Ben Olsen

Dallas Looms for Banged Up DC

With an injury list longer than a snake’s tail, DC heads to Pizza Hut Park to take on FC Dallas, hoping to win two games in a row on the road for the first time in the Obama administration, but the high flying Western Conference powerhouse has been almost unbeatable at home this year.

Despite a glorious win in NY, and the immediate impact of Dwayne De Rosario, it seems like United just can’t seem to break out of its heinous injury funk. News broke this week, that rookie Blake Brettschneider is not able to return from a concussion suffered when he was kicked in the head in NY, United’s fourth concussed player this year , all still out at this time, and given their ominous history with concussions, Esky, Gros, and Namoff, etc., the hits just seem to keep coming.

On top of that, Josh Wolff is apparently nursing a yanked hamstring, and likely won’t play in Dallas, either meaning an already thin forward line gets even thinner. And while Dejan Jakovic’s return from his hamstring pull seems imminent, that only replaces Jed Zayner, who is out with a knee problem for the next six weeks.

However, despite all the injuries piling up, DC has not actually lost a game in over a month, and they have the best record on the road of any team in the East at 3-3-2, including being undefeated in their last 4 away matches, dating back to the Portland win sandwiched around the ties in LA and RSL. However, DC has not won two in a row on the road since their last dominant season in 2007, but interestingly it was in Dallas where they notched that second win after beating TFC.

FC Dallas will not fall easily, though. Granted Sporting KC handed them their hat in a relatively miraculous 4-1 drubbing in Pizza Hut Park a few weeks ago, but losses have been rare in The Oven so far this year. In fact Dallas has six shutouts in their last nine matches at home this year, and only LA (1 goal) and SKC have even scored in Dallas since April.

Incredibly, despite the massive injuries, DC’s Ben Olsen has some serious lineup questions to resolve. Now, normally when the roster is decimated, your choices are limited and you pretty much just go with the healthy bodies. But, with DeRo on the roster, Olsen has some intriguing options. Almost without doubt, Charlie Davies will start as the only healthy and effective forward, but who will partner him without Wolff or Brettschneider?

It could be Joseph Ngwenya, who is recently back to health himself, but a much more appealing option might be to play Chris Pontius or even DeRo as that second forward as both seem to be more effective players, and clearly combine with Davies better. Fred could play either role in midfield that they would vacate.

Also, DC has a crucially important match coming up midweek against NE, and considering the likely 100 degree temperatures in Dallas and his very thing roster, how will Olsen juggle his roster to maximize both games. Davies, for example seems unlikely to play 90 minutes in each game, and unless Wolff or Brettschneider make it back to health quickly, that’s a huge hole to fill.

Also, DC’s backline is solid for the moment, but if Daniel Wollard’s back acts up, all of a sudden it is pretty thin too, especially with two games and travel in 4 days. I fully expect Woolard (or Chris Korb), Ethan White, Brnadon McDonald, and Perry Kitchen to start left to right across the backline in front of Bill Hamid, but Jakovic must come on at some point as well as Korb, or dare I say it, Marc Burch, because with NE looming after a sweltering game in Texas, some changes almost certainly will have to be made.

Dallas, on the other hand, is plodding right along even without defending league MVP David Ferreira, having only lost one game since his ankle was horrifically twisted, and since Fabian Castillo left for the U-20 tournament in Colombia, and even without Daniel Hernandez and Milton Rodriguez, who are just returning from knee injuries. Dallas has stayed successful by pushing Brek Shea and Brazilian Jackson Gonsalves into the attack from their defensive roles and both have responded by scoring in 4 of Dallas’ last 5 matches.

So, I expect Dallas coach Schellas Hyndman to play a very similar lineup to the one that lost in RSL last week. Honduran Marvin Chavez and I suspect Rodriguez as forwards, then Shea, Eric Alexander, and Jackson across the midfield from left to right, backed up by either Hernandez or possibly rookie Bobby Warsaw if Hernandez is not quite ready to start. It’s a lock that Zach Loyd, George John, Ugo Ihemelu, and Jair Benitez start in front of Kevin Hartman in goal, though.

So, looking at the matchups, DC has some possibilities, but it will be tough. Going forward, Davies is way faster than John and way trickier than Ihemelu, but it is imperative that he get help or those guys can easily tag team him into impotence, as indeed they have done to most forwards all year in PHP. For me, that’s where DeRo swings the balance into DC’s favor. If he plays up, DC’s attack is all of a sudden something that Dallas cannot disregard. If it’s Ngwenya, they could perhaps be a bit more arrogant.

Also, with DeRo up and Dallas’ defense shifting into support mode, Najar and Pontius will have much more room to cause trouble and they can unbalance Loyd and Benitez for sure. Pontius’ incisive moves can get behind Loyd, while Najar’s tenacity can easily unhinge the emotional Benitez. Plus, Fred and Simms are a fair bet to outplay Alexander and Warsaw or a just barely fit Hernandez.

Now, going the other way, it’s not so bad either if DC has enough of the ball to force Shea and Jackson to be honest on the wings. If they can attack with abandon, DC is in the soup for sure, but if they are slowed by DC’s attack, then DC’s possibilities begin to look right tasty. I think Kitchen has the perfect mentality to slow Billy Idol crashing down that left side. I also like the consistent Woolard, or even rookie Korb against Jackson, although that is less comforting.

But, if those two are negated, DC is in enormously good shape because if White and McDonald can contain Henry and Rodgers, then Rodriguez and Chavez are a piece of cake. Rodriguez is only effective if left alone, and Chavez is fast, but surprisingly ineffective. He’s no stranger to DC either, and if the pitiful defenses DC trotted out in the CONCACAF Champions League a few years ago could throttle Chavez, then DC’s defense today can do it too.

So, on paper, things don’t look too bad for DC, which is good since the trends clearly do not favor United. Obviously, DC’s 6-12-2 record in Dallas, being outscored 37 to 26 isn’t too promising. Nor is the fact DC hasn’t won in Dallas since that glorious 4-0 drubbing in 2007. Then, of course there’s current trends where Dallas is downright stingy at home outside that hiccup against SKC a month ago. Since then, Dallas has won two in a row at home shutting out Columbus and Portland 6-0 combined. Also aside from that SKC debacle, Dallas hasn’t lost at home since March, and only LA has scored a single goal against them since May 1st.

