DC Visits Vancouver

DC United (and designated player, Branko Bosokvic, above) head to Vancouver to face the surging Whitecaps hoping to find their form after starting the season with losses to SKC and LA. The two teams split their two matches last year, but both have made significant changes for the 2012 season.

Vancouver, after finishing last in the West in their inaugural season last year, vastly improved their already solid offense by trading for the Flying Frenchman Sebastion LeToux and his 25 MLS goals in the past two seasons. The move also upgraded their midfield by moving Swiss attacker Davide Chumiento and his 9 assists last year into midfield, a midfield that was already improved with the acquisition of Japanese holding midfielder, Jun Marques Davidson.

But perhaps more importantly and with less fanfare, quietly improved their porous defense from last year (3rd worst GAA in the league), with the addition of South Korean World Cup veteran, Young-Pyo Lee, and Argentine central defender Martin Bonjour to partner with American international Jay DeMerit, and Canadian Alain Rochat.

Those changes have sparked Vancouver to a 2-0 start to the season including their first ever MLS road win last week against Chivas. However, arguably DC will be a different challenge as the ‘Caps have perhaps been the recipient of the most lenient schedule in MLS so far by getting to start at home against this year’s hapless expansion team, Montreal, and then travel to the equally hapless Chivas USA (who were without their main offensive threats available).

Assuming United’s Ben Olsen has come to his senses, or DC’s designated players have gotten the message to earn their starting roles (whichever scenario you prefer), United’s off-season shopping spree should arguably present more of a challenge than anyone Vancouver has faced so far.

My personal opinion is that Olsen saw Albanian striker Hamdi Salihi and Montenegran playmaker Branko Boskovic struggle in their first match this year and felt that they might need a bit more time to acclimate to MLS before being thrown to the KC and LA wolves, both last year’s conference winners and current MLS Cup favorites. He essentially was doing the same thing with Argentine defender Emiliano Dudar by leaving him out of the starting XI for both matches, and he only played the second half versus LA due to an injury to Dejan Jakovic.

However, regardless of the reason, DC United absolutely needs to begin developing some chemistry between and among their high priced talent now. Arguably, the team had little chance to develop chemistry against seasoned experienced teams with almost no changes to their lineups, but that is not the case against Vancouver who has made changes, and might be a bit overconfident considering their relatively easy start compared to United’s trial by fire. Granted they passed their SATs and DC failed the Bar exam, but hey, I’m just stating the facts.

Of course, United does find themselves a little further behind the 8-ball as former rookie of the year, Andy Najar, joins Perry Kitchen and Bill Hamid away with his national team for Olympic qualifying. But, United’s off-season shopping didn’t end with the window dressing, they also picked up some quality depth in players like Danny Cruz from Houston who is likely to replace Najar and Marcelo Saragosa who should remain the backup for Kitchen in defensive midfield.

Tactically, Vancouver plays more of a 4-1-4-1 and in the attack relies on Chumiento and LeToux to generate chances for their big Frenchman Eric the Red Hassli to finish, or to knockdown for the crafty Brazilian Camilo Sanvezzo to finish. Defensively, they look funnel everything centrally for their big men to snuff out which also allows Lee and Rochat to pay almost as wingbacks and get forward as much as be called upon to defend. DC almost certainly will play Olsen’s beloved 4-4-2 which means they will have an advantage in the attack out wide, but must be conscious of not letting Saragosa and their center backs get overrun right down the middle of the field.

So, assuming DC goes with their best players on paper, looking at the matchups, DC has some advantages assuming they begin to assert some form of chemistry on the field.

When attacking, obviously Salihi is a new element for Demerit and Bonjour to try and contain, and if Salihi shows the running and defensive work he showed in the first match, he will cause problems for DeMerit and Bonjour, especially if defending league MVP, Dwayne De Rosario is back to his usual form. Unfortunately, in midfield Boskovic might again be at a tactical disadvantage and be forced to do more shovel work than fine motor control, but if he occupies that hole and keeps the ‘Caps from owning the center of the field, than he’s done his job, because DC’s best chances will come from wide play and Cruz against Rochat and Pontius against Lee will likely decide DC’s fate. If they force those outside backs backward, United has the advantage and look for Salihi to get his first MLS goal.

Defensively, DC is still in decent shape. Obviously, LeToux against Woolard, who should regain his starting slot from Korb who, due to that assist he provided on one of LA’s goals, should spend some time back on the bench thinking about the value of square passes in the defensive third of the field. Also, Woolard did very well against another physical mismatch in Kei Kamara in the first match, and quite frankly never seems to have the physical advantage on anyone, yet also never seems to get burned that often.

Robbie Russell on the other side has seen Camilo plenty last year when he played for RSL and shouldn’t be too troubled by him as long as the play DC’s defense stays coordinated. Even better, in central defense, Dudar has actually played against Eric the Red and Chumiento in Switzerland and shouldn’t be too surprised by either of those two keys to Vancouver’s attack. As long as Saragosa stays tight in front of Dudar and McDonald, DC will be tough to break down, even with all the weapons Vancouver has.

Obviously, the trends do not favor DC, 0-2, 0-1 on the road having been outscored 4-1, versus ‘Caps, who are 2-0, 1-0 at home with a 3-0 goal differential, but as I said those stats are a bit misleading. The two teams split their games last year with DC thumping Vancouver 4-0 in RFK (Stephen King even scored!), and falling 1-2 last year in Vancouver (Santino Quaranta with his last United assist on a Brandon McDonald goal after the ‘Caps staked a two goal lead).

Obviously, a betting man goes with Vancouver in this one, but I think DC can surprise the ‘Caps. I won’t say anything more than that as the Martin jinx is well known as the kiss of death, but I think the real DC United begins to show its potential tomorrow night in Vancouver.

Nick DeLeon

DC Has a Sporting Chance at Home

DC United (and top draft pick Nick DeLeon, above) hosts defending Eastern Conference champion, Sporting KC, in the season opener of the 2012 season, and after having lost to SKC here in the final match of 2011, DC drastically re-tooled over the off-season and looks to have as good a chance as any at contending for the Eastern Conference this year.

After its fourth straight year out of the playoffs, United made significant changes since the end of the 2011 season, most notably the signing of designated player, striker Hamdi Salihi to bolster an attack that was essentially carried by 2011 MLS MVP, Dwayne De Rosario. However, United also cleaned house to such extent that only four roster players have even been with the team since 2009, which was Ben Olsen’s last as a player (Chris Pontius, Dejan Jakovic, Bill Hamid, and Stephen King).

In all, United will likely have only 5 starters returning to their respective positions (unless Pontius makes a surprise start after just recently returning from injury), and a 6th in second year Perry Kitchen moving from the backline to midfield. It seems very likely United starts at least 4 newcomers; Salihi, first round draft pick, Nick DeLeon in midfield, and right back Robbie Russell along with Argentine central defender Emiliano Dudar on the backline. DC will also get an added boost in midfield as last year’s designated player, Branko Boskovic, is expected to start after missing most of last season due to injury, and especially from league legend De Rosario, who has recently been rewarded with a long term deal essentially guaranteeing his retirement in Black and Red.

On the other side of the field, Sporting KC has made few changes to a team that came within an ace of representing the East in the MLS Cup last year, despite starting the season with only one win in their first ten matches. Gone is Mexican Omar Bravo replaced in midfield by former DC young gun, Bobby Convey, but the rest of their potent attack remains the same. A slight change to their deep midfield with the addition of former Metro, Luke Sassano who replaces the injured Julio Cesar, but their backline and goalkeeper remain intact.

While United will play essentially a straight up 4-4-2, while SKC prefers a 4-3-3 setup which may well create some matchup problems for United defensively, but will almost certainly provide space out wide for a potentially very explosive DC offense to exploit. Given the nature of this as a home opener and the likely tactics of both teams, as well as the history between these two clubs, certainly a high scoring barn burner is far more likely than a one goal affair.

Looking at the matchups, DC could have some trouble in midfield defense and in handling KC’s 3 forwards, especially last year’s rookie of the year, CJ Sapong (and later Teal Bunbury his likely replacement late in the match). SKC likely will start Kai Kamara, Sapong and Convey across their forward line. Which means DC’s Dudar will get a quick initiation into the type of physical forward that abounds in MLS. Also Kamara’s athleticism and SuperBobby’s guile could pose huge problems for DC’s wide backs, Daniel Woolard and former RSL defender Robbie Russell acquired in the off-season. Considering KC’s constant movement and switching style of attack,KC could easily confound United’s relatively new defense unless they are all on the same page from the get go.

Even worse, SKC relies on a brutally quick counterattack which could be lethal against United’s perhaps lesser athletically inclined defenders, especially as Perry Kitchen is the lone midfielder tasked to stop counters but will have to choose quickly as KC has essentially three central midfielders to start the attack. Kitchen showed remarkable class and intelligence for a rookie last year on the backline, but this will be a rude awakening to life in midfield in MLS to see the clever and effective former Terp, Graham Zusi, Wily Honduran Roger Espinoza, and the big teeth rattler with a surprising touch, Luke Sassano all coming at him at various times. The rest of United’s midfield is not remarkably skilled at defending, although Andy Najar is certainly willing, but that could be a huge trouble spot if Kitchen is left on an island.

