 win over the New England Revolution. Photo: Martin Fernandez.

DC’s Back Against the Wall Again

DC United hosts the New England Revolution in a crucial match that will that may well determine their playoff lives. A win over the lowly Revs for the third time this season and DC is still in the hunt, a tie or a loss and DC might as well kiss their chances for the postseason goodbye.

Fresh off the brutal news that United has lost their captain and defending league MVP, Dwayne De Rosario for the rest of the season due to a knee injury while playing for Canada in World Cup Qualifying, United has to regroup and find a way to force themselves back into the playoff picture with a string of good results that must start with a win over the visiting Revs tomorrow night.

One thing the last four seasons have had in common is a point late in the season where DC were pushed to the brink and needed to go on a serious run simply to reach the MLS playoffs, and then a dagger was slipped in at the last moment and made the job even tougher. Obviously, United wasn’t up to the task in recent years, but hope flames eternal that this will be different.

Interestingly, after largely ignoring or humiliating his designated players for most of the year, DC coach Ben Olsen will likely need them to produce in a big way if the team is to end a brutal four year playoff drought. Of course Olsen may well stick to his guns and play his preferred wheelbarrow load of journeymen, but as mentioned, hope flames eternal.

So, it will be interesting to see how Olsen replaces his irreplaceable talisman. Branko Boskovic and Hamdi Salihi would seem to be obvious solutions, but obvious has rarely been in the offing so far this season. What is obvious is Olsen’s disdain for his high paid talent this season, and the fact they played recently in Europe for their respective National teams, it’s easy to see Benny keeping them under wraps in this match as well.

In a lot of ways, this will be Olsen’s watershed moment. DeRo’s versatility and dynamic play kept opposing teams honest and somewhat allowed Olsen to get away with starting very little talent on the field. Oh, lots of worker bees buzzing around exuding effort and sometimes grit, but no real class outside of Pontius or the occasional flash in the pan from Najar or DeLeon. Now, without DeRo, Pontius will be the focus of any defense DC faces so it is pretty unlikely that hustle and bustle will get the job done the rest of this season.

Seems to me, Olsen has a choice of sticking to his guns and starting Long Tan over Salihi and Marcelo Saragosa over Branko Boskovic, as well as keeping Andy Najar at right back in order to keep Chris Pontius in midfield; or admitting defeat and going with Salihi alongside Lionard Pajoy, Boskovic at playmaker in front of Perry Kitchen, and moving Pontius up to forward allowing Najar back into his midfield role. Quite frankly, my money is on Tan, Saragosa, and another dismal effort trying not to lose a match instead of trying to dictate and win it.

However, the Revs are set up so that a team that pressures them and dictates to them can beat them fairly easily as DC has done so far twice this year. Olsen has had a disturbing tendency to focus on the game in front of the team rather than the long term, and incredibly if Olsen does game pan specifically for this match, it could work in DC’s favor.

NE’s Jay Heaps has his own serious injury concerns and big money players on the bench as he’s lost Frenchman Saer Sene for the season and has stapled former US National teamer, Benny Feilhaber to the bench. But, the Revs have added Honduran marksman, Jerry Bengston, since DC faced them last and he’s coming off a big week scoring both game winners in CONCACAF qualifying for Honduras, as well as finally been able to integrate their German defender Flo Lechner into their shaky defense.

So, with NE pretty much forced into a basic 4-4-2 with a lot of worker bees or fresh young faces themselves, DC would be well served to take the game to them and stake a big lead like they did the last time NE visited when DC held on for a 3-2 win after jumping out to a 2-0 lead.

In a reversal from my usual form, let’s look at what NE will try to do. Almost certainly Heaps will be starting Bengston and youngster Diego Fagundez at forwards, Lee Nguyen, rookie Kelyn Rowe, Ryan Guy and former DC midfielder Clyde Simms in midfield, and Lechner, Steven McCarthy, Darius Barnes, and Kevin Alston along the backline going right to left in front of Uncle Fester, I mean, Matt Reis.

Given that lineup and the way they played against Columbus to win 2-0 and break a 10 game winless streak, NE will try to pressure DC and look for quick plays around the box to free up Fagundez and Bengston for open looks. Neither is particularly a threat in the air much preferring to play with the ball on the ground, as is Nguyen for that matter. All their buzzing pressure is designed to mask their most glaring weakness which is a pretty pitiful central defense, although the return of Darius Barnes has helped there quite a bit.

To counter that and give themselves the best chance to win, DC should turn the tables on them and seek to control the ball with precision passing around their pressure giving DC numbers advantage going forward, and isolating their forwards on McCarthy especially, but their weak center for sure.