So, if DC wins this one it will be based on their merits because clearly the odds are not stacked in their favor. But, do not be surprised if they pull on right out of their hat. DC has a good lineup on paper that can cause Dallas a lot of problems. You heard it here first.

Charlie Davis. Photo: Tony Quinn.

DC Hosts East Leading Philadelphia Union

League leading scorer Charlie Davies and DC United are licking their chops as they are set to take on the Eastern Conference leaders, the Philadelphia Union tomorrow night at RFK, as it will be the Black and Red debut for two time MLS Cup MVP, Dwayne De Rosario, whom United acquired midweek.

DC United made huge changes this week as they dealt away Dax McCarty in exchange for one of the most prolific and dynamic players in league history, Dwayne De Rosario, a five time MLS All Star and best XI player, winner of four MLS Cup titles. United also acquired Brandon McDonald from San Jose in exchange for some allocation money.

You have to like the moves United made in the sense that the team had two glaring weaknesses, a lack of scoring punch and leadership in the center of the field, and a serious lack of physicality and experience in their defense. Well, United clearly addressed those issues in spades by adding DeRosario, who is flat out a consistent game changer in this league, and by adding McDonald an unabashed teeth rattler in his fourth year in the league.

And both players are likely to start tomorrow night. De Rosario could easily slide into the central playmaking role, while McDonald could allow Perry Kitchen to cover the right back slot left empty by Jed Zayner’s midweek injury.

The Eastern Conference leading Union will be a good test for United’s revamped offense and defense too. Philly has risen to the top due to their unbeaten record at home for the most part, as well as the timely scoring of Carlos Ruiz and Danny Mwanga and a very stingy defense. But, they have also been very beatable on the road, including being shutout in 4 of 7 away matches.

After the deflating tie with Houston and looking ahead at United’s schedule, this match could have huge consequences down the road as United simply cannot keep giving away points at home. DeRo was brought in specifically to get United into the playoffs, and that push really needs to start tomorrow as the going gets pretty tough for DC for the rest of the summer.

United coach Ben Olsen does have one decision to make as it appears Charlie Davies is not likely to start given the knock he took to his ankle against Houston. So, it might be tempting to play DeRo at forward with Josh Wolff, but considering DeRo plays best as a central attacker and likely will fill that role when everyone is healthy, it seems more likely Olsen pays him in midfield and gives surprisingly effective rookie Blake Brettschneider another crack at starting.

In midfield, almost certainly it will be Chris Pontius, DeRo, Clyde Simms, and Andy Najar going left to right. Now, it’s just possible Olsen gives Stephen King the start and eases DeRo in by bringing him off the bench, but I can’t see that. If he’s ready to go 30-45 min, then he should start and don’t waste a sub slot on him.

In defense, Zayner’s injury comes at a inopportune time as that young backline was just getting some solid games back to back, and it means that the possible switch of Kitchen to midfield might be held off for the forseeable future as he is needed to cover for Ballz, who might be out quite a while depending on what’s found during his knee surgery this week. It is also ominous that left back Daniel Woolard hasn’t practiced this week with a back spasms and may not play either.

So, I expect Kitchen plays the right. Then Ethan White, McDonald, and Chris Korb on the left if Woolard’s back is still acting up. Now, I don’t want to worry you prematurely, but the rumor is that Marc Burch has been practicing for the first time since being out long term with a hamstring injury. However, it seems unlikely he gets back onto the field tomorrow after such a long time out. A few weeks from now would be a good time to worry about Burch starting. Now fingers crossed no injuries in the defense tomorrow!

Philly coach Piotr Nowak will almost certainly go with a similar lineup to the team that beat CHivas last weekend. Of course the dratted anchovy, Carlos Ruiz will be out there besmirching all that is good and pure in the game of soccer, and he will be joined by Macedonian Veljko Paunovic who scored his first MLS goals last week against Chivas. Sebastion LeToux and former DC midfielders Justin Mapp and Brian Carroll seemed sure to start in midfield, but that central playmaking role might be up for grabs as Jack McInerney started there the last two matches, but Nowak has used Kyle Nakazawa and Stefani Miglioranzi too, or even inserted Keon Daniel and shuffled the formation a bit. I suspect McInerney gets the nod, though.

Their defense is set in stone however. As long as Danny Califf and Carlos Valdes are not suspended, Nowak has played Sheanon Williams, Califf, Valdes, and Jordan Harvey across the back this season. A defense that has only given up 14 goals in 16 games so far this year, but 8 of those have come on in the 7 away matches for the Union.

So, looking at the matchups. Defensively, White and McDonald battling Ruiz and Paunovic is a crap shoot, especially with crazy Abby Okalaja as the ref. If Ruiz gets away with his usual antics and scores in RFK like a slot machine as he has done most of his career, then DC is in trouble of course. But, McDonald and White both have the physicality to battle the crafty and cruel Ruiz if it is a level playing field. Korb or Woolard will also have their hands full with the tireless Frenchman, LeToux who has been relatively quiet this year after a breakout year last year when he made an improbable run at a golden boot. But, Kitchen should eat up Mapp with no problems unless Mapp is due for one of his blinders. They don’t come that often, but they do come and if that’s the case, it’s just not DC’s night.

However, on offense DC has some huge advantages. Obviously, Wolff and Brettschneider would have trouble with Tats Califf and the beast Valdes, but with DeRo to spring them or burst forward to combine with them, then the edge goes to DC because Carroll will just be a bit of a speed bump for DeRo. Also, Pontius is playing so well right now, it’s hard to see him getting blanked by Williams, and Najar is just the type of scrappy player to unbalance Harvey a bit, especially if DeRo takes a lot of the pressure off them. You see what a key player he will be for DC. Think Christian Gomez circa 2004-7. He can be that much of a game changer.

Even the trends favor DC slightly. DC beat Philly the only time they played here last year in one of the banner wins of that pitiful season, and United also beat the Union on PKs this year in the Open Cup at the Soccerplex. As mentioned, the Union are hardly invulnerable on the road too. They are a mere 2-4-1 with 8 goals for and 8 against, 6 of those coming in Toronto. Their other win was their first game of the year when they surprised Houston 1-0. So, while they did tie Colorado in Dick’s Park, they also have been shutout their other four road matches including their last time out in Vancouver.