However offensively; DC United has the inverse advantages of their wide play and sick collection offensive talent. Salihi is just as mysterious to KC’s central defense as Sapong is to Dudar, but he’s surrounded by defending MVP DeRo, has slick Montenegran midfielder Boskovic in support, as well as former rookie of the year, Najar and rookie sensation, DeLeon (if not Pontius) swinging in balls as well. DC’s attack should be a serious handful for KC’s defense to handle as well. Especially Najar against KC left back Seth Sinovic and DeRo against anybody wearing a KC kit.

Obviously, there’s no current trends to evaluate as pre-season is absolutely meaningless in MLS, but United should have some concerns considering the history against KC in the first few games of a season. United is 2-4 against KC in either a season or home opener and a brutal 0-4 since 2001, when DC did prevail in the only time they faced KC in an actual season opener at home, a 3-2 win back when Thomas Rongen was still patrolling the DC sidelines. In fact, all time in home openers, DC is a relatively dismal 7-4-4 and has only one home opening win since 2004, a rousing 4-1 thrashing of TFC in 2008 when Marcelo Gallardo patrolled the midfield. Even worse, DC is a pathetic 0-3-2 in season openers since 2005 including 2 shutout losses in KC in the last 3 years.

On the bright side, despite some recent success, KC is a mere 5-12-4 in RFK over their history being outscored 33-24, although 2 of those wins have come in their last 4 matches here. DC also clings to a bare 18-16-9 edge over KC all time having outscored them 66-61, meaning the teams have averaged 3 goals a match over their history. So, expect a reasonably high scoring match all things considered.

There you have it. DC’s revamped team going against the best in the East last season right off the bat. Both teams with explosive offenses on paper, DC with perhaps an edge there and with home field advantage. Both teams also have somewhat suspect defenses, SKC with an obvious edge there given their continuity from last year.

SKC poses a potentially bruising test for the Black and Red right out of the gate, and it will almost certainly be a riveting match for the RFK faithful hoping to see United’s quest for a return to prominence begin tomorrow night.

DC Hosts Sporting KC to End 2011 Season

DC United has little at stake in this last match, but SKC will win the Eastern Conference with a win and will certainly want make sure they secure home field advantage. However, some United players will literally be playing for their jobs, and all will hopefully be playing for pride in front of their long suffering fans in their final match at RFK for the season.

Well, perhaps now that the pressure is off United might actually play with some passion and determination for a full 90 minutes, because they certainly haven’t played that way in the 5 match winless streak that saw them squander all their games in hand and drop them from the playoffs for the fourth straight year.

Granted that final 10 minutes against Portland was about the most thrilling soccer seen in RFK in years, and DC arguably deserved the win, but the fact remains that valiant tie only served to break the crushing four game losing streak that preceded it. Young and inconsistent with ineffective veterans outside of savior Dwayne De Rosario, DC literally crumbled down the stretch under the strain. But perhaps with very little at stake in this final match before the long winter, and their pride and possibly some careers on the line, maybe now they will show a full 90 minutes of effort.

But it won’t be easy as SKC has been as hot as anyone in the league since June when they resurrected their season after moving into Livestrong Park. Since getting their shiny new stadium, SKC has gone from the bottom of the East to a chance at their first conference championship since winning the West in 2004 (and losing to DC in the MLS Cup that year, too).

With a dynamic multifaceted attack that has only been outscored this season only by Seattle and New York (and tied by DC, each with 49 goals in 33 games), as well as the 5th best defense in the league, SKC has become a formidable team after starting the season an abysmal 1-6-3 in their first 10 games and now sits atop the East having rung up a record of 11-3-9 since.

There’s no chance SKC coach Peter Vermes will rest anyone, so I fully expect him to trot out his best players in that wicked 4-3-3 hybrid they play. Which means a forward line spearheaded by Teal Bunbury supported by Kei Kamara (each leading the team with 9 goals) and Grahma Zusi (5 goals 7 assists), and with Mexican Omar Bravo pulling the strings in midfield, and he only has 9 goals himself, as well as rookie of the year candidate, C.J. Sapong with 5 goals coming off the bench, SKC has a lot of weapons to go against a sketchy DC defense.

As for the rest of the team, Vermes has used Roger Espinoza and Julio Cesar pretty consistently lately behind Bravo in midfield, and his backline of Seth Sinovic, Matt Besler, Aurelien Collin, and Chance Myers going from left to right in front of keeper Jimmy Nielsen hasn’t changed in weeks now that Myers has arguably finally begun to live up to his high draft status.

Ben Olsen on the other hand does have some decisions to make. MLS leading scorer, Dwayne De Rosario has been playing with some bad bruises lately and really has nothing to prove in this last game, nor is it smart to risk him simply for a better shot at the golden boot which he might win anyway, leading SJ’s WOndolowski by a goal with one game to go. So I doubt he starts, but should come on for a curtain call for the fans unless he simply can’t play at all.

Also, Olsen all but admitted Charlie Davies is not very effective against defenses that play a deep back line that he can’t get behind very easily, well that describes SKC’s defense pretty accurately, and considering rookie Blake Brettschneider definitely made a case for himself and perhaps deserves some true recognition for the spark he provided coming on for Davies against Portland, choosing which of those players to start can’t be an easy decision.

In addition, Wolff was an embarrassment in that Portland match, pretty much turning over every ball he touched and contributing very little to United’s dismal offense for the first 85 minutes of the game. Now, he’s had a decent season and doesn’t deserve to be dumped on, but he also has nothing to prove either, and if he is simply out of gas at the end of probably his last season being considered a serious candidate to start matches, then he should sit and Olsen should give someone else a chance.

So, given all that I suspect Olsen will reward Brettchneider with the start at forward, and I personally would love to see him give Santino Quaranta a chance at forward, as DC’s prodigal son has been squeezed out a bit of late. But has been a very good soldier about it and seems to be getting back his long lost aggression at going to goal and making things happen in the attack. Tino’s faults lately have been pretty poor defense tracking back, but he’s always been fine pressuring forward on defenders, and as long as his offensive mistakes are from being aggressive, you can live with that.

As for the rest of the lineup, I think Olsen plays Austin Da Luz (or Santino, if Wolff starts) on the left, Stephen King, Perry Kitchen, and Andy Najar in midfield. On defense, unless Dejan Jakovic is leaping tall buildings and flat out begging to start, then his hamstring should not be risked except for a curtain call as well. In that case, it will be Daniel Woolard, Brandon McDonald, Ethan White, and Chris Korb in front of Bill Hamid. Which would challenge for one of the youngest lineups in MLS history, but hey, these young guys are the guys who’ve earned it lately.

Unfortunately, no matter whom DC starts, even DeRo in his superman cape, United simply does not match up well against SKC and their amorphous attacking system and rock solid defense. I’d like to see if Santino could put Besler and Collin on their heels, and I think Brettschneider has as good a chance as anyone to bang successfully with those guys too. However, even Davies and Wolff don’t seem to be better options, especially considering the way they’ve been playing recently.

Now, possibly Najar gets the better of Sinovic, but Espinoza is great at helping out and it might be a little too much for Andy to be able to carry the attack on his own, and let’s face it, if he beats Sinovic to the end line, only Brettchneider has shown any skill at getting n the end of a cross lately, but then again Collin and Besler eat up crosses. On the other side, Myers is much more the weak link and either Da Luz or Santino could find success against him, but his speed in recovery is very good, and neither DC option defends the wing well enough to negate Myers’ jaunts up the right side.

Then of course without DeRo, United’s central midfield is toothless in the attack, but King and Kitchen together will defend Bravo and company much better than if DeRo was on the field. So, all in all, DC’s attack is likely to struggle without some luck or SKC playing below their ability, but that’s really to be expected given the situation.

Defensively, things are even worse if possible. Even with Kitchen and King hopefully negating Bravo and keeping Espinoza from jumping into the attack; Bunbury, Zusi, and Kamara are a handful for good defenses and DC isn’t one of those. Woolard has been very consistent, but is a physical mismatch against Kamara, Zusi is much better than Rodney Wallace and if Korb lays off him, he has an absolutely wicked shot from distance, but if he bodies him, Zusi is tricky enough to get the ball or himself around United’s rookie right back. Bunbury is a specimen too, fast and tricky enough to get away from McDonald, and while White could stay with him, unless White has suddenly learned to concentrate 100% of the time, Bunbury (or later, Sapong)will punish DC.

Plus, SKC switches all over the field to create mismatches and DC has trouble marking the players they are expected to defend and patrolling their own area effectively. Once SKC starts to exploit the spaces United leaves fairly regularly, or even worse forces United to pass off players to each other which will brutally expose DC’s notoriously poor communication skills, they could score at will. No, unless DC plays above themselves and SKC lays an egg or DC flat out gets lucky, then book this as a loss.

Interestingly, there is some reason to hope when looking at the trends. SKC is a mere 3-7-6 on the road being outscored 24-20, including only 1 win, and being shut out twice in their last 5 away matches. They are also 0-4-3 against the rest of the East on the road losing in Chicago, New England as well as NY, while being outscored 9 to 5 overall, and were shut out four times, too: in NY, Philly, Toronto, and Columbus.

Kansas City also hasn’t won or tied in RFK since 2007 and that 4-2 loss early in 2007 is the only blemish in 5 straight wins over KC since 2006. Incredibly, DC has beaten KC in RFK all three of the last dismal playoff-less seasons, even a miracle 1-0 win in last year’s abysmal season. KC is also a pitiful 4-12-4 here in their history being outscored 33-23 in the process. DC holds the all-time edge against them 18-15-9 as well, although KC has outscored DC 66 to 60.