So, while Saragosa might pressure more in midfield, his massive amount of turnovers could doom DC. Boskovic is not going to defend, but he has just about the best touch on passes on DC’s roster. Frankly, same with Brandon McDonald’s horrendous turnovers out of the defense, but I’ve given up on him seeing the bench. Also, as spritely as Tan dances behind defenses, his appalling touch rarely allows him to exploit his daring efforts. Pontius, or even god forbid Salihi now that DeRo isn’t on the field to refuse to pass to him, would be the better options.

Bottom line, the matchups favor DC exceedingly if Olsen goes aggressive in his lineup. Something like Pontius (or Salihi), Pajoy, Pontius (or DeLeon), Boskovic, Kitchen, Najar, Chris Korb/Mike Chabala, Emiliano Dudar, Dejan Jakovic, and Robbie Russell/Chris Korb would have far and away more advantageous matchups with NE.

A more pedestrian, and quite frankly more likely lineup given Olsen’s tendencies this season, with Tan, Saragosa, Najar in defense, MoonBall McDonald, etc. still has some advantages because NE is really bad this year, but it plays into NE’s strengths and makes the match a muddy slugfest where likely a couple mistakes decide the match. Given DC’s razor thin margin for error in their next few matches, and their past four years worth of pitiful stretch runs, which do you think is the better way to go?

Even better is the trends. DC is undefeated at home and incredibly, with a draw or win against the lowly Revs, DC would set a record for results in RFK with 14 straight games without a loss. (DC were undefeated at home for 13 games in their Supporter’s Shield winning season of 2007.) NE, on the other hand is a woeful 1-10-2 on the road and literally has nothing to play for being all but eliminated from the playoffs.

The Revs also have not fared well historically in RFK. DC is 17-8-4 against the Revs at home including a win earlier this year. Granted NE has thumped DC a few times recently, as DC’s win this year was the first win over the Revs in RFK since 2008, but those bad old playoff-less days are behind us, right?

There’s no sugar coating this one. DC has to win this match because if they tie or even lose and then play their usual dismal road match up in Philly next Thursday, it’s unlikely they will steal the points like they did there earlier this season and all of a sudden, the playoffs are almost an impossibility.

True, United is only 1 point out of the playoff picture behind the Crew in the final slot, but for all intents and barring a complete collapse by the Fire or NY, DC has to catch either the Crew or Houston (4 points ahead of DC) for a playoff berth. The Crew and Houston both have tough road matches this week in NY and in KC respectively, but after that they both have more home matches and just as many winnable road games as DC if not more.

After NE, DC only has two home games against Chivas and the Crew and faces two playoff teams. The Crew has four home matches and faces only two playoff teams in their last six games (unless you count DC and I wouldn’t unless DC wins outright tomorrow night and at least gets a point in Philly). Houston has three home matches and plays no playoff teams for the rest of the year. So, even if DC plays well, they still aren’t likely to catch Houston or the Crew. Even if they manage to catch the Crew, Columbus visits RFK for a match DC has to win for all the marbles in October.

However, it is meaningless to parse games and schedules unless DC actually takes care of business in the games on their schedule. The past four years have shown a clear tendency to fold like a cheap tent down the stretch. If given any excuse t lose, they lose wholeheartedly.

They have a ready-made excuse in the loss of DeRo and they’ve had their destiny in their hands many times in recent years only to say one thing and do another. Let’s hope they back up all their talk about depth and players stepping up to fill their captain’s shoes, etc. If not, it will be another long bitter winter in DC.

Ben Olsen. Photo: Martin Fernandez.

DC Needs a Spark in Salt Lake

Though Ben Olsen will tell you this current 5 matches in 13 days stretch that ends in Rio Tinto tomorrow night has gone “reasonably” well, truth is DC has stumbled to acquire a mere 5 points in the first 4 matches, so it will take at least a draw at RSL to even make this crucial stretch anything less than a disaster. Trouble is DC hasn’t even played well, much less won in RSL since 2005.

OK, no beating around the bush. This five game stretch was to allow DC to re-establish a rhythm and solidify their playoff position heading into the final games of the season and it has failed miserably at both with two underwhelming draws at home and a crushing loss on the road to Eastern conference opponents fully negating the rousing win they got over Chicago. So, unless they pull off some sort of miracle in RSL, a place that has absolutely haunted them in recent years, the 5 points from these particular 5 matches cannot be considered decent results or much help in their playoff hopes.

In the establishing rhythm department, that’s a tough sell despite some decent play at times during these recent matches. There was no consistency in lineup choices or style of play so saying DC has found their rhythm is clearly a stretch, nor was there any kind of consistency on the field in attaining those results.

The defense played pretty well against Philly despite giving up their goal on pretty much Philly’s only decent chance of the match, but the defense did not play well against Chicago, NY, or obviously Montreal where they lost 3-0. With a hard earned lead over the Fire, DC gave up a killer goal right before halftime another to cut the lead they had regained to make that match a lot closer than it should have been. Another comfortable lead, arguably against the run of play, in the NY match and again the defense fails to close out the match. Obviously in Montreal, the defense was under siege, but still was woefully unequal to the task.