So, there you have it. If DeRo has a big first day on the job, DC could easily overwhelm Philly and win by two, assuming Okalaja keeps his paws off the match. A win right now could be huge with trips to NY and Dallas looming on the horizon.

Battle of Unbeatens as Earthquakes Visit RFK

Two teams that haven’t lost in over a month will face each other tomorrow night as DC United host the San Jose Earthquakes, who have been a bit of a tough out for United the past few years as the ‘Quakes are on a two year winning streak in RFK, and haven’t lost to DC anywhere since 2008.

DC, unbeaten against the Western Conference in their last 5 matches which has moved the team into third place in the East, takes on a San Jose team that has been just as dominant over the Eastern Conference over the same 5 game span. However, both teams have a few injuries and Gold Cup absences to deal with.

United has perhaps the lesser troubles as the loss of Dejan Jakovic, who pulled a hamstring preparing for the Gold Cup, has been ably replaced by the rock solid play of United’s kiddie corp of rookie defenders. Also, Dax MacCarty (groin, caused him to miss last two matches) and Charlie Davies (hamstring, came in as a sub in last match) have both recovered to the point where they could start, but almost certainly will play a role off the bench at the very least.

San Jose, on the other hand will be missing the defending golden boot winner, Chris Wondolowski and the rugged Ryan Johnson, who was just starting to really spark SJ’s offense after being moved back into midfield, as both are gone for the Gold Cup. But they got a bit of good news themselves recently as Simon Dawkins, who was signed away from Tottenham earlier this year, is back healthy and scored in their last match a convincing 2-0 win over Houston.

With all that in mind, it seems likely United coach Ben Olsen returns Charlie Davies and Dax McCarty to their starting roles against SJ. It’s true rookie Blake Brettschneider and Fred played very well in replacing United’s two biggest off- season acquisitions, but perhaps weren’t quite influential enough to warrant staying out there once United’s captain and leading scorer return to health.

It should be Davies and Josh Wolff starting at forward, then Chris Pontius, McCarty, Clyde Simms, and Andy Najar starting left to right across the midfield. Now, an interesting possibility, which would work against SJ especially, is for Olsen to reward Fred by keeping him out there, but replacing the shaky Simms with McCarty instead.

SJ’s central midfield is not so frightening that Simms has to be out there defensively, plus this allows Fred’s creative aggression to stay on the field to spark United’s attack instead of putting the pressure on McCarty, who clearly has had trouble living up to those expectations. This is a good game to experiment with a different role for McCarty to see if that frees him up to be more himself instead of putting pressure on him to be something he is not. And his steadiness and savvy play may well calm Fred’s natural instincts towards excessive turnovers. It would be interesting to see those possibilities, but I suspect Olsen goes with the more predictable route and banishes Fred’s creativity and carelessness back to being a second half spark off the bench.

In defense, there’s simply no doubt who will be out there. Rookies Chris Korb, Perry Kitchen, and Ethan White, along with journeyman Daniel Woolard have been simply fantastic recently, and are perhaps the biggest reason for United’s unbeaten streak since that horrid stretch when gave up 4 goals 3 times in April.

SJ coach Frank Yallop has also had a bit of time to adjust to the loss of his leading scorers of the past few years. Steven Lenhart coming back to form after a long injury layoff, as well as the return of Dawkins and the commitment of Khari Stephenson to refuse a Gold Cup call up give the former DC assistant coach quite a few weapons on offense. And interestingly, he has swapped the roles of former DC midfielder Bobby Convey and long time Quake defender Ramiro Corrales and struck on a good formula with Convey playing left back and Corrales in midfield.

Anyway, almost certainly Yallop will play Lenhart and Stephenson at forward (perhaps Dawkins starts at forward and Stephenson in his more natural attacking midfielder role, but I think not as Dawkins is still just getting fitness back after a bit of a long layoff himself). Then in midfield, Corrales, Brad Ring, Sam Cronin, and either second pick in the draft Anthony Ampaipatakwan or Joey Gjertsen going from left to right across midfield (if Dawkins starts, Stephenson replaces Ring in midfield). And Yallop’s defense will most likely be Steven Beitashour, Jason Hernandez, Bobby Burling (or Brandon McDonald), and Convey going from right to left across the back.

So, looking at the matchups, DC has some very tantalizing matchups on offense they could easily take advantage of. Obviously the Wolff and Davies that carved up Seattle could easily dance around or blow by Hernandez and either Burling or the beast McDonald, if they have managed to regain the chemistry they were building before some niggling injuries separated them for a stretch. Najar against SuperBobby is obviously a tantalizing matchup of former DC prodigy with current DC prodigy, and if Pontius continues to play with confidence and dagger efficiency, then Beitashour is in trouble.

Even if McCarty and Simms or Fred are negated by Cronin and Ring, DC should be able to find a way to score, and will win if they can keep the damage that Lenhart will wreak on their defense to a minimum, because outside of Jewfro, SJ’s offense is not terribly dynamic or effective without their sniper Wondolowski.

Corrales is steady, but won’t dazzle and shouldn’t be too much trouble for Korb to handle, especially if he’s dropping back too much to help Convey with Najar. Same with Gjertsen or Ampaipatakwan, they won’t trouble the unflappable and rock solid Woolard too much, especially if they are pre-occupied with helping Beitashour with the wily Pontius. Nor will Ring and Cronin outplay McCarty and Simms. So, as long as Lenhart is contained without fouling him too much and giving SJ too many dangerous freekicks, DC will be in fine shape.

Which is good, because the trends don’t really favor DC. As mentioned, SJ has won the last two on the trot in RFK and has only lost to DC once since being reformed in 2008. Historically, DC hasn’t fared much better either. DC is 10-14-6 against SJ since the inaugural MLS match loss in 1996, one of their worst records ever against a league opponent. In RFK, that is slightly better as DC is 8-7-0 but the bulk of those wins came a long time ago.

SJ also has the slightly better form recently too. They are 3-0-2 in their last five matches with convincing wins over Columbus, NE, and most recently Houston, while DC is 2-0-3 with a road win, but perhaps less convincing home draws to Dallas and Colorado.