Granted United isn’t exactly light’s out at home as any season ticket holder can attest, but they are 4-4-8 and have outscored opponents in RFK 32-27. Even better, DC has 2 wins, only 1 loss, and 9 points in their last 6 at home (2-1-3). Unfortunately, DC is also 1-3-3 against the East in RFK with the lone win being against the Crew in the first game of the season, and they have been outscored 15 to 11 in those East matches to boot.

Another thing to consider is SKC has the inside track to win the East with a tie, or even a loss if other results go their way. SKC sits at the top with 48 points tied with Philly, whose season is over and KC has the tiebreaker edge over Philly (in total goals scored, being tied on everything above that)as long as they don’t lose by more than a goal. If that happened, only Columbus could then snatch the East away from SKC, but the Crew would have to beat the Fire in Chicago. Certainly possible, but it does leave the door open slightly for SKC to not be totally committed to a win mentally.

So there you have it. On paper, DC shouldn’t win, but historically they’ve been able to pull it off even at the worst of times. The pressure is off, it’s the last game in front of the fans, and maybe the last match for DC ever for some guys, and SKC might quite understandably be looking past DC especially as they could still win the East anyway. Granted all that is a stretch, but the soccer gods do have a sense of humor and hopefully some compassion.

It would be nice to be left with a good performance for the long bitter winter nights ahead.

Backs Against the Wall for DC United

United only has one thing on the agenda tomorrow night in their makeup game against the Portland Timbers, and the same thing for their last game of the season against KC on Saturday. They have to win both games (and get some help from a slumping NY), because anything less means they will have missed the playoffs for the fourth year in a row, a fate that has only happened to only two other teams in the history of the league.

Yep, United is the only team with four MLS Cups, but without a win tomorrow, a loss by NY on Thursday and another win in the last game of the season, DC United will become the third team to have missed the playoffs for four years in a row. Unfortunately, United hasn’t won two games in a row in over two years, and doesn’t appear likely to be able to pull it off now given the appalling four game losing streak they are currently riding.

In fact, as my buddy Chris pointed out the other night on the show, United has won only one “must win” game since winning the MLS Cup in 2004! Since winning their fourth MLS Cup, United has only won the US Open Cup (in 2008 over a USL team), other than that it’s been bupkis in MLS. They did win two Supporter’s Shields, but didn’t really face any truly must win games in order to secure those, and considering they were drummed out of the playoffs each time (in Conference final by NE in RFK in 2006, and in the first round by the Fire in 2007), those years are hardly examples of coming up big in big games.

Of course in recent history, United had no must win games in 2010 because they were pretty much eliminated from playoff contention in August. But, DC did face must win games in the last games of 2009 and 2008, as well as the Open Cup final in RFK in 2009, and didn’t win those either. In 2009, DC lost 3 of their final 4 at home and still had a chance to get into the playoffs with a win in KC in the last match, and gave up a PK in stoppage time to draw 2-2 and was eliminated. In 2008, the last match was in Columbus and again a win and they make the playoffs, but instead hit the post three times and fell 1-0 and out.

So, it’s not like DC fans haven’t seen this before and those were games the team at least tried valiantly to secure the points! This most recent Fire loss was simply atrocious. It was a miracle that they were even in position to win after getting their only shot on goal with Dwayne De Rosario’s PK in the 90th minute, but of course that was a tease as the Fire stormed back to snatch the win with two stoppage time goals for one of the most brutal losses in RFK history.

BTW, incredibly there have only been 5 games in MLS history where a team behind by a goal has won with two or more stoppage time goals, and DC has been involved in 3 of them. Ben Olsen set up Jaime Moreno, and then scored the winner over the Fire in stoppage time in RFK in 2000 after being down 1-0 well into stoppage time, and United prevailed in the Massachusetts Miracle in 2003 with 3 stoppage time goals (Eliseo Quintanilla (PK), Kovalenko, and Eskandarian with a bonus goal) in a 4-2 win after being down 2-0 until the 83rd minute. DC arguably was involved in another in when Luciano Emilio scored in 90th minute and Chris Pontius in the 93rd to beat NY on the road 3-2 in 2009.

But I digress, so back to the game at hand. Unfortunately, Portland won’t be an easy opponent as they also need to win both their last two games to have a shot at the playoffs themselves, and a loss would eliminate them as well. A tie does neither team any good, although Portland would still be alive praying for a NY loss Thursday, and then needing to win their last game at RSL.

DC does enter this match as healthy as they have been for most of the season, but with some real hard questions about starting positions for Olsen. Charlie Davies has played a mere ten minutes the past two games and says he is healthy and doesn’t understand why he is not playing more. Nice that he wants to play more, but it makes you wonder why Olsen has been sitting him so much if he is so healthy and dangerous as Davies seems to think of himself; and how angry Olsen is about Davies’ public comments about playing time. Also, while technically DC’s game plan was successful for 90 minutes, I think overall it can be said any team that doesn’t get a decent shot off until the death doesn’t have a good game plan.

That means that how to use DeRo will be the key to Olsen’s lineup. Often this year, DeRo has played forward and scored piles of goals, but that was with a healthy Chris Pontius and a dangerous Andy Najar. With Pontius out and Najar relatively ineffective against the Fire, DeRo did not get nearly enough touches on the ball. But, playing him in midfield means you have to start Davies which Olsen has obviously not wanted to do recently. So, Olsen either changes his mind and starts his malcontent designated player, or risks another dismal offensive performance in a vital game.

Not knowing the dynamic between Olsen and Davies, for example whether or not Olsen is angered by the post game comments or merely brushed them off as frustration from a player he is trying to send a message to; and not knowing how sharp and healthy Davies has actually been in practice, I can only go on what I’ve seen recently, and Davies has been ineffective even when getting decent minutes lately. He did little in the loss to the Crew the last time he went 90 minutes, missed the Philly match with the flu, and did little in 68 minutes in the Chivas draw, etc.

So, for my money, unless Davies is tearing up practice and Olsen isn’t bothered by Davies comments, then he has to line up DeRo as a forward and keep Davies on the bench until halftime so he learns to keep his mouth shut instead of trying to throw his coach under the bus. Tough time for a guy to need to learn a lesson, but it seems as if that’s the way this is likely to play out.

So, that means pretty much the same starting lineup as was out there against the Fire. But, I think there are two changes that I think Olsen is very likely to make. First of all, Austin Da Luz has done nothing to keep his starting job, while Santino earned the PK against the Fire, and while he has been pretty inconsistent, at least he has sparked some things offensively, while Da Luz has been consistently tidy, but rarely ever a threat. Santino has shown serious glimpses of his old aggressive form, and he links with DeRo and Najar very well, so he can truly take some of the pressure off those guys which Da Luz hasn’t seemed able to do.

I also expect Olsen to move Perry Kitchen to midfield and bench Clyde Simms, who has been pretty ineffective himself, but more importantly it will inject some fire and feistiness into a bland midfield as well as relieve Kitchen of marking some big tough players that Portland will throw forward on set pieces. This is a very good game to bring Ethan White out of the doghouse and show you have some faith in him as his size and athleticism especially on set pieces could be huge against a team that has a lot of big bodies the likes of Eric Brunner and Futty Danso.

Granted, both chyanges are risks, but if you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’ll keep getting what you’ve been getting, and lately, that’s losses stacking up like cordwood. So some token changes are in order no matter what. Therefore, I’m expecting Wolff and DeRo at forward, Quaranta, Stephen King, Kitchen, and Najar in midfield from left to right, and Daniel Woolard, Brandon McDonald, White, and Chris Korb to start in front of Bill Hamid.

Portland on the other hand does have some injuries seriously hampering them. Knee injuries to Darlington Nagby and Sal Zizzo has zapped them from the starting lineup, and speed merchant Jorge Pelazza has a banged up back which might slow him down a touch. They also have a defensive midfielder as their leading scorer in Jack Jewsbury, which says something about the year Kenny Cooper is having as the co-leading scorer as each of them have 7. Considering Portland’s fairly solid defense, their light scoring offense (14th in MLS in goals scored) is the biggest reason for their -8 goal differential.

So, using my crystal ball, I expect Sean Connery…err, I mean John Spencer to trot out Cooper and Pelazza at forward, Ex DC winger Rodney Wallace, Diego Chara, Jewsbury, and Khalif Al-Hassan in midfield from left to right, and Mike Chabala, Brunner, Danso, and Lovel Palmer from left to right across the backline in front of former DC net minder, Troy Perkins. My, won’t Perkins and Wallace, who led DC in assists last year tied with Santino, be just itching to extend DC’s misery.

However, looking at the matchups, DC does match up pretty well against them as evidenced by the 3-2 win over them in earlier this year in Portland. Cooper and Pelazza are streaky and manageable for White and McDonald. Cooper likes to play like a 7 foot guard and shoot threes, and if he hits them they win, but if he misses, as 7 goals in 32 games suggests he does more often than not, DC breathes a big sigh of relief. Same with Pelazza, who has 6 goals on the year, lightning fast, but hasn’t scored in almost two months.

On the outsides, Wallace and Al-Hassan (6 assists) are good enough to trouble Korb and Woolard, but not too badly. Korb is becoming quite a steady player and is as feisty as Wallace is athletic. Al-Hassan is quietly putting together a very respectable season for a light scoring team, but then again Woolard is doing the same for a soft defensive team. Portland may have a slight edge, but not much, especially as Jewsbury and Chara are not really all that dynamic in the run of play offensively, and Kitchen’s competitivness will go a long way toward negating their offense.