Offensively, the team was dreadful in the Philly match, pretty darn good in the Fire match, hideous in Montreal, and decent in the NY match. Hardly the hallmark of consistency. Oh, but you say some players were not available for certain matches, surely that excuses the inconsistency. No, it does not. Every team in MLS goes through wacky stretches of matches and plans accordingly, the good teams with systems in place to weather these whirlwind stretches. Not so DC. But, the red cards? Surely that’s not DC’s fault? Again, both those cards were pretty well deserved.

Bottom line DC’s offense and defense has shown up together for about 100 minutes total of the past 4 games and that was mainly the last 60 min of the Philly match and the first 44 minutes of the Chicago match. Not a minute since then, and they’ve changed midfield tactics twice and both offensive and defensive personnel more than that. Hardly consistency for a team looking to show they are a playoff caliber team with their system in place.

As for solidifying their playoff position, that still hangs in the balance so no joy there either. Dropping four points to lowly Philly, and a NY side that hadn’t won on the road since May is obviously not good enough despite beating Chicago handily. The ugly loss of composure leading to a draw with Philly is just inexcusable. The fact they held an unlikely lead very late before a gruesome collapse and couldn’t hold off NY in that draw is not the type of performance playoff team’s display.

Bottom line, on one hand 4 of their 5 points came against teams above them in the standings which is decent albeit home matches where you really need all 6 points. But, on the other they dropped 5 points to teams below them in losing to Montreal and allowing Philly to tie them at home.

So now they need a huge performance in RSL to bail themselves out and that seems pretty darn unlikely given DC’s road form lately and their incredible streak of futility in Utah.

Reading my crystal ball, I believe Ben Olsen may just have decided on his forwards. I wish it was Chris Pontius and Dwayne De Rosario, but I think it will be DeRo and Lionard Pajoy again. I also think the bloom is off the rose with starting both Perry Kitchen and Marcelo Saragosa in central midfield, so I believe Branko Boskovic gets a rare start to see if he can spark the team from the get go instead of as a sub once the game is essentially over.

I can see it now. Good luck with that Branko! Here’s your last chance, make it a good one at altitude against one of the best midfield’s in MLS. Don’t screw it up or it’s the bench again for you! Now possibly, Olsen goes for Pontius and Pajoy as forwards and DeRo in midfield, but A, DeRo is wasted in midfield and B, it would mean playing Andy Najar in midfield to make up for the loss of Pontius there. We’ve seen where Olsen stands on that issue.

Almost certainly, it will be DeLeon on the other wing, although if the rookie is dragging in these last couple practices, it could be Lewis Neal instead. Almost certainly it will be Kitchen with the thankless job of containing former league MVPRSL playmaker Javier Morales to complete the midfield. Possibly, Olsen rests Kitchen for the only time when he has been available all year and sics Saragosa on Morales, but I’d be surprised if that happens.

I also think Olsen is going to live or die with Brandon McDonald anchoring the defense as Dudar seems to be back in the doghouse permanently unless there’s an injury or something drastic. So, I fully expect to see Chris Korb, Dejan Jakovic, BMac, and Najar going left to right as the defense in front of likely Bill Hamid. Former RSL defender Robbie Russell is listed as possible, so perhaps he would allow Najar to be used in midfield by going up against his old mates in his old stomping grounds, but I doubt he gets the start after such a long layoff if he plays at all.

And I say “likely” Bill Hamid btw, as United has had a habit of throwing backup keepers to the wolves in these virtually automatic loses in RSL, so it is quite possible we could see Joe Willis in this one. Let’s hope he has better luck than Jose Carvallo or Jay Nolly.

RSL coach Jason Kreis likely has a bit of juggling to do with his lineup as well. After dropping Fabian Espindola for the 0-0 draw in Philly, he may well be inserted back in as the rather clunky 4-5-1 they used in Philly was nowhere near as good as their normal clockwork effective 4-4-2. Kreis has also tried Morales as an off forward like DeRo, but that hasn’t worked well either so I think, unless Flip Espindola is cemented into the doghouse for his erratic emotions and more importantly impotent play being without a goal since June, the Predator seems likely to get another chance against a team he has tormented in the past.

So, I fully expect Kreis to trot out Saborio and Espindola at forward, Wil Johnson, Morales, Kyle Beckerman, and Ned Grabavoy across midfield from left to right. I would be shocked if anyone other than Tony Beltran, Kwame Watson-Siriboe, Nat Borchers, and Chris WIngert going right to left in front of Nick Rimando. With both Jamison Olave and Chris Schuler just coming back from injuries, I can’t see Kreis risking them in this game. It’s not like he’s facing a juggernaut given the way DC has been playing, so no sense risking big guns in a match he should comfortably expect to win with pea shooters.