On the bright side, DC is 2-1-3 at home albeit outscored 7-8 due to that hideous performance against NY, but they have only given up two goals at home since that match, and shut out the league leading Galaxy in the HDC their last time out. SJ, on the other hand doesn’t travel so well. They did beat Dallas early on, but haven’t won on the road since going 1-2-2 overall with the ties being unimpressive draws in Chicago and Vancouver.

Bottom line, DC should be able to score one more than SJ might score if DC really has turned a corner on their season. Some consistency from here on out will do a world of good for this very young team. They aren’t world beaters yet, but even average MLS teams get wins at home consistently. That should be the new benchmark.

DC Face a Galaxy Missing Some Stars

DC United coming off a rousing win in Portland to extend their unbeaten streak to four games, heads into the Toolbox to face the Western Conference leading LA Galaxy who have won four in a row on their own current six game unbeaten streak. But the Galaxy will be without some keys players, and DC pulled off a tie last time they faced LA behind a late Charlie Davies (pictured) penalty kick .

No doubt about it. If you’re going to play the Galaxy, better to do it when they are missing Landon Donovan, and DC will have faced their most bitter league rival both times this year without the greatest player in US history being present, as he missed the miraculous 1-1 draw DC pulled off against the Galaxy earlier this year in RFK. This time around Donovan as well as goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts will be missing due to Gold Cup duty.

United is missing their most experienced defender as Dejan Jakovic is with Canada in the Gold Cup (if his injured hamstring suffered last night against Ecuador doesn’t keep him out of that too), and it’s very likely captain Dax McCarty (groin)and team leading scorer Charlie Davies (hamstring) will see limited action if any at all.

Still, those guys were out against the Timbers and that didn’t stop DC from executing a pretty suffocating defense, that was undermined by some sketchy refereeing, but getting some timely scoring in a lively 3-2 win over Portland barely four days ago to extend their unbeaten streak to four games, after tying both Dallas and Colorado and defeating Seattle 2-1 all in RFK. DC is also the first eastern team to win a game in the western time zone so far this season.

LA is another matter; however, as they have a similar invincible streak of their own going at home, but are the far more polished and accomplished team over all to this point in the season, Donovan or no Donovan. LA is leading the league (albeit they have seemingly played half their schedule already!) and is riding a three game shutout streak, all grinding 1-0 victories.

DC coach, Ben Olsen does have some decisions to make in replacing Jakovic on defense and possibly in whether or not he inserts McCarty and/or Wolff or even the recently healthy Charlie Davies back into a winning lineup.

Rookie Perry Kitchen is the most obvious choice to replace Jakovic, but that would leave the right back spot up for grabs. Rookie Chris Korb performed there admirably recently and seems a shoe-in for the job. But interestingly, Uruguyan disappointment, Rodrigo Bresesco was active for the last match in Portland and he did play very well at his natural right back position against Ajax in a friendly a couple weeks ago, and there’s always third year man Brandon Barklage who could find himself in the mix if he’s playing well at the moment in practice.

As for McCarty, I think even he would say he needs to earn his way back into the starting lineup. Not only did Stephen King play very well in place of him in Portland, but Dax himself has been pressing too hard and not playing well himself even when fully healthy so far this season. Wolff is a bit more of a no brainer as he scored the winner in Portland off the bench and clearly earned his way past the enterprising, but limited Joseph Ngwenya. I also think Davies is still not ready for a start, so feisty rookie Blake Brettschneider should stay in the starting lineup.

So, my money is on Wolff and Brettschneider patrolling the forward line, Andy Najar, King, Clyde Simms, and Chris Pontius from right to left in midfield. Then in defense, I think it’s Korb and Daniel Woolard bookending Kitchen and Ethan White in central defense in front Bill Hamid in goal. Quite possibly the youngest defense in MLS history, with Woolard being the only guy over 20 and only field player not a rookie, all up against a Galaxy offense leading the league in scoring (albeit having played more games than anyone else).

LA, on the other hand has to replace Donovan, and his torrid scoring of late. Forward Miguel Lopez scored the winner in their most recent match in New England and Chad Barrett has incredibly found his scoring touch, even the venerable Juan Pablo Angel has recently found himself on the scorer’s sheet recently, so perhaps scorers for LA are set.

But, can they replace Donovan’s engine and determination in midfield? Beckham is Beckham. He will hack, hector, and also hit unbelievable passes that win games, but not perhaps if he is the key player to shut down. Juninho stepped up last time Donovan missed games and allowed Beckham the space to be Beckham. It remains to be seen if he will do so again.

I expect the Bruce to play Lopez and Barrett at forward, Beckham, Juninho, Birchall, and a Mike on the left, either Magee or Stephens, my money is on Stephens. In defense, LA is relatively thin. Former Rookie of the year, Sean Franklin on the right, former rookie of the year, Omar Gonzalez and his UMd running mate AJ DeLaGarza in the center and iron man Todd Dunivant on the left in front of long time backup Josh Saunders for Ricketts in goal.

So, looking at the matchups, it is not really too bad. I suspect DC will play ultra defensively to protect their extremely young backline, but if it keeps LA frustrated enough for Beckham and/or Juninho to be tossed from the game due to petulance, then it will sway to DC’s advantage to win.

The key to me will be Kitchen and White on Barrett and Lopez. If LA can find them with crosses, DC is in real trouble, as indeed they will be if Kitchen and White commit too many fouls in Beckham territory. If Kitchen and White stay clean and tight, and Woolard niggles Beckham into a fury, LA will struggle to score.

Going the other way, DC will struggle to score too. LA has given up a goal a game so far this year, but not at home where they have outscored opponents 10-4, then again Portland outscored their opponents 10-6 and fell to DC. Still, Dunivant is vastly under-rated and will give Najar troubles, especially if he is helping Korb defensively. Same with Pontius against Frankin, not too promising, especially as he almost certainly will have to help contain Beckham.

Even centrally, it’s a bit of a stalemate. King or McCarty and Simms against Juninho and Birchall, is a push at best. The only glimmer DC has is Wiley Wolff and Battering Brettschneider against Gonzalez and DeLaGarza, as they have the experience and the unexpectedness to surprise the former Terps, if they are even the least bit lucky.

