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.