So, looking at the matchups, DC does have some hope to score at least although St Nick has had a habit of shutting out his old team fairly regularly, but pretty much every other matchup goes the other way.

I think DeRo and Pajoy have a decent shot at getting some joy against Borchers and Watson-Siriboe. DeRo is quicker than Borchers and way smarter than KW-S. Pajoy has shown a good touch in laying off to DeRo and is big enough to draw Borchers most of the time, so they should connect for a goal unless DC is just playing horribly, which is certainly possible given their road form. But, actual playoff teams should not be paying horribly this late in the season. We’ll see how that turns out.

Pontius against Beltran is a reasonable expectation of success too, although I think Beltran is fairly under-rated around the league. He’s their Woolard, doesn’t seem to be athletic enough to succeed, yet he hardly ever gives up a bad goal. However, DeLeon against the rock solid Wingert isn’t too promising at all, nor do I think Boskovic will have much success in the center against Beckerman. Even worse, RSL is too disciplined to give up a ton of free kicks for Boskovic to capitalize on, and he would need a number of chances, since he has to be rusty given his limited game time lately.

But the wheels really come off the wagon defensively for DC. Saborio and Espindola will hector and harry McDonald and Jakovic into mistakes as well as be savvy enough to find the holes they regularly leave in the center of defense. Najar will be hard pressed to negate the Canadian Johnson and Korb will find Grabavoy a tough out as well.

But, the real trouble will come right down the center of the park as Morales and Beckerman are as deadly a combo in central midfield as anywhere in MLS outside Seattle. Kitchen will have his hands full and then some even if DeRo or Boskovic actually helps out which neither seems likely to do. And if those two draw back Pontius and DeLeon to help out defensively, DC won’t score at all. It’s possible seeing this matchup makes Olsen decide to play Saragosa in there to help out Kitchen, but he’ll get beat too, and Saragosa is the death knell of United’s attack especially against a team that has actual experienced organization in their defense.

Maybe Olsen pulls a Nichol and packs ‘em in hoping for the draw, but if DC goes under siege in this game, it could get ugly real quick. Plus, playoff teams don’t just react to what other teams are doing they go out and establish something that the other team has to react to. The longer Olsen refuses to be proactive and think long term, the less likely it is DC ill have a future and the long term will be the planning for next season after missing the playoffs for the fifth year running.

And DC could certainly surprise RSL by taking the game to them. RSL has not really been world beaters lately, even at home. RSL were 0-3 in August until the draw in Philly and have only scored 2 goals in the month. In Rio Tinto, they are 9-4-1 so far this year, but are coming off a loss to FCD at home and 4 losses at home is quite the chinque in the armor for a team used to being unbeaten a t home.

Now, that’s the good news, unfortunately the bad news is most of those painful times have come during the time they were stretched with CONCACAF Champions League travel and matches. They have had a welcome week off and should be raring to get healthy by ripping into somebody to get back on track for their playoff push themselves. That someone could be DC, who are an ugly 0-5 in their last 5 road matches and been outscored a crushing 13-3 in those matches. Plus, this is DC’s 5th game in 13 days, while RSL has had a whole week off for the first time in weeks and knows how to turn it up at crunch time when they are rested. So much for current trends.

As for past trends, despite a miraculous tie their last year due to the famous Charlie Davies Dive that gave DC a late PK for the 1-1 draw, that was the only point in RSL for DC since RSL’s first expansion season in 2005 when Freddy Adu got the winning goal for DC. And DC rarely even scores out there, much less comes close to winning, being outscored 14-4 in their last 6 matches out there, including 3-0 and 4-0 losses in two of the past four years.

So, on paper and given the trends, DC has a monumental task ahead of them in Rio Tinto. A win could absolutely be season altering, a loss could be equaling season altering in the opposite way. A tie would be respectable, but would really ratchet up the pressure on those home matches coming up against NE and Chivas after a week off to stew about the points that slipped away during this stretch.

Results the past few weeks have actually helped DC stay in contact and Chicago hosts Houston so one of them losing all the points will help DC as well. But the Crew and the Fire also have a game in hand on DC, with the Crew and Fire both having 5 home matches, and Houston 4 at home, left to DC’s 3 crucial matches left at RFK. So, even if these teams knock each other off on the road, they will all still finish higher than DC if they hold serve at home.

So, DC simply has to find road points somewhere. RSL would be a glorious place to start. Fingers crossed for a miracle.

Dread for DC Down the Stretch

Given the stretch runs in United’s recent past, DC fans can justifiably be seriously concerned as the Black and Red host Redbull New York tomorrow night in RFK before an ominous game in Salt Lake on the weekend.