Now, as for trends, best not to even discuss those. DC has the worst winning percentage against LA than any team in league history being 13-17-6 against LA all time, outscored by 10 goals 58 to 48. Not only that DC is 5-8-4 in LA outscored 24-17, and hasn’t won there since 2005. But, they have tied in the HDC 3 of the last five years, including Pontius scoring a lovely curler for his first goal in a 2-2 tie in 2009.

Also, LA as mentioned is 4-0-2 at home having beat both Philly and Houston and tied NY, while DC is 2-3 on the road, but outscored 12-9.

So, if you are a betting man, go for LA to win as they are perhaps the better team overall at the moment, even without Donovan and Ricketts. However, a more savvy number cruncher might just fade DC into a somewhat surprising tie. However, there is a real chance DC can pull off an upset in this one. They stay tight and solid and play within themselves, they can frustrate the Galaxy long enough for them to shoot themselves in the foot and allow Wolff and Daivies off the bench to win the game for them.

Smart money is on the tie.

DC United Hoping to Crack the Timbers

Fresh off an undefeated three game home stand, DC United heads to Portland to play the Timbers at Jeld-Wen field, where the expansion side is a perfect 5-0-0 so far this season, including 3 shutouts in their last four games.

Heading into the middle third of the season, the jury is still very far out on DC United. They are clearly ahead of the pitiful state they were at this time last year, but they are also still a bit of an enigma. Capable of horrendous 4 to something losses at Colorado and Houston, or just as capable of impressive shutouts like against Dallas or in Toronto. Capable of sparkling forward play and beautifully orchestrated goals or just as capable of being shut down into impotence.

Now would be a good time to show what this young team is on their way to becoming. Portland is perfect at home and certainly ahead of United in MLS to date, but maybe not quite as fearsome as their record. Interestingly, both teams started the season wide open, scoring and giving up goals galore, but have since gotten results by tightening up defensively.

For Portland, that has meant rock solid, but somewhat uninspiring play all over the field, and an over-reliance on free kicks or individual brilliance to salvage their turnover prone offense. For DC, it is just as tight defensively of late, but perhaps a bit more collectively creative on the offensive end, especially when Josh Wolff is on the field; however, DC’s turnover problem is no less obvious.

Especially hampering matters for DC is the likelihood that team leading scorer Charlie Davies isn’t likely to play much if at all, and his partnership with Wolff is the greatest thing United fans have seen since Luciano Emilio teamed up with Christian Gomez (and Jaime Moreno of course). He tweaked a hamstring and is just back to practicing recently, if he plays, it probably won’t be too many minutes. Then again, Davies and DC did play pretty well when he came off the bench earlier this year, so there you go.

DC Coach Ben Olsen has some interesting decisions to make in replacing Davies too. Santino Quaranta, Joseph Ngwenya and rookie Blake Brettschneider all have made a partial case that it should be them playing alongside Wolff. Santino is the prodigal son of course. He played well against Ajax in his natural forward position, but didn’t score and hasn’t played much forward in MLS in years. Ngwenya also played well against Ajax, but athletics and stone boots are not usually a good combination unless you are scoring, which he didn’t either. Although he did set up the one guy that has scored recently as Brettschneider poked Ngwenya’s cross into the net versus Ajax. So, the rookie has staked a claim as perhaps the best finisher of the bunch and is a reasonably big body to throw at the teeth rattlers in Portland’s central defense.

Olsen also has some defensive decisions to make too as it out appears Jed Zayner is still out with a balky hamstring of his own (hopefully he is back by the time Dejan Jakovic is of to the Gold Cup for Canada). Third pick in the draft Perry Kitchen has been playing right back in MLS recently and very well too. However, the Ajax match was perhaps illuminating for the future as Kitchen played a defensive midfield role and was not out of place at all going against a Dutch midfield that could make fools of anyone in MLS. Particularly inspiring was his aggressive forceful tackling and ball winning, things Clyde Simms has apparently misplaced from his game of late.

Adding another twist in the tail of this is that Uruguyan disappointment Rodrigo Bresesco has been abysmal in central defense, but he played pretty darn well at right back against Ajax. It just might be a good time for Olsen to see if he’s a better right back than Simms is a defensive midfielder right now.

Unfortunately, that might experiment might not happen Sunday night as Portand’s left side is easily their most dangerous, while their central midfield has been a bit less frightening outside of dead balls of course, but more on that later. Kitchen is easily the better defender to date than Bresesco, so he should maybe stay at that right back to keep Portland’s Kalif Alhassan in check better than the wayward Uruguyan. And Simms is easily less physical and more MLS savvy than Kitchen, and perhaps less likely to give up too many free kicks which Portland feast on.

Getting to the matchups, the Timbers play a straight up 4-4-2 as does United, so it’s essentially man on man all over the field. Portland will almost certainly line up Kenny Cooper and Jorge Perlaza at forward. Then number two pick in the draft, Darlington Nagbe, Jack Jewsbury, Colombian DP Diego Chara, and Kalif Alhassan across the midfield from right to left. In defense, it will almost certainly be former Terp Jeremy Hall at right back, former Crewser, Eric Brunner, former USL Timber Mamadou “Futty” Danso, and former DC left back Rodney Wallace manning the backline, with former United keeper Troy Perkins in goal.

So, looking at the matchups, this game will be won or lost in midfield or more likely a simple defensive mistake, indeed as most games are, but especially this one. Cooper is the classic 7 foot center taking jump shots, not really going to hurt you unless you let him. Perlaza is a wild card, uncontrollable one game invisible the next. So, DC’s central defense of Jakovic and White should be just fine. As long as Jakovic’s savvy grace and White’s rugged athleticism negate those same traits in their opponents, DC will be fine in the run of play at least.

Now set pieces are another matter. Obviously DC lets in bad goals on set pieces more than a cat meows for its dinner. Even worse is that Portland scores on free kicks more than a jack rabbit on a date, 8 of their 13 goals to date off set pieces. 5 of them from defenders including their last three on the trot all game winning or game tying strikes. Obviously, if DC gives up enough bad fouls or makes a mistake, they will lose, but if they keep that mental element of the game tight, Portland might well struggle to find offense all on their lonesome.