I expect a goal from them, but not much more unless DC just turtles into a shell and gets peppered until they crack. For one thing, their set pieces by Jewsbury to Brunner and Danso are lethal already, but now they’ve been bringing on the behemoth Bright Dike, who has a standing invitation from Holland to lie on their beaches and hold back the North Sea any time he likes, to make things even more difficult in defending their set pieces late in games.

However, going the other way, DC will score too, hopefully one more than they give up. DeRo and Wolff are fully capable of dancing around Brunner and Danso, especially if Santino and Najar are causing real problems for Palmer and Chabala. Granted, Chara and Jewsbury will completely negate King and Kitchen offensively, but that’s OK as long as DC gets some joy on the outsides.

Heck, DeRo alone can generate goals against Portland as he has already done with the game winning assist in a 2-0 Toronto win and the game tying goal for NY in their 3-3 tie with the Timbers after he was traded to NY. In fact, a goal or an assist and I have to think he’s the first player ever to score a point against one team in one season while playing for three different teams. Now that would be a shocking record, of course then again, if he doesn’t help TFC and NY in those games, DC would be in a better position in this game, but hey, what can you do.

As for trends, DC won the first meeting, so that’s good, but they’ve lost four in a row, including their last home match which is obviously bad. Portland lost last weekend to Houston at home too, but have 7 points out of their last 5 games unlike DC. Portland is a paltry 2-9-4, outscored 21 to 7 on the road, and while they did win their last road match against Vancouver 1-0, they have only 2 goals and 5 points east of the Mississippi River and have been shut out 4 times those 6 games.

DC does have some promising stats on their side however. The Black and Red is of course average at home being 4-4-7, outscoring their opponents 31 to 26. However, DC is 3-1-4 in RFK against the Western Conference, outscoring them 16-10, even with that hideous 4-2 loss to SJ. So, there is reason to hope for a good result.

Honestly, if I was a handicapper, I’d call this one a 1-1 tie barring divine intervention. But since DC just loves to tease their fans with some hope, before crushing it irrevocably, I fully expect DC to find a way to win this one before getting blown out by KC next Saturday.

Of course, if NY gets a point Thursday, it’s all moot anyway. But, if NY was to lose (which I think they will) and DC win tomorrow (which I think is slightly better than even money given the torture factor alone), then for the third time in four years, DC would face a truly must win game in their last match of the season, and have another chance at winning two games in a row for the first time in over two years.

Surely, the time has come for them to beat the odds?

DC United's Dwayne De Rosario keeps his eye on the ball. DeRo's hat trick against his former team saved United from another loss at RFK. Photo: Tony Quinn.

United-Union, Showdown in PPL Park

DC United head to PPL Park in Philadelphia to take on the Philadelphia Union in match that could easily have crucial implications on the playoff picture for both teams. As Eastern Conference rivals, this match could have more than a six point swing for the winner as it will likely decide the tie-breaker between them as well.

After their stunning 4-1 win over Real Salt Lake last Saturday, DC United now has an unexpected, but glorious opportunity to boost their playoff possibilities even higher if they can manage a two game win streak for the first time in over two years by beating their newest rival Philadelphia tomorrow night.

Philadelphia currently sits in the ninth playoff slot, but a mere two points ahead of United and DC has a game in hand as well. So, a win and DC passes the Union likely into a wild card slot (depending on other results this busy week), and even better than that, DC would hold the head to head tie breaker on Philly as the teams tied 2-2 in their first meeting this year.

The win over RSL has to have given DC a major boost in confidence that should come in handy as they are facing a Philly team that has one of the toughest defenses in the league, and is coached by the last man to lead DC United to an MLS cup, Piotr Nowak. DC playing with some confidence will be especially valuable as the Union have been stumbling of late, after floating around the top of the table for most of the first half of the season.

Philly started the season 8-4-7, but have only 1 win since July 17th, going 1-3-6 in their last 10 games. However, as their 13 ties signify, they are a tough team to outright beat and they are tops in the league at late goals to come back and secure a tie. However, they do often start matches badly and give up the first goal, which could be trouble against a DC team that can load the nets in a hurry if they score early like they did against RSL.

DC United is also as healthy as ever heading into this match, and there doesn’t seem to be any reason to tinker with the lineup that thrashed Salt Lake. Perhaps Olsen brings in Santino Quaranta or Daniel Woolard for Austin Da Luz or Marc Burch respectively, or maybe even starts Charlie Davies and shifts Dwayne De Rosario back into midfield shifting Stephen King to the bench, but I don’t think any of those things happen. King played one of his best matches of the year, Da Luz was very respectable, and even Burch earned his keep. Plus, obviously DeRo has proven once again that when he’s lined up at forward he can punish defenses.

Also, this game is perhaps more important than the weekend match looming in Columbus. DC already holds the edge on the Crew after the season opening thrashing of them, so a tie on Sunday gives them the tie breaker over the Crew should it come to that.

So, I expect Olsen to go with DeRo and Josh Wolff as forwards, Da Luz, King, Clyde Simms, and Andy Najar across midfield from left to right, and Burch, Brandon McDonald, Ethan White, and Perry Kitchen across the backline from left to right in front of Bill Hamid.

Philly, on the other hand is quite a bit more tricky to figure out. Former DC winger, Freddy Adu is just recently back healthy as is Stefani Miglioranzi, but right back Sheanon Williams is a bit dodgy coming back from a concussion and a balky hamstring, as is former number one draft pick, Danny Mwanga trying to come back from hip strain. Plus, Philly has a glut of games coming up starting with this one.

So, best guess is that Nowak goes with the guys that gutted out a point in KC last Friday. I think it’s almost a dead lock that Sebastion LeToux and the Serbian, Velkjo Paunovic start at forward, then in midfield it should be Amobi Okugo, Roger Torres, former DC midfielder Brian Carroll, and Michael Farfan across midfield from left to right. The ¾ of their defense will no doubt be Gabe Farfan, Danny Califf, Carlos Valdes, but the right back will be interesting if Williams is unable to go 90. Midfielder Kyle Nakazawa played there against KC, but wasn’t very convincing. Perhaps M. Farfan could be brought back to bookend his brother if Miglioranzi or 16 year old Zach Pfeffer are going to start, but my money is on Nakazawa getting another shot at it, completing the defense in front of former UMd keeper Zac MacMath, who will be backed up by pool keeper Chase Harrison, who had a brief stint with DC, since both Mondragon, and Philly’s third keeper are out injured.

So, looking at the matchups, it will be interesting to see how this plays out. With Paunovic up top for them, they end up playing more of a 4-5-1 similar to the system that Chivas used to flummox DC last week. In that game, Chivas dominated midfield and DC was chasing all night, but then again a nucleus of Mondaini, Moreno, and LaBrocca are perhaps a bit more experienced than Torres, Okugo, and Paunovic.

Anyway, Olsen can negate a lot of that if he keeps King on the field and keeps DeRo at forward, as King will do a lot more dirty work than DeRo would like to do which will help Simms from getting stretched out of position and over-run which Chivas was able to do. Conversely it keeps DeRo closer to their goal where he is the most dangerous man in MLS the past two months.

Bottom line if DC negates their central threat and therefore strands LeToux by himself, then the Frenchman will only be a threat on counters running onto long balls, and I believe White is capable of staying with him athletically, well as much as anyone in MLS can, anyway. Then it’s a simple matter of Kitchen shutting down Okugo (or maybe Freddy), and Burch or Woolard shutting down Farfan. Imminently doable, as long as Mwanga doesn’t come on late with the game close as he would then be a huge matchup problem alongside LeToux.

Offensively, Olsen has some serious firepower likely to come off the bench as well in Charlie Davies, as he will be far more effective going up against a tired Califf and hatchetman Valdes by coming off the bench for Wolff in the second half. Now, to start the match, DeRo should scare any backline in the league after what he personally did to RSL, and even though Califf and Valdes have been pretty light’s out good this year, Wolff is clever enough and DeRo flat out good enough and determined enough to score on anyone. Then Najar against G. Farfan will be interesting, as will Da Luz versus a banged up Williams or a dodgy Nakazawa. Either matchup could go either way, but I like DC’s chances, especially Najar, who has been red hot lately but overshadowed somewhat by DeRo’s ridiculous numbers recently.

As for the trends, as usual they don’t really favor DC very much. Of course DC lost in Philly last year, their only time playing there, but then again, they have scored 2 goals against the Union every time they have played them including that 3-2 loss and a 2-0 win here last year and a 2-2 tie here earlier this year (as well as an Open Cup PK win that was 2-2 in regulation). Even better, DC is the best team in the East on the road at 5-4-4, although they are coming off a loss in Seattle and have actually lost two of their last three on the road. Still, United does seem to play markedly better on the road overall, and they have to know how crucial this match is to their future.

As for Philly, while they are 6-1-8 in PPL Park, it is perhaps a bit deceptive. Certainly sounds impressive, but in fact after bolting out of the gate to go 5-0-4 at home until June, they have gone 1-1-4 since then, although the win did come in their last home match, a 1-0 win over the Crew two weeks ago. Unlike their habitual slow starts to games followed by a fabulous record of coming back to tie or win late, the Union are the opposite so far on the season, having started pretty well, but have merely been scrambling to hang on lately.