The remarkable thing about United missing the playoffs the last four years running is that aside from the abysmal 2010 season where DC was out of the hunt in August, United had very real possibilities to actually get into the playoffs if not for their brutally poor performances down the stretch at crunch time.

Last year, after a rousing late season win over high flying RSL, United needed a mere 5 points out of their last 6 games, the last 3 of which were at home against mostly less than stellar opponents, and DC squeaked out a bare 1 point in losing 5 of the 6.

2010 was an abomination best left unspoken about, but 2009 DC was well into the hunt down the stretch, but CCL commitments as well as lineup troubles sent DC to 3 straight home losses late in the season which meant they absolutely needed to win their last two matches. They got an undeserved win over the Crew in RFK, but after Julius James scored a late goal in KC, United were stunned in stoppage time with a bolt of bad luck and the tie left them down and out of the payoffs again, but truth be told neither performance was good enough to deserve all the points.

Ironically, in 2008 United was in first place in early summer after a string of wins and with their designated player (Marcelo Gallardo) in fine form (Ahem! Like Branko’s burst early this summer before his current invisibility) and yet DC was a shambles by late August. Finishing up September on an 0-4-3 stretch before winning the final meaningless match, and finding out that a mere 3 points more would have seen them make the playoffs.

And truth be told DC down the stretch in the Supporter’s Shield winning sides in 2006 (lost 4 of last 5 matches) and 07 (1 win in last 5 games) weren’t all that impressive down the stretch either, partly due to CCL and other scheduling issues, and were drummed out of the playoffs rather meekly both times. Even further, anyone familiar with the rueful Rongen or hapless Hudson years will know those late season trials and tribulations as well. Fact is DC has finished strong exactly one time since the turn of the century and that time they won it all.

In all of those seasons where United actually failed down the stretch though, the common themes were lack of consistent starting lineup, lack of any decent road form late in the season, a severe slippage of succession the final matches at RFK, and admittedly some ridiculously bad luck and heinous scheduling problems. And another symptom was the plethora of excuses trotted out for poor performances by coaches and the brain staff.

Looking at the way this season has unfolded, well stop me if you’ve heard this before. United lacks a consistent starting XI, road form shows an eerily similar lack of heart and commitment, RFK success is ominously hanging in the balance despite the longest unbeaten streak since 1999, has had a ridiculously uneven schedule to contend with, and luck hasn’t favored DC since Tommy Two Tone Soehn won a couple trophies here. And there’s no question after listening to Olsen and Payne recently that the United excuse train is chugging along with its usual huffing and puffing.

So, forgive me if this sounds like a broken record, but DC seems to falling into a very consistent pattern of late season collapses that has been revolving on replay since 2000, the Cup winning team in 2004 being the exception. And that team peaked late. They were mediocre 6-6-6 (!) until August when Christian Gomez showed up and carried the team down the stretch.

In my mind the importance of this NY match is monumental. Olsen showed he could rally the troops and elate the fans with an improbable win over the high flying Fire, but then the team went right back into the toilet with a pitiful performance in Montreal. United has not lost recently at RFK, but hasn’t really played well here either outside of that Chicago win with the ugly draw to Philly and the lackluster 1-0 win over the Crew preceding it.

NY comes to town second in the East and clearly with an MLS Cup or bust mentality, at least in the front office, but with a scary talented offense and an increasingly efficient if hardly daunting defense. Should DC lose and with the almost certain loss at RSL looming, United will be in dire straits even though they face 4-5 cupcakes in their last 7 matches.

Sure, NE, Philly, Chivas, Portland, and TFC are pretty much already out of the hunt, but NE is always tough in RFK, we’ve never won in Philly, Chivas has a stifling defense (unless you’re Seattle) and TFC rarely loses or scores less than 3 goals when they visit here. So only Portland is perhaps a confident 3 points, except Portland got a crucial 1-1 draw here late last year that pretty much sealed United’s playoff fate in 2011.

And before you discount those rationalizations, think about this. Aside from DC gaining enough points, they need Columbus and/or someone above them to not gain too many more as well. The Crew has a game in hand and plays Montreal, Chivas, Philly, and finishes up with TFC all at home, as well as a road game in NE sandwiched around tough matches in Chicago, KC and possibly in RFK. Hmmmm. Not so promising now that you think about it, especially given the way the Crew and the other Higuain are playing right now. And thinking the Fire or Houston will drop back is wishful thinking at best as they have some cupcakes on their schedule as well as MLS has scheduled mostly division games down the stretch.

With the book on NY being dynamic offense and weak defense being pretty similar to the book on DC, especially as either team can light it up at any time and seemingly pitch improbable defensive gems from time to time too, this match is almost impossible to handicap as form of the day will carry the match for certain.