Which is why this game will totally be decided in the midfield. If DC wins the midfield battles, Portland will not score outside a fluke. Nagbe is a talented rookie, true, but a inconsistent rookie nonetheless. Chara is a DP, but has yet to adapt to MLS offensively (think Boskovic, Branko circa 2010), although the Colombian is not at all shy about laying out some lumber despite his relatively small frame, something the bigger Boskovic never did learn or adapt well too. Then Jewsbury is an MLS lifer with a hard shot both from a dead ball and to the chops, but only 16 goals in over 200 MLS appearances (Yes, 2 goals this year and granted he was certainly a United killer for KC in the past!). But, Portland’s midfield really ticks behind the pay of Alhassan, he has really been sparklingly dangerous and is among the league leaders in assists.

To counter that, DC’s Andy Najar seems poised for great game. He is as competitive a midfielder as any midfielder DC has ever had, including Ben Olsen himself. Now, he’s not Richie Williams level defensively, but I believe he will bite an ankle if necessary. More importantly, if he forces Alhassan backward because he’s causing trouble for his former team mate Wallace playing the left side of Portland’s defense, who is still no great shakes at defense, then DC will be in good shape. But, Wallace does have 2 goals this year and he must be stopped from going forward to help Alhassan at all costs, and Najar should do that at least. Meaning Kitchen is a good choice to smother Alhassan.

Centrally, Dax McCarty and Simms, or even Kitchen should Benny decide to go that way, will be fine against Jewsbury, who has a bit of a groin strain, and Chara. Chris Pontius and Daniel Woolard will be fine against Nagby, who also has a bit of a groin strain and Hall on United’s left, so it’s really down to mental fortitude and clamping down on that right side of United’s defense.

Now, on the flip side, DC can score for sure. Wolff is playing as good as he ever has, and he has 70 some goals in MLS. He can flummox Brunner and “Futty” for sure. Even better is that I think Olsen gives Santino a chance to earn a forward spot and I love the way Santino and Najar seem to find each other from one side of the field to the other. With wandering Wallace guarding the harassing Honduran, I can see a back post finish or two from Najar easily. Pontius too, should have an edge over Hall, who isn’t so good when forced to defend either.

The only thing standing in DC’s way is a suddenly resurrected Perkins in goal for Portland. He has been silly in goal since coming back from a knee problem. He has 3 shutouts in his last four games, only a 3 goal barrage in LA prevents him being among the league leaders in goals against. A far cry from the tentative Troy we had here last year, who I do not recall having a single shut out as he steadily lost his job to a teenager, Bill Hamid, who he will face again tomorrow. Perkins might well want to send his old mates a message about how good he actually is. That could be trouble.

Looking at the trends is easy. DC has never faced Portland before obviously, so it’s down to current form. DC is undefeated in three straight, but one win and two ties at home is not definitive. Also, 1-3 on the road overall and being outscored 10-6, with three of those goals in the Toronto win, is not so promising either. However, DC has scored in every away match this year which has been unexpected and most promising despite the defensive lapses that they might well have tightened up lately.

Portland is on a four game unbeaten streak of their own outscoring their opponents 4-1, and is a perfect 5-0 at home outscoring their opponents 10-4 overall. The last three being 1-0 shutouts at home after a couple wild games early on, but that is perhaps deceptive as they caught travel weary Crew and Philly sides, and caught RSL right after their CCL let down. DC is well rested, and interestingly both teams played Ajax within the last week and DC played the Heredivisie winning side better losing 2-1, while Portland lost 2-0, but more importantly, reports have DC playing the Dutch Masters way more competitively.

And DC will have some locker-room fodder too, thanks to an incredible article in Portland that states the Timbers face some tough matches at home after the DC match that will test their home winning streak. Well now. The game is already won? I think not, nor do I think Tiber coach John Spencer overlooks DC either and will have his team ready. But, DC has a proud tradition, tarnished of late to be sure, but discounted altogether? You think Olsen will let his team gloss over this public slap?

I think not either. Timber Joey’s saw might go cold this weekend.

DC Hopes to Keep Rolling Over the Rapids

United riding a two game unbeaten streak at home hopes to keep the good times rolling when the defending MLS champion Colorado Rapids, with their own three game unbeaten streak, comes to RFK this Saturday night.

A young and inconsistent DC side has a golden opportunity to expand on a banner four point week by going for their first three game unbeaten streak in almost a year by taking advantage of a severely weakened Colorado team that has only managed one win in RFK since 1999.

To be honest, DC United has been a bit lucky to beat Seattle and tie Dallas for four crucial points this past week that has seen them claw back into relevancy in the Eastern conference. DC worked very hard to earn the win over the Sounders, but Seattle had chances to tie for sure, and while Dallas certainly didn’t do enough to win, DC did barely much more. So, this match could go a long way to deciding whether this DC United team is actually credible or just pretty lucky.

Colorado will be without their most dangerous attackers considering Omar Cummings sprained an ankle versus Houston last week and Caleb Folan, who punished DC with two incisive goals a few weeks ago, is out with a groin strain. Captain Cranium, Conor Casey is barely back to health too, so perhaps DC will avoid that battering ram too.

Still, a weakened Colorado managed to beat Houston and escape NE with a 0-0 draw, both places DC floundered notably, as indeed the Rapids brutally dispatched DC mere weeks ago 4-1 in Denver in an epic 15 minute collapse at the end of that match.

Colorado will still field a pretty decent side however as Quincy Amarikwa and draft pick Andre Akpan, both with game winning goals this year, are likely to start at forward. Very likely Scotsman Jaime Smith (goal and an assist in the last two weeks) and Kosuke Kimura or Wells Thompson will man the flanks for Colorado coach Gary Smith.

There’s no doubt who will police the center of the field for the Rapids though as Pablo Mastroeni and Jeff Larentowicz are all but cemented in stone. And in defense, it’s pretty likely Scott Palguta, Tyrone Marshall, Drew Moor, and Marvel Wynne will be Smith’s lineup across the back with Matt Pickens in goal.