If the game goes to form, DC has a very good shot at a crucial 3 points and an end to a mind boggling streak of 73 games without winning two in a row. If DC can come out with their normal road energy, but snag a lead with their current confidence and determination, combined with Philly’s typical slow start, then the game gets interesting. Philly will come back of course, but United might have some answers with Davies coming off the bench as well. Should be a wild one given their history, and a tie does neither team any good.

No way I risk using the Martin curse by calling this one. Fingers crossed. (Hey, it worked last time!)

Ben Olsen. Photo: Martin Fernandez.

Desperate DC Faces Formidable RSL

After a depressing draw to Chivas, United must regroup and find a way to beat RSL, one of the best teams in MLS the past few seasons. However, history is on their side, and perhaps the wrath of Ben Olsen (pictured) might be just enough to give them an edge.

Obviously, on paper this is a loss for DC United, especially after the abysmal form they have showed the past two games. However, Ben Olsen’s tirade might just be exactly what this underperforming squad needs to light a fire and generate the kind of passion and determination United sides have usually had in RFK stadium, and it doesn’t hurt that Real Salt Lake has never actually won a game in RFK either.

Yep, as good as RSL has been in recent years, they still have the big donut in the win column when playing in RFK. United is 3-0-3 in RFK against Salt Lake, outscoring the Regals 12 to 4, plus another win in an Open Cup qualifier here to boot. So history is definitely on their side, but more on that later.

Olsen made his feelings abundantly known after that dreadful tie against Chivas and literally ripped into his team in the post game press conference, calling the team naïve, inconsistent, complacent, they played like boys, etc. Now, such a brutal hiding can go one of two ways, obviously, but you have to think the younger guys will want to prove him wrong, and since DC really has no prima donna type veterans, and nearly all of them played with or against Olsen in their playing careers, it’s a good bet United’s veterans will respond positively too.

So, United may very well be as fired up as they have been all year, while on the flip side, RSL just found out tonight there is a little less riding on this game than they thought. Philly coming back to tie SKS means RSL has clinched a playoff berth already. Now, they still have a good shot at the Supporter’s Shield, so they won’t roll over, but they have a little less incentive in this particular match, especially as it is their third match in seven days, and the third of a stretch of six games in 19 days sending them literally from coast to coast and back again.

It will be interesting to see if Olsen benches anyone for this match to further hammer in his message, but it’s tough to see that happening. For one thing United is tissue thin in terms of depth, so it’s not like he’s got weapons slavering for a chance to take a starting slot. Plus, no one was truly egregious in the Chivas match, pretty much everyone was a little off, so if he scapegoats one or two players, he could potentially lose those guys and he needs every oar pulling if United’s slim hopes for the playoffs are to be realized.

So, with that in mind, I suspect he goes with pretty much the same lineup that collapsed against Chivas and hopes for a better result this time. That means Charlie Davies and Josh Wolff as forwards, Santino Quaranta, Dwayne De Rosario, Clyde Simms, and Andy Najar across midfield, and in defense Daniel Woolard, Brandon McDonald, Ethan White, and Perry Kitchen in front of Bill Hamid. However, I suspect a quick hook to give Blake Brettschneider, who played very well in the phantom foul tie at RSL earlier this year, some time if a forward is playing poorly. I also think McDonald might get the yank instead of White if Jakovic is ready for some minutes.

RSL is a bit trickier to guess their lineup given their schedule and their injuries and players just returning from injury. However, since they have only two healthy forwards, it’s pretty much a lock that Jason Kreis sends out Fabian Espindola and Alvaro Saborio. Predator and Sabo each have 9 goals on the season, so that’s not exactly good news, nor is the fact that if RSL jump out to a lead, they could get a huge boost in morale if Javier Morales gets his first minutes since having his ankle gumbied earlier this year. Even if Morales is saved for a home debut, with a lead or to preserve a tie, Kreis has a few teeth rattlers like Jean Alexandre to spell whichever of his forwards tires first.

In midfield, I think it likely Wil Johnson, Luis Gil, Kyle Beckerman ( returning from suspension), and Andy Williams start the match across midfield from right to left. Possibly Collen Warner, who played well in the win over NY mid-week for the 17 year old Gil, or maybe Arturo Alvarez plays for the aging Williams nudging Johnson over to the right, but either way RSL will have their usual formidable midfield.

However, unless Chris Wingert is ready to return from a wrist injury (and you just know he wants to get some redemption against Davies if he can!), Kreis pretty much only has four healthy defenders. Plus, coming off a resounding win in NY, Kreis will surely keep Robbie Russell, Jamison Olave, Nat Borchers, and Chris Schuler across the backline going from right to left in front of former DC keeper Nick Rimando.

So, the matchups obviously do not favor DC all that much. Espindola and Saborio are as brutally efficient as two Juan Pablo Angels, and we saw Wednesday what one determined Angel could do to United’s backline. The only glimmer of hope would be that Flip Espindola has a tendency towards indiscipline, and Saborio looked like he got a little banged up knee against NY and he has been known to coast through matches from time to time, but that’s about it in DC’s favor.

In terms of support from the midfield, Johnson and Kitchen is a pretty even matchup, as is Williams and Woolard, and you’d like to think Simms can snuff out a 17 year old, but the problem is the way RSL controls the ball and moves into the attack so well, unless DeRo helps out a lot defensively, Beckerman swings the midfield as a unit towards RSL, and if they find Espy and Sabo regularly, it’s light’s out.

Offensively, things are not much better. RSL is the best defensive team in the league. The only way around Olave and Borchers is if they get a red card. Olave can easily run down Davies and steal his lunch money to boot, Borchers is just as experienced and savvy as Wolff, and Little Nicky in goal is the quickest cat off his line in all of MLS and the best with his feet too, so it’ll be a truly great play or a stone fluke if DC gets any joy attacking the center of the field, especially with Beckerman harassing DeRo.

On the wings, Najar against Schuler is a hope as he is more skilled, quicker, and perhaps more tenacious, but then again so was Dane Richards Wednesday and Schuler ate him up. Russell on the other side is even less promising. Russell has the speed and skill to shut down Tino or Da Luz. The only bright spot is that Russell has layed a ton of minutes since Beltran tore a groin muscle, and he looked a little worn out at the end of that NY match, but that’s about it.

And while history in RFK is on United’s side as mentioned above, overall history is not, nor are the current trends to friendly either. United is 4-5-4 against RSL lifetime, but more importantly hasn’t actually beaten them since Marcelo Gallardo rocketed in one of the best goals in RFK history back in 2008. DC hasn’t even scored against RSL in RFK since then outside of an Open Cup win, having two straight 0-0 draws the past two years, and a draw simply will not cut it given the playoff picture.

Obviously, current trends are dead set against DC. RSL is not exactly dominant on the road at 5-5-3, but they have won their last three in a row on the road, and last five in a row overall, so they are certainly peaking at the right time. While United has been pretty dismal at home at 3-3-7, with only one win since May in RFK.

About the only thing that is sort of United’s favor is that RSL has not played well against the East on the road this year going 2-4-2 with wins over only NY three days ago and NE way back in March, and they have lost in Toronto where few ever lose more than a sheckel to the exchange rate. Even more tenuously, two thirds of United’s hoe wins have come against the West, but clearly that is grasping for straws.

Obviously on paper this is a loss for DC barring divine intervention. Unless United play above their heads with passion and determination such as they have rarely shown all year, for the full 90 minutes of the match, which is even more rare, and in conjunction with RSL playing a little off their game, which could happen given the peculiar circumstances surrounding this game, then DC is in real trouble.

Pray for a little nudge from the soccer gods.

CHarlie Davies vs Seattle Sounders

DC Hosts Chivas as Playoff Hopes Hang in Balance

DC United hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2007, and Charlie Davies (pictured) was brought in to rectify that and certainly helped the cause with a hat trick against Chivas last week. But, if he and United harbor any hopes of actually breaking that playoff drought, a second win over Chivas in 10 days is an imperative. However, that might not be as easy as it sounds as Chivas has pounded nails in United’s coffin with late season wins over the Black and Red in recent years.

United won the first four meetings versus Chivas, but unfortunately hasn’t swept them since 2006. However, that’s pretty much what it will take to spark DC’s playoff hopes this year. Anything less than 3 points tomorrow night, considering RSL looming on Saturday, and United would need a miracle to regroup and make the post-season.

DC handled the Goats easily 10 days ago beating them 3-0, and given Chivas’ historic lack of success, you’d think DC should be able to scrape out all the points when their playoff lives hang in the balance. But then again, United and Chivas have been in pretty much these exact same relative positions before and DC failed miserably.

In 2008 and 2009, United had their playoff hopes dealt crushing blows by shutout losses to lowly Chivas, in RFK no less, in the third to last game of each respective season. In 2010, it was a less crucial, but just as painful loss in the ToolBox to last place Chivas that helped secure last place in the entire league for United in easily their worst season in history.

Even worse, since that glorious win over Chivas that unfortunately cost Pontius his season, United got pummeled in Seattle with Charlie Davies barely a shadow of the player that hung a hat-trick on Chivas to put him back among the league leaders for the Golden Boot. It didn’t help that Ngwenya was his strike partner in Seattle as Wolff wasn’t quite ready to start, but it is ominous that United’s DP striker’s effectiveness disappeared that quickly.