Still, watching NY Sunday night when they tied in KC 1-1 and had a golden chance to win late, it seems likely NY will go with a similar lineup in DC tomorrow night. The only possible changes would be if former DC midfielder Brandon Barklage (who scored two goals in NY’s win in Red Bull Arena earlier this season) and Thierry Henry (who missed the KC match attending the birth of his first son) enter the lineup. Maybe NY Guru Hans Backe starts Joel Lindpere or rests Cahill in favor of Mehdi Ballouchy, but I doubt it.

So, given Backe’s preference for a hybrid 4-3-3 and the fact they are much better with Henry on the field, I’d say he goes with Henry, Kenny Cooper, and Sebatien LeToux as the three forwards (frankly, if he was smart, he’d sit the underwhelming Cooper (lately) and play the two Frenchmen up top, thereby being able to add in Lindpere to the midfield, but he has been loath to do that for some reason).

With those three up top, he is almost certain to go with Tim Cahill and former DC midfielder Dax McCarty behind them, as well as either Lindpere or Teemu Tainio. I’d say Tainio as his bite really makes NY’s midfield work whereas McCarty is wasted in that role.

Then in defense, he has pretty much no choice but to go with Wilman Conde at left back as Roy Miller is probably not ready to start yet. Then Markus Holgersson and Heath Pearce have formed a semblance of a decent partnership in central defense despite neither of them being very good, and I think Jan Gunnar Solli returns to right back as that’s his most effective position and since Barklage isn’t likely anywhere near ready for 90 min yet. All in front of Bill Gaudette who has dramatically improved NY’s goalkeeping situation.

Ben Olsen has his usual decisions to make; what to do with Chris Pontius and Dwayne De Rosario and Branko Boskovic and Andy Najar and Dejan Jakovic. Nearing September with 5 of 11 starting positions unsettled seems a bit reckless to me, but Olsen seems to like it so I’ll leave that dead horse unflogged for today.

Given that Olsen has basically said he doesn’t trust Boskovic in a starting role and he seems completely unwilling to sit Brandon McDonald, I think it’s likely he starts Pontius (5 of his 10 goals this year have come against NY in two games) and Lionard Pajoy in the 2 forward slots as DeRo will likely be once again ill used in midfield. I expect Nick DeLeon and Perry Kitchen to play the left side and defensive midfield roles again. I also would hope its Najar playing right midfield, but Olsen’s eerie quotes about his future being as a right back are a bit unsettling.

(As an aside, for those of you old enough, Hudson experimented extensively with former rookie of the year, Ben Olsen himself, as a hybrid right back and the outcry was cruel despite the fact that it actually worked very well for the brief period it was allowed to happen. Olsen was obviously unenthused at the switch despite the arguable success of the move, yet he is essentially doing the same thing to Andy. More to it than that snippet of course, but eerily similar and interesting when you think about it.)

In the defense, it’s anyone’s guess. Seems likely Mike Chabala, McDonald, Emiliano Dudar, and Chris Korb going from left to right across the backline in front of Bill Hamid, but if Olsen slots Najar back there, then Korb would switch to left, or possibly Jakovic starts on the right or instead of Dudar. Hard to say, but it is unsettling that the Canadian International is not a lock as a starter in this particular team. But there you go.

So, looking at the matchups, DC is in real trouble defensively. Henry and LeToux could shred the ball watching McDonald and the suddenly error prone Dudar. Jakovic would probably be more solid instead, but he’s played sparingly lately and the two Frenchies are a tough welcome back into the starting lineup.

Obviously, Korb and Chabala will have to help inside which means if McCarty or Solli get up field, DeLeon and Najar better be ready to run all day both ways if DC is to find any success at all. Even the normally reliable Kitchen is not a lock for the good as Cahill has been startlingly good lately for NY and he has McCarty with an axe to grind to help him. When NY floods forward or gets LeToux or Henry over the top (which has happened to DC far too often this year), United is in serious trouble.

DC has clear advantages in the center as Pontius and Pajoy, or god willing DeRo, should be able to flummox the glacial Holgersson and the pitiful Pearce. But if NY holds the ball as well as they did against SKC, United’s forwards will get starved of the ball and need to make the absolute most of their chances. That means Pontius has to be on fire as Pajoy isn’t sharp enough nor has DeRo been precise either especially on those days he drains himself running in midfield. Nor will DeLeon or Najar help much as both Solli and Conde are the kind of tough savvy defenders that don’t give up much.

At least the trends favor DC. United got a hat trick from Pontius earlier this year in a 4-1 romp over NY, and United is a stellar 9-0-3 outscoring teams 29-11 at RFK since losing the opener in stoppage time to SKC, while NY hasn’t won on the road since May going 0-4-3 being outscored 4-10 since beating Montreal May19. However it is worth noting, before this year’s romp it was two years of misery as NY trotted in here winning with shutouts 4-0 in 2011 and 2-0 in 2010. Still overall, NY is a paltry 9-18-3 in RFK lifetime and not much better with a 20-31-7 record in one of the longest and most played rivalries in MLS history.