Considering DC will almost certainly field a very similar, if not exact, lineup from the Dallas game, then DC has some decent advantages. Olsen can’t hardly be faulted for playing Charlie Davies and Josh Wolff at forward, Chris Pontius, Dax McCarty, Clyde Simms (or Stephen King) and Andy Najar across midfield from left to right. And also in keeping his retooled defense, that staunched 8 goals in two previous league matches to 1 goal in two matches this past week, totally intact. So, if Perry Kitchen, Dejan Jakovic, Ethan White, and Daniel Woolard don’t start the next match, then Olsen needs his head examined or it’s pretty clear that Payne and Kasper need a stake through their hearts.

So, looking at the matchups, DC has the advantages if they choose to accept their roles as favorites, not always the case lately.

Anyway, going forward, DC has some huge hopes with league leading scorer Davies and his recently discovered muse Josh Wolff being way more than the ancient Marshall, Moor, Palguta, or even Wynne can contend with. For sure Pontius and the recently rejuvenated Najar in support or simply crashing the backside can overwhelm any combination of Colorado defenders whatsoever even assuming McCarty and King or Simms runs into a brick wall (literally).

Defensively, DC has dodged a bullet as the speedy Cummings and the cruelly effective Folan are out. Perhaps Casey causes trouble in his first game back, but even similar cannonballs Amarikwa and Akpan are not all that scary as a hobbled and cautious Casey. Especially as Smith and Kimura will not easily defeat Kitchen and Woolard or even Jed Zayner and Marc Burch should either f those two find their way onto the field.

Even better, the trends clearly favor DC. Colorado has only won once here in RFK since 1999 when Jorge Dely Valdez phoned home. True the most recent loss was last year, but seriously, who didn’t win here last year? Aside from that loss, and btw DC won in Colorado last year for the first time since 2000 so perhaps we are trading flukes, Colorado has just been pummeled here in RFK since the league’s inception. Losing the ’97 MLS Cup to DC and going 2-10-3 in RFK since the league was founded.

DC has recently decided to show some backbone at home going 2-0-2 so far this year outside of that hideous NY loss, and Colorado have hardly been world beaters outside of Denver going 1-2-1 on the road with the only win being a 1-0 victory over hapless ChivasUSA.

Both teams have recently found their form of late, but while Colorado has found it at the cost of some pretty crucial players, DC has found it in spite of the loss of some perceived crucial players and even more importantly with the re-emergence and perhaps new found confidence of some very young guns. Ethan White has been a huge boost at an opportune time, Perry Kitchen has responded well to a humbling experience in Houston, Jakovic seems to have new life, Najar has absolutely re-found his scrappy success, McCarty has maybe figured out him being toned down a bit is better than him trying too hard and doing nothing.

But, overall, Wolff and Davies being a true scoring partnership is immense for a team that set a league record in futility last year. Davies has already scored more in 9 games than any leading scorer last year had in 30 games, so that is huge and something Colorado has to be leery of. DC is 3-1-1 in games Davies scores, and -0-3 when he doesn’t. However, that isn’t the whole story. Josh Wolff has arguably been more important to DC.

That partnership will decide the match. If they score, DC wins. If they don’t, DC needs to figure out how to start another unbeaten streak. Call me crazy, but it might need more than two guys (and Najar) carrying the team on their backs.

Josh Wolfe vs Seattle Sounders

DC Hosts FC Dallas Looking to Build on Seattle Success

After that cathartic win midweek over the visiting Seattle Sounders, DC United is now looking to see if they can build some momentum against Western Conference powerhouse, FC Dallas.

An amazing lack of consistency has been the hallmark of DC United since its last winning season in 2007. Rarely has United played well for as many as two or more matches in a row in the last three years, so that is the enormous obstacle that is facing Ben Olsen and DC United as they seek to show that their turnaround from last year’s abysmal season is complete.

Incredibly, DC United has not won 2 games in a row since 2009, when they beat Chicago and New York back to back in June of that year. But slightly earlier than that, DC had another two game win streak that started in Late April with the “Miracle Minute” win in New York and finished with a solid 2-1 win over Dallas in RFK in early May.

Which would be a nice bit of history to repeat itself right now for a very young United squad desperate for some confidence by showing that their occasional wins are not the flukes they seem too often to turn out to be lately.

And a win over FCD would be well earned to as the MLS Cup finalists are on a two game winning streak after beating LA at home this past weekend to overcome a slow start to the season, and even despite the loss of last year’s MVP, David Ferreira to a broken ankle. Dallas coach, Schellas Hydeman has simply inserted their young attacking talent, Eric Avila into Ferreira’s role and has kept right on rolling.

Dallas will also be without their dynamic left back Jair Benitez who came up with a sore knee after colliding with goalkeeper Kevin Hartman in their last match. But second year player Zach Loyd is a very capable replacement as DC learned last year.

But United has some injury concerns as well. It would be nice to start the same group that set the tone in the rousing 2-1 win over the Sounders, but Chris Pontius and Clyde Simms both came off with a calf injuries in that match, and while they are expected to be available, given their histories and positions, it seems silly to risk them further in the third game in nine days for DC.

Also, and it pains me to say this, rumor is Marc Burch is available after missing the last match with hamstring tightness, and while I don’t condone such things, DC coaches continue to have an affinity for playing Burch whenever they can. However if it was me, I’d reward the defense that staunched the goal bonanza DC has been offering up in recent weeks. While they weren’t exactly Salt Lake tight, they did hold a pretty dynamic Seattle team to a lone penalty kick goal.

But I do expect Olsen to ride the offensive horses he has right now and keep Davies and Wolff at forward, maybe looking to pull one or both as the game goes on. They were the tip of the spear in United’s attack and despite playing most of these last three games in 9 days, continuing to develop their partnership at this crucial time is too important to disrupt. Wollf is a pro and it’s not the middle of the summer, he can take 60 minutes at least, and Davies is just getting hot leading the league with six goals, already scoring more 8 games than the leading scorers last year for the season (Andy Najar and Danny Allsopp, 5 each), and has been off for over a year. He should be licking his lips to keep that rolling.