However, it seems likely Olsen will have Josh Wolff available to start against Chivas with the hope that he and Davies can find the form that has seen them combine for 16 goals and 6 assists so far this season. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid’s hamstring woes also appear to be over and he should be ready to start, although central defender Dejan Jakovic stills seems to be a week away from starting.

So in this critical match, it seems likely Olsen goes with all healthy guns blazing and trots out Wolff and Davies at forward, Dwayne De Rosario, Clyde Simms, and Andy Najar in midfield for certain, and I have to wonder if the prodigal son, Santino Quaranta, gets a shot at that left side midfield as Austin DaLuz was less than effective against Seattle (although to be fair everyone was less than effective against Seattle). Without Jakovic, the defense is certain to be Perry Kitchen, Ethan White, Brandon McDonald, and Daniel Woolard for the third game in a row, in front of Hamid.

Chivas on the other hand is just as desperate for a playoff push and has had trouble winning or even scoring of late, having been shutout three of their last four games all losses, although Juan Pablo Angel did score for both teams in a 3-2 loss to Chicago last weekend. But, Chivas coach Robin Fraser has some players to work back into the starting lineup as well.

Obviously, center back David Lopes will be available after serving his ill deserved suspension from that unfortunate tackle with Pontius. Also, Argentine playmaker Marcos Mondaini got the start in Chicago and might be the key to Chivas’ offense down the stretch. United did not face him earlier and also got a bit lucky that Alejandro Moreno, a well documented United killer, only came in off the bench when they were already down to ten men. Chivas is a more composed team offensively with all three of those guys playing together.

So, it seems likely Fraser goes with Angel and Venezuelan international, Moreno as the forward pairing. In midfield, the extremely under-rated Nick Labrocca, Mondaini, Kiwi Simon Elliot, and likely Justin Braun should start going right to left. Perhaps Jorge Flores for Braun, or maybe even Blair Gavin for Elliott if they are feeling the squeeze of this being their second of three games in 7 days, and considering hosting TFC on the weekend should be the more winnable game on paper for them, but I’m thinking Fraser wants a set lineup from here on out for their own playoff run.

In defense, I would assume Ante Jazic on the left and Michael Umana in one of the center spots, but after that, Fraser does not seem to have settled on a the other center back between Lopes and Zarek Valentin, and right back has been a revolving door of Michael LaHoud, Mariano Trujillo, and even Ben Zemanski. LaHoud has played the most lately, but then again Chivas is mired in a four game losing streak and he hasn’t exactly distinguished himself.

Which makes the matchups pretty decent for DC. Defensively, Angel is of course a danger, especially with Mondaini to set him up, and of course Curious George has been known to light up DC, especially in RFK where I believe he has something like 5 career goals. But, Ethan White has been pretty solid all year, and Brandon McDonald might very well be United’s defensive MVP. Both are athletic and aggressive enough to trouble Angel and Moreno, as long as Monkeyboy doesn’t get away with too many theatrics, and Simms contains Mondaini half decently, DC will be in good shape, as I doubt Braun or Flores troubles Kitchen too much, and blue collar Woolard is a good match for lunch pail Labrocca.

Offensively, if Wolff and Davies are back in form, United should be able to crack a Chivas defense that has given up 9 goals in their last four games. Clearly, Umana and Lopes or Valetin do not have the speed to stay with Davies, and certainly he and Wolff has the savvy to flummox them as well. So, while Najar might have trouble in his duel with the Canadian assassin, Jazic, Da Luz, or my hope Quaranta, should be able to beat the converted midfielder Lahoud fairly regulary. Then obviously DeRo is a tough out for any defensive midfielder in the league not named Alonso, so he gets the nod over Elliott for sure.

As for the trends, they do favor DC slightly even though Chivas has been tough on United late in recent years. Historically, United is 7-4-2 over Chivas all time, outscoring them 22-17. In RFK, United’s record is 4-2, outscoring Chivas 10-8, and they won their last meeting here 3-2 last year.

More importantly, as mentioned, Chivas is on a four game losing streak, but is also winless in their last six, and has only one win in their past 8 games. They are also 3-6-6 on the road with their only road wins being in NE two months ago, a shocker in NY in May, and a win over SJ in April. However, they do have a troubling string of draws against the East as well. On the road in the East, they have snagged draws in Toronto, Columbus, and KC to go with those wins making them 2-3-3 against the East on the road so far.

DC, on the other hand has been playing the much better football of late, aside from the Seattle debacle, but their home record is nothing to write home about, however. DC is a barely respectable 3-3-6 in RFK, and while they won their last home match 4-0 over Vancouver seemingly an eon ago, that was their first home win since May 4 when they beat Seattle, having gone 0-2-5 prior to the Vancouver shellacking. And that’s without even mentioning United’s now epic failure to win two games in a row for going on three years now.

Well, RFK simply has to become a fortress again and United had better figure out how to generate an actual win streak, or the playoffs are a lost cause. It starts right now with a win over Chivas. If they can’t pull that off, why would anyone think they can hold their own against RSL on Saturday? Or win in Philly next week, or in Columbus the week after that? But a win over Chivas and some luck against RSL and DC goes into Philly and Columbus with some confidence and a hope for enough points to catch NY or Houston.

Time for DC to put up some wins at home, or start making plans for next year. Simple as that.

Josh Wolfe vs Seattle Sounders

Crucial Stretch for DC Begins in Seattle

DC United started another one game win streak with a rousing 3-0 victory in LA against Chivas, and now faces a critical run of 5 games in 16 days starting with the match tomorrow night in Seattle against a Sounders team that has only lost once since the end of July and Josh Wolff (pictured) could be the difference.

United, which still hasn’t strung together two straight wins since 2008 and is playing perhaps the hottest team in all of MLS the past 6 weeks without Chris Pontius who broke his leg in the Chivas win, might just be in position to pull off somewhat of an upset given the circumstances surrounding this match.

DC stayed on the West coast and has no appreciable travel to wear them down, while Seattle have had a mid week trip to Costa Rica and back to deal with. Of course the result down there for Seattle was the worst possible for United, an easy Seattle win with no injuries, but a 5,000 mile round trip to play at home is surely more grueling than DC’s short flight to this match.

Also, Seattle is in the middle of the CONCACAF Champions League, made the finals of the US Open Cup for the third year in a row, and has a relatively crowded MLS schedule left as well, so they are currently well into a stretch of 9 games in 32 days. And to top that off, the Sounders are all but assured an MLS playoff berth already, likely only needing 4 points out of their last 6 matches to qualify, so this is a match they don’t really need to focus too much on.

DC, on the other hand is in a far more desperate situation. Although the win against Chivas did secure them the last wild card slot for the moment, and a win in Seattle would likely vault them into third place and a guaranteed playoff slot for a couple weeks with two homes games coming up, but anything less than 3 points in Seattle ratchets up the pressure instead as they will likely fall out of the playoff picture yet again, with the weight of three straight barren years out of the playoffs looming above them and inching downward.

DC also has some injury concerns again after seemingly getting healthy over their recent 20 day idle stretch. Obviously the loss of Pontius for the season is killer given his play of late and especially the way he has torched the Sounders in Seattle in the past, but also the nagging hamstring injuries to Bill Hamid and Dejan Jackovic, as well as the availability of Josh Wolff are all up in the air too. All are listed as probable, and DC has capable replacements if they can’t go, but the situation clearly isn’t ideal.

Thankfully, Seattle will be missing a couple key players as well, although arguably they are pretty much the deepest team in MLS. However, the loss of Jhon Kennedy Hurtado in central defense due to suspension and Erik Friberg in central midfield will hurt. Also, the effectiveness of Osvaldo Alonso and Brad Evans just becoming available coming off injuries is in question, as will be the effectiveness of anyone who played the full 90 down in Costa Rica midweek, Fredy Montero, Alvaro Fernandez, etc.

So, with all that in mind taking a stab at Sigi’s lineup for the Sounders is a bit of a leap of faith, but here goes. I suspect Montero and Mike Fucito start at forward with Montero on a short leash. Fernandez, Mauro Rosales, Alonso, and Evans across midfield going left to right, and Sigi has plenty of options in the attack off the bench too with Nate Jaqua, Roger Levesque, Pat Noonan, or Neagle to slot in anywhere needed. Then Tyson Wahl, Jeff Parke, Patrick Ianni, and James Riley across the backline from left to right and in front of Kasey Keller.

Olsen just has to replace Pontius for certain, and it seems a dead certainty Santino Quaranta moves into the starting lineup. Now where he plays likely depends on Josh Wolff. If Wolff’s balky hip allows him to start, then Q plays left midfield for certain, if not, then Olsen might be tempted to play Tino at forward alongside Davies and slot in Austin Da Luz or maybe even Marc Burch on the left. Perhaps the better option if Wolff can’t go would be to play Blake Brettschneider at forward and leave Q out on the left, though. We’ll see. My money is on Wolff starting though. This match is huge for DC psychologically heading into a tough stretch, so Wolff needs to be out there if he’s even close to being fit.

Which means DC goes with Wolff and Davies at forward. Quaranta, Dwayne DeRosario, Clyde Simms, and Andy Najar from left to right across midfield, and Daniel Woolard, Brandon McDonald, Jakovic or former Terp Ethan White, and Perry Kitchen across the backline in front of Hamid or possibly Joe Willis.