With both NY and United near the top of MLS in offense, NY 1st in the East and 3rd overall with 44 goals and United 3rd and 5th respectively with 41, as well as both teams near the bottom in defense, DC tied for 5th in East and 10th overall with 35 goals against and NY 8th and 14th respectively giving up 37, plus the fact the two teams have combined some of the wildest games and absolute monster goal fests in league history, expect some fireworks in this one as well.

Still, despite past dominance and current trends, DC looks past NY at its own peril. Whether expecting to win like they almost always have here in RFK, or simply not worrying about a loss since some patsies are waiting in the wings, either way of thinking could put United deep into must win twitchy bum territory where they have not fared well in the past down the stretch.

Crucial Match with Fire Looms for DC

After a frustrating draw with Philly Sunday barely edged them back into the last playoff spot, DC United has to find their composure and get back to their winning ways against the visiting Chicago Fire tomorrow night if they are to keep themselves in a playoff position as the season winds down.

The Fire, which has quietly eased themselves past United and well into the playoff picture with a 7-2-2 record this summer after their usual dismal start to the season, brings a three game winning streak into RFK to face a United team arguably in disarray after a squabbling, scruffy failure to beat a truly woeful Philly Union side this past weekend.

From leading the East at the beginning of the summer, inaction and uninspiring play has systematically dropped United from a playoff position until the infuriating tie with Philly Sunday slid them just past Montreal into the last slot. However, the team and Ben Olsen have shown precious little of the form or good management decisions that vaulted the team up the rankings earlier this season.

Venturing into the last week of August and into a crucially important stretch of five games in thirteen days, United has shown little consistency on the field and coach Ben Olsen has shown no signs of encouraging consistency with even something as basic as a defined starting lineup or established player rotation.

And thanks to Mark the Game Changer Geiger, DC will be without two ostensible starters in playmaker Branko Boskovic and central defender Emiliano Dudar. Also it’s likely Olsen will re-establish Hamdi Salihi’s stranglehold on the doghouse after he was the culprit for Geiger nullifying Dwayne De Rosario’s likely game winning penalty kick. But frankly, it’s hard to say any of them would have started anyway given Olsen penchant for playing the flavor of the week as opposed to guys he’s been theoretically integrating into the team all season long.

Not to beat to dead a horse, but what kind of message does it send to your established forward corp when you twice trade for a guy from another team and immediately juggle the lineup to start them over guys who have been here since training camp? How about to your defensive backups, to see a guy here for two days trot right out to start over you? Even worse, all of them were predictably underwhelming and have now started off on the back foot both in the locker room and on the field.

And all this foolishness has once again exacerbated the consistency problems of Boskovic, DeRo, and Chris Pontius who bounce from position to position, or the bench as in the case of Boskovic who did not start against Philly in order to allow DeRo to take the reins in midfield, pretty ineffectively I might add.

So, tomorrow’s game is all on Olsen as far as I’m concerned. If he gets this team refocused and decently organized enough to beat Chicago in a game they absolutely must win considering the standings and the impending visit to Montreal on the weekend, then hopefully he has turned the corner on undermining his own team. If United comes out testy and disorganized again and fumbles the ball and the game over to the red hot Fire for a gut wrenching loss, even an underwhelming tie, then it might be time to put Olsen’s decision making under the microscope.

Look, I get it that Olsen is rewarding practice hustlers and keeps mixing, matching and trading to fit various parts into a whole, but the reality is that at a certain point, he has to simply go with the best XI he can cobble together and give them enough time to develop decent chemistry. I would argue that time is already long past and Geiger’s idiocy has robbed him of the chance now, but regardless, Olsen has to establish a pecking order and stick to it. Stop adding things to the recipe and just stick it in the oven and see what you’ve got once it bakes.

The evidence is in that DeRo needs to play forward, but without Boskovic, that’s a pipe dream so I expect to see him wasted in midfield once again tomorrow night. However, if he at least stops turning the ball over so much and taking ill advised shots, then that will be enough of an improvement to keep DC in the hunt until Boskovic gets back into midfield.

Just as obvious, Pontius has earned and deserves a starting forward slot. Hopefully beside a consistent partner, but again that’s not likely tomorrow either with DeRo in midfield. For tomorrow, I would put my money on Pajoy getting another start as he showed some glimpses of chemistry with Pontius and is the better ball handler than Long Tan, the erratic shooter and turnover machine. Tan’s slashing style is better suited for battling with Salihi for the second half sub slot, and I’d give it to Salihi as he at least generally shoots at the net.

DeRo should be surrounded with Nick DeLeon, Perry Kitchen, and Andy Najar going left to right. DeLeon is a decent spark and despite some defensive flaws id reasonably reliable and definitely has some chemistry with DeRo and Pontius. Najar is simply the only consistent offensive threat coming out of midfield and despite his raw style and lack of chemistry with the rest, he is a player other teams have to respect on both sides of the ball. Besides, he won’t get any better chemistry from the bench.

With Dudar suspended for that idiotic tackle and likely back next to Salihi in the doghouse anyway, It’s virtually a lock that Mike Chabala will man the left side of defense, with Dejan Jakovic, Brandon McDonald, and Chris Korb starting across the rest of the backline in front of Bill Hamid.

The long time United nemesis Fire, who stole all three points with a brutal two goal stoppage time barrage last time they were in RFK, will be visiting on quite the high after a solid 2-1 win over New England at home the latest of a three game winning streak over Eastern conference opponents. With the return of prodigal son, Chris Rolfe and the introduction of European talents, Arne Friedrich and Sherjill McDonald to the established talents of Pavel Pardo, Sebastien Grazzini, and Marco Pappa, the Fire have become a formidable side the past couple months.

Likely, Fire coach Frank Klopas trots out the same lineup that easily handled NE on the weekend. It should be the dynamic Dutchman McDonald, who scored the game winner against NE for his first MLS goal and Rolfe, who has 5 goals in the 11 games since he came back to the Fire to lead the team in scoring at forward against DC.

In midfield with Pause still out, it will be Daniel Paladini alongside Pardo backing up Patrick Nyarko and Grazzini pulling the strings of the offense. But, the Fire’s real strength has been a rock solid defense anchored by the former German international, Friedrich and the surprisingly good partnership that has grown between him and Austin Berry in central defense. Since those two have gelled, the Fire has only given up two goals in a game once (LA) and has only given up 9 total in the last 10 games going 7-1-2 in those matches. Rounding out that defense is Gonzalo Segares on the left and Jalil Anibaba on the right in front of Sean Johnson.

So, looking at the matchups, DC is not really in good shape even if they were playing at their best which they clearly are not. Pontius and Pajoy or whoever will struggle against Friedrich and Berry, Segares and Najar will flat out be a dogfight likely negating both, and Deleon will have to find something special to get around Anibaba who is easily as quick and athletic as United’s precocious rookie. DeRo is unlikely to help either both because he’s been playing terrible lately but also because he will have Paladini and Pardo draped all over him all game long without any real outlets to help him, so I expect his turnovers to stay at the painfully high level they have been at for months.

Defensively is more trouble too. Rolfe is a United killer and their McDonald is likely a lot better than ours, especially as the amorphous midfield they play will have Kitchen pulling hair out trying to guess which threat to go with, the speedy Nyarko or the crafty Grazzini, either of whom given time and space will pick apart DC’s somewhat slow thinking and ball watching defense.

On the good side, the Fire play sort of a box midfield, so Korb and Chabala should be able to both help out Kitchen and also have space up the line to exploit. The bad side is neither seems likely to be enough of an offensive threat to worry the Fire much. Bottom line, DC has to at their very best to even expect a result in this game and they haven’t been at their best in months.

The intangibles don’t really help much either. The Fire are a respectable 7-10-4 in RFK lifetime and only trail the all time series a mere 15-16-10. As mentioned, the Fire are on a roll lately and United is not even though they have kept their home unbeaten streak alive, albeit just barely. The Fire are 2-1-2 in their last 5 on the road including ties in SJ and Houston, places DC got hammered to the tune of 9-3 goal differential I might add.

DC’s gaudy record at home has been tarnished a bit of late both because they have rarely played at home since May and due to the lackluster wins over NE and Columbus, and of course the debilitating and costly tie against Philly. And of course, DC is 1-3-1 overall since beating Montreal at home in late June.

To date, United have had the better offense and The Fire the better defense, but given the current situation, bookies would be hard pressed to say DC can outscore the Fire, more likely it’ll be the other way around.

So there you have it. About the only positive for DC is that I will miss the game and United is an invincible 6-0-1 lifetime in the 7 league games I’ve missed in 16 years. However that is easily negated by the very thought that after the Geiger debacle, this game will be reffed by a rookie who has issued 4 red cards and 3 PKs in 4 career games. Oof.

An unlikely win would vault DC within a point of Chicago and Houston for third place in the East with a game in hand and with the Fire off until September and Houston hosting TFC after a quick trip El Salvador for CCL play. The far more likely loss or tie would leave DC barely a point or two ahead of the Impact with a showdown in Montreal on the weekend. Grim.

A lot rides on tomorrow night, poor play and some equally bad coaching decisions and abd luck has put United behind the 8 ball. It’ll be interesting to see if the Olsen and the players have the answers to solve their problems.