So, looking at the matchups, DC is actually in pretty good shape offensively. Wolff and Davies sliced and diced Ianni and Hurtado earlier this year in the win in RFK, and are certainly faster and craftier than Ianni and Parke, especially with Najar having an edge over Wahl down DC’s right side, and with Quaranta beating Riley at least a few times (Tino has had some of his best games on turf, btw). Also, DeRo has as good a chance as anyone at getting around Alonso in central midfield, especially if the Cuban is slowed by his balky adductor, but I wouldn’t count on that.

Still, DC should be able to score, especially on a field where they have never lost (including against Real Madrid) and where they average 3 goals a game in MLS play, although it hurts that Pontius scored 3 of DC’s 6 goals scored there, would have scored 4 if Cristman hadn’t poached one of them, and he even forced a Seattle own goal so arguably he caused 5 of those 6, but it’s a good omen that Tino had a hand in 3 of those goals himself, assisting on the game winner last year, and helped force the Seattle own goal which was DC’s last goal in the 3-3 tie in 2009.

Now, on the other side of the ball, DC still has some decent matchups. Obviously Montero is a United killer and tricky enough to beat anyone any given time, but McDonald and Jakovic or White (both of whom played in the DC win over Seattle earlier, and of course McDonald coming from SJ knows Montero quite well) are savvy and physical enough to keep him and the rugged opportunistic Fucito quiet if they make no serious mistakes.

Where the real problems lie for DC is in midfield. Fernandez is a handful for anyone, much less a rookie right back in Perry Kitchen. Kitchen is smart and more athletic, and he’ll need every bit of that to shut down the cagey Uruguayan World Cup veteran. Evans going up against Woolard isn’t much better. Evans has none of the pedigree of Seattle’s cadre of internationals, yet all he does is win games and score big goals. And Simms might have the toughest assignment of all as Rosales has been the key to Seattle’s recent run up the Western table and I believe Sigi uses him to replace Friberg in the center. Perhaps it’s Evans inside and Rosales outside, but either way it’s tough sledding for DC.

You have to figure Seattle’s midfield wins more battle than they lose, which starts a chain reaction of bad things for DC. It pulls back Santino and Najar to help out, allows Wahl and Riley forward, forces DC’s defenders to step up or out to cover, leaving more space for Montero to exploit, or leads to fouls and free kicks that DC doesn’t particularly defend all that well, etc. On the bright side, it does force DC into being more of a counter-attacking team however, and Davies, if he continues on his roll could net another triple running behind Parke and Ianni.

The current trends don’t really help DC out either despite the fact Seattle is coming off their only loss in the last six weeks last week to RSL at home last weekend. Yes, DC has never lost in Seattle. DC is also one of the best teams in the league on the road with an away record of 5-4-4, and is coming off a big win as well as having scored 3 or more goals in 3 of their last 5 games to boot. DC has also has 5 shutouts in their last 8 on the road, outscoring their opponents 11 to 5 since the bitter loss in Houston.

But, Seattle is slightly better at home with a 7-3-4 record, and even worse the Sounders have thrashed the Eastern Conference with a 6-0-1 record at home this year outscoring the East by 19-7 including hammering the Crew 6-2 three weeks ago. From the East, only Houston has escaped Seattle with a point, and with only DC and Philly left, Seattle will want to complete their roll over the East. Plus, while their playoffs are pretty secure, they have a shot at the Supporter’s Shield if the Galaxy has a late season swoon and will want to snag points every chance they get.

Bottom line given the two teams history in Seattle and the way this match seems likely to play out, expect quite a few goals. Formerly Qwest Field but now Century Link Field, affectionately known as the CLink, DC has outscored Seattle 6-5 in two games there since Seattle entered the league, and I fully expect another ripsnorter tomorrow night.

DC could certainly tie or even win it if their luck in the Clink holds up, and all the travel and games catch up to Seattle in a bad way. But a valiant high scoring loss seems a bit more likely to the odds makers. Unless of course Keller lets a few goals slip through his fingers. Fingers crossed.

Ben Olsen

DC Hosts ‘Caps for First Time

DC United, without Ben Olsen (left) who was ejected in DC”s last match, hosts the Vancouver Whitecaps in the first ever meeting between these two clubs, with DC United desperate to start winning at home as well as remain relevant in the Eastern Conference, and Vancouver hoping to start their first ever win streak and start digging their way out of the Western cellar.

Well, there’s no way around this. Vancouver is a team DC should beat on paper. However, so was New England and Toronto in their last two home matches which resulted in a grand total of one point. In fact United’s dismal home record is the 800 pound gorilla that is brutally pounding their chance for a playoff berth into the sand.

Unfortunately, the ‘Caps also seem to be the perfect type of team that befuddles United and without Bill Hamid in goal and Ben Olsen on the bench (both tossed with red cards in the TFC tie), DC has in some ways already shot themselves in the foot heading into this match. With former DC coach Tom Soehn now coaching Vancouver and no doubt licking his chops for some retribution knowing he’s up against his former assistants now at the helm of United, as well as being able to trot out the wild brilliance of Eric Hassli who is pounding in spectacular goals as long as he’s capable of staying on the field, the Black and Red have their work cut out for them.

While United does appear to be virtually full strength on the injury front apart from Boskovic and Zayner out with long term injuries, the loss of Hamid means the uninspiring Steve Cronin has to reprise his role in Punch Drunk again between the pipes, and perhaps even worse, Olsen has to decide whether or not to keep the suddenly crucial Dwayne De Rosario on the forward line even though United will not be playing one of his former teams.

DeRo has scored United’s last 6 goals leading directly to 7 points in the last four games so it seems a no brainer to keep him as a forward, but then again the goal against Red Bull came as a midfielder and the two in SJ were on the road. In blessed RFK in front of the faithful, he hung three on TFC but it was only good for a point, so the reasoning might not be as clear as all that. Especially since he never played for Vancouver, although he is perhaps used to scoring on Soehn in RFK.

Cronin is the more prickly problem in that fingers being crossed is perhaps the only solution to Hamid being suspended for a brain cramp. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am a huge Cronin fan and thought he played brilliantly for DC when he was here back in 2009 and finished the last three games of the season undefeated, including a miracle 1-1 tie in MEXICO against Toluca, but then again he presided over the 2-2 draw in KC that ended DC’s playoff hopes as well. His last actions for DC against TFC where he nearly punched the ball into his own net off his own defender has me more than a bit worried Portlnd knew what it was doing when they gave him back and took Troy Perkins instead. Maybe rookie Joe Willis gets a shot as he did virtually clinch the reserve league with the win over TFC last Sunday.

Anyway, for my money Olsen has to go back to DeRo in midfield. Charlie Davies has had two weeks rest and recuperation for his balky knee and if he can go 90 in a reserve match (scored a PK too), he can play against Vancouver. His partnership with Josh Wolff is the most promising forward pairing, and DeRo can still score from midfield or better yet, set up goals and hold possession for a team that desperately needs a cool midfield leadership presence.

So, I’m thinking it’s Wolff and Davies at forward, Chris Pontius, DeRo, Clyde Simms, and Andy Najar back from suspension across midfield from left to right. Then Perry Kitchen, Dejan Jakovic, Brandon McDonald, and Daniel Woolard in front of Cronin in the defense going right to left. Although I hesitate to mention, Marc Burch did score a FK to win the reserve game against TFC, which could translate into a start, especially if Woolard’s twitchy back flares up. Now, far be it from me to condone this, but I feel I must warn the faithful of the chance that this could happen. Soehn probably has his fingers crossed.

As for Vancouver, I think they go with pretty much the lineup that trounced Chicago at home last week 4-2. Obviously Eric the Red as one forward as he happens to not be suspended just yet, then I think Camilo Da Silva Sanvezzo as the other forward in their 4-4-2. Possibly their new signing African DP, Mustapha Jarjou, plays instead, but I think Binks showed in the LA debacle that he might take a while to adjust to MLS (LA won 4-0 in Vancouver two weeks ago).

In midfield for Vancouver there are a few more questions too. Davide Chumiento has been a hot assist man that has cooled off a bit of late as has winger Nizar Khalfan also gone from an exciting spark to a bit of a flicker lately, then former Fire John Thorrington and former LA-Seattle Peter Vagenas both recently staggered back into the lineup from the trainer’s table, and former SJ-Philly winger Shea Salinas has been in the mix regularly as well, etc. However, I suspect Chumiento, Gerson Koffie, Vagenas, and Salinas start from left to right across Vancoubver’s four man midfield.

In defense, the ‘Caps have some more questions too. Alain Rochat appears to be out with a groin strain, and American international Jay Demerit is just recently back to training and is listed as probable. If he can start, he could sorely needed as Vancouver’s defense is their Achilles heel, but if he starts and can’t finish, or worse tweaks his twitchy groin again and is out for weeks more, the ‘Caps thin defense gets anorexic.

I think newly acquired Jordan Harvey plays the left back and an old favorite of DC fans, Greg Janicki plays a central role alongside Michael Boxall, and right back Jonathan Leathers, with Demerit coming off the bench at some point. And Soehn trotted out Jay Nolly in goal last time out too! Just think if goes with Nolly again along with Janicki and sticks it to a DC organization that all but forced him out. And doing it in RFK to boot. That’s too horrible to imagine, but after NY earlier, then NE and TFC recently, we have sunk to depths of pain that such thoughts somehow feel inevitable.

So, looking at the lineups, there is no question the better defense will win this match. Both teams have formidable offenses, and slightly suspect defenses. Vancouver’s the more suspect overall, but then again DC’s home defense has been pretty horrific for the most part, and Soehn knows it will be his old buddy Chad Ashton making the moves for United while Olsen serves his suspension in the pressbox. Talk about a battle of almost something defenders from back in the day. Could be a titanic chess match of defensive finesse out there……….or perhaps not.

Going through the matchups, DeRo, Wolff, and Davies can run rings around any combination of a recently fit Demerit, Janicki, or Boxall even with Vagenas or Thorrington helping out. Najar and Kitchen is a bit of a push against Chumiento and the seemingly under-rated Harvey, but Pontius and Woolard can torch Salinas and Ferriera-bane Leathers. So, 2-3 goals are very possible for DC.

On the flip side, Hassli and Camilo are extremely capable of overwhelming Jakovic and McDonald if DC’s central defenders don’t play as if they are on the road, and worse if Cronin’s hands retain their stone-like quality. However, DC does might just be able to hang their hat on starving Vancouver’s forwards of help from midfield. Kitchen against Chumiento or Khalfan could easily go DC’s way, same with Simms against the slippery Koffie and the steady Woolard against the shifty Salinas. If DC starves the service from midfield, it will take great things from Hassli and Camilo to outscore United. They might, but my money is on frustration sending at least Hassli to the showers early.

Now as to trends, it’s pretty simple. Vancouver has yet to win on the road, but DC has been decidedly unconvincing at home, especially lately. One of those streaks has to end because a tie does no good for either team. Shockingly, RFK is the ‘Caps best chance at a road win the rest of the season, and while Portland is looming on the horizon, DC simply has to get wins at home to be respectable, even if the playoffs seem to be slipping away rapidly.

Obviously, Vancouver is coming off a rousing win last week, 4-2 over the Fire while DC is frustrated with a pitiful 3-3 draw with lowly TFC even though they played 10 on 11 most of the game, but then again whose fault is it that they chose to give Toronto the extra man?

So, crunching the numbers, DC has a slight edge, Vancouver was 0-5-1 being out-scored 12-4 before winning last week, only Soehn’s second win since taking over the team June 1.

On the road, Vancouver is a rousing 0-8-4 overall, outscored 19-8 including 5 shutouts, with Soehn being a sterling 0-4-3, outscored 12-7 but only 2 of the shutouts ( and none since late June), and he did manage a 2-2 tie with SJ last time out, since assuming control; however, one of those shutout losses on the road was in Toronto, one of only three wins total the Reds have managed so far this season and TFC’s only other shutout win was the other expansion team, Portland

Of course, DC is a paltry 2-3-6 at home outscored an appalling 20-16, and have been shutout three times in RFK already themselves, so that inspires about as much confidence as a Cronin punch. Still, DC has won twice at home, and they have scored 9 in their last 5 home matches, so they can score as long as Uncle Fester is not in goal.

Expect a wild one. DC should win this 3-2, but with all the wild cards possible in this match, whoever calls the score of this one is truly a genius.

DC Hoping to Extend Streak Against TFC

Fresh off a rousing 2-0 win in San Jose, their first win in San Jose this century, DC United must shatter another long record of futility and get their first back to back wins in over two years by collecting the full three points on a woeful Toronto that is barely above the basement in MLS.

June of 2009. A full and appalling 25 months ago was the last time DC had a two game winning streak, and if they harbor any serious hopes for getting back into the playoffs for the first time since 2007, they simply must defeat Toronto FC tomorrow night.

United is in perhaps its most crucial stage of the schedule, the time when they simply must beat the teams that are below them in the standings, and TFC certainly qualifies. The win in SJ was a lively start on such a run, but those glorious 3 points will be wasted unless DC can find a way to play, and more importantly, win at home where they have been just short of dreadful this year.

RFK is normally a fortress for the Black and Red, but not so this year. DC has not won at home since beating Seattle back in early May (0-2-4 at home since that game). Overall, DC is a shocking 2-3-5 at RFK so far this season, being outscored 17-13 to boot. Worse, just when it seems United has righted the ship and begins scraping together some points this season, they drop a four goal clanger that hurls the RFK faithful right back into the dumps of despair.

So, while it might seem a bit soon to be talking of must win games, the opposite is true. If United fails to thump a dreadful TFC team, then DC simply cannot be considered a contender for a playoff position. In a bizarre twist of fate, DC’s sterling road form has the team a mere four points behind the faltering Red Bulls and the streaking Sporting KC for the last playoff spot. But, if fails to drop TFC, that four point chasm could easily become insurmountable in the stretch run to come.

Especially if DC fails to beat a Toronto team that is going through a serious roster upheaval, and will be travel weary having been to Nicaragua and back this week as they scraped by Nicaraguan League winners, Real Esteli to climb their way into the CONCACAF Champions League proper.

TFC has added some big names the last few weeks such as Torsten “Handball” Frings and the Flying Dutchman, Danny Koevermans, but that has not translated into much success in MLS so far. They did manage a 2-2 tie in Portland last week that the Timbers simply gave them a point, but prior to that were on a four game losing streak having been outscored a shocking 12-2 and shutout three times, which has firmly entrenched them at the bottom of the table.

Predictably, Dutch coach Aron Winter has struggled to replicate the Ajax system in Toronto with the stiffs he inherited and has been steadily rebuilding the roster on the fly all season long. TFC has used a stunning 35 different players so far this year, and goalkeeper Stefan Frei, and defenders Ty Harden and Danleigh Borman are likely to be the only three players on the field tomorrow who were on the field when DC beat TFC 3-0 back in April.

Given TFC’s travel and this being their fifth game in 18 days counting CCL games, it’s tough to say who starts for them, but given their need for points to salvage their dismal season, I do expect pretty much their top lineup. Which means Koevermans, Joao Plata, and Ryan Johnson as forwards, with Frings, Julian DeGuzman, and Nick Soolsma in midfield, and a defense of Richard Eckersley, Andy Iro, Harden, and Danleigh Borman going right to left.

DC’s Ben Olsen has some tinkering to do as both starting forwards, Josh Wolff and Charlie Davies missed DC’s last match and have only recently returned to full training. Dwayne DeRosario ably filled in and filled the nets in that 2-0 win in SJ, but I suspect at least one will return to the starting lineup and push DeRo back into midfield. Also, DC will be without Super Sophomore Andy Najar who got red carded (a bit harshly in my opinion) and is suspended for this match.

So, looking into my crystal ball, I think Olsen goes with Wolff and rookie Blake Brettschneider as forwards, Chris Pontius (who had two goals in DC’s earlier 3-0 win over TFC), DeRo, Clyde Simms, and either Austin Da Luz or Brandon Barklage to replace Najar in midfield. The defense is almost certainly Perry Kitchen, Dejan Jakovic, Brandon McDonald, and Daniel Woolard in front of Hamid which has been the backbone of DC’s resurgence defensively.

So, looking at the matchups is a bit dicey given TFC’s frantic 4-3-3. But, they way they have interpreted that system lately has been to play Plata and Johnson as almost wing forwards, keeping only Koevermans up high, usually stranded with nothing to do but flail around ineffectually. However, the diminutive Brazilian Plata is quite a dangerous threat up that left side, and the battering ram, Johnson brings a bit of honest physical effort that has caused DC some problems this season.

At any rate, the key defensively will be for Kitchen to shut down Plata on his own as much as possible, for anytime Plata gets loose and pulls a central defender wide, DC’s defense will be in trouble. If Plata stays contained, Jakovic against Koevermans and former teammates, McDonald against Johnson are good matchups for DC.

Offensively, things look pretty bright for DC. TFC’s defense is their Achilles heel as Harden and Iro might just be the two worst starting center backs in the league, certainly the worst pairing in the entire league. Wolff, DeRo, etc. should be able to find room to roam and cause nightmares for Frei if they get themselves isolated on TFC’s weak central defense.

However, the Englishman, Eckersley is a very good player and could shut down Pontius if he’s slightly off his game. It’s also a shame Najar isn’t on the field as then beating the weak defending Borman on the other side is a slam dunk, but Da Luz or Barklage is a less promising situation. So, if those two guys are shut out allowing Frings and DeGuzman to blank DeRo, then it becomes a slugfest and DC is in a battle they don’t want to fight. Pontius, and Davies off the bench again, may well be the key in this match as well.

And for once, the trends actually favor DC pretty decently. United is 7-3-1 over TFC lifetime, 3-1-1 in RFK although the last two times TFC visited they pulled off the win and the tie (DeRosario scored the tying goal at the death of the 3-3 tie in 2009, and scored the final two goals in their 3-2 win in the last game of last year, btw). Granted, DC has hardly been frightening at home and had a pitiful loss to NE last time out, but they have tied Philly, Houston, Colorado and Dallas here too. Even better, TFC is winless on the road in MLS so far this year at 0-7-5 being outscored a whopping 27-8 being shutout 6 of their last 9 road matches. TFC also boasts the worst defense in MLS having given up 43 goals in 24 games for a whopping -22 goal differential.

So there you have it. DC can win and should win. For pity’s sake, a two game win streak shouldn’t take more than two years to replicate, and a proud franchise like DC United should not be flailing away their playoff chances for the fourth straight season by dropping points at home to the skells of the league. TFC tomorrow is an imperative three points, and then Vancouver next week becomes a lot more likely three points which will go a long way towards boosting the team’s chances heading into the stretch run.