In midfield, I suspect Fred plays for Pontius as a precaution, and Pontius comes off the bench if necessary. For certain Andy Najar plays the other side of the field as he had a breakout game and hasn’t come close to his workload from last year being in a funk earlier this year. Just as certain is Dax McCarty in central midfield. Now perhaps Simms just got a knock and is a lock to go 90 minutes, but if there’s any doubt about his playing the entire game, he should play none of it. Stephen King played well in the second half for him and deserves some more time, especially as Simms has been less than his best so far this year.

Now, as I simply cannot imagine Olsen not rewarding that defense that bent but didn’t break last match, I have to say it will be Perry Kitchen playing right back again, Dejan Jakovic and Ethan White in central defense, and Daniel Woolard on the left. Perhaps Burch wriggles his way back in there like the sidler, and Olsen’s quote about Woolard having a hamstring issue is ominous, but if Woolard hasn’t put a pack of tic-tacs in Burch’s pocket, than he’s not the player I have been touting him as.

It’ll be interesting to see if Bill Hamid is in goal for this one, too. Hamid was writhing on the ground for quite a bit of the Seattle match, and Olsen has shown he will not push the youngster for too many minutes, by leaving Onstad out there for Open Cup matches for example. So, I wonder if Cronin gets a surprise start for DC his first since being a huge presence in goal at the end of 2009, going undefeated in goal for DC to finish the season, including a historic 1-1 tie at Toluca in Mexico.

FCD will almost certainly play Colombian Fabian Castillo at forward and Avila in support in that advanced midfield role that Ferreira played so well. Hyndman has finally seen the folly of playing Brek Shea in defense and moved the versatile and dynamic youngster into his more favored wide midfield role, so he’ll play on their left almost certainly. Former DC midfielder Andrew Jacobson (who was on the field for DC the last time DC beat FCD here in 2009, btw), hard man Daniel Hernandez, and fleet Honduran winger Marvin Chavez on the right should complete the midfield. In defense, Loyd for Benitez, then George John and Ugo Ihemelu in the center, and the Brazilian Jackson at right back, and long time MLS goalkeeper Kevin Hartman in goal.

So, looking at the matchups, DC does have some concerns, but perhaps not as much as Dallas does. The tricky Colombian Castillo and a somewhat mercurial Avila can certainly be a handful for any MLS defense, but Castillo is still learning the league and the knock on Avila for years has been his inconsistency, simply disappearing for long stretches only to pop up from time to time to score a set up a cracking goal. If they are on their game, Jakovic and White will have their hands full, if not, DC has the edge, especially if the outside defenders do their jobs.

If Woolard (or Burch) with Fred helping defensively contain the dynamic, but whiny and dramatic Chavez, and Kitchen blanks Shea with only occasional help from Najar, then DC is in very good shape. Even in the center of midfield, McCarty and King or Simms are easily good enough to handle Jacobson and the beast Hernandez.

So, DC can negate FCD if they play well, but can they score? With Davies and Wolff on the field, yes, without them, maybe not, it could easily be 0-0 at best if those two do not play. Davies and Wolff playing like they did against Seattle will cause problems for athletic, but perhaps tactically less savvy, John and Ihemelu, Ngwenya and/or Brettschneider? Not so much. Also, if Najar isn’t bogged down chasing Shea, he can change a game with just one attack more than Loyd can handle. Same with Fred going against his countryman Jackson, one moment of brilliance and DC is golden. DC won’t get much up the middle, but if their wingers get forward often enough to free up Wolff and Davies, DC can score enough to win.

The only real wild card is that this is a Holy Toledo match in that Baldomero Toledo is the center referee, and as we’ve seen over the years, the Eddie Munster clone can change a match on a whim. He has already burned DC this year with that atrocious match in New England simply gifting the Revs their two goals. The lack of a handball call on Shilawski’s opener and the abomination PK called on Dax when Phelan launched himself into Dax as he was clearing a ball. Count Chocula’s mood is as important to the match as how much air is in the ball. He’s that influential and unpredictable. Let’s hope he feels some remorse and puts his thumb on the galactic scales in DC’s favor this time around.

Unfortunately, while Dallas has historically been a pretty obliging guest, being the victim of the first ever United win in RFK in 1996 (Rammel!) and indeed winning only 5 of 16 games played here since the dawn of the league. However, they also have been a bit of a tough out lately. Of course, they won last year for the first time since 2005, as indeed most of the league won here during that brutal 2010 campaign. But, beyond that DC on the other hand has only beaten Dallas here only once since 2004, as both teams have shared the points 5 of the last 8 matches played in RFK.

A tie would be a solid result, but with defending champion Colorado, who pulled the wings off United convincingly 4-1 mere weeks ago up next before a long break, DC needs to secure some points where they can. They’re making a move up the table, but losing to Dallas and Colorado, then watching as the rest of the East plays could be tough for a very fragile young United team that just needs a few more breaks go their way.

Holy Toledo? You hear that?

Dismayed DC Face Surging Sounders

Coming off a hideous ten days, DC comes dragging home for a welcome three matches in a row in RFK. Unfortunately, first up is the Seattle Sounders who are coming off thumping Toronto to go to six games unbeaten, and have never failed to beat DC in RFK to boot.

It is gut check time for DC United. A pretty nice start to the season has degraded recently into a horrific three game stretch that saw United lose handily in MLS play to two conference rivals, NY and Houston, by at least three goals each becoming the worst defense statistically in MLS in the process, and get bounced from the Open Cup by a New England reserve squad. Up next is Seattle that hasn’t lost since March and is coming off a resounding 3-0 win over TFC.

Obviously, the first thing a clearly angry United coach Ben Olsen has to do is stop the bleeding and tighten up United’s suddenly shocking defense, and the only way to do that is to find, or encourage strongly, some players to actually compete at an MLS level. DC’s defense is young, and the team overall is new and still finding its way, but Olsen said it best after the Houston debacle, basically, that you may be inexperienced or whatever, but you can at least show up and work hard, you know try to make it difficult for other teams to score.

Now, you could argue that United started the season keeping things pretty tight in the back, and even snagged a shutout earlier this year on the way to 7 points in their first 5 games. But I would counter with the notion DC did indeed shutout Toronto, who barely threatened DC’s goal at all. They did whup the Crew, who played horrible and it was DC’s home opener too. Then United luck-boxed into a point against LA, who scored early and didn’t bother to attack again the rest of the match.

Against actual teams who have played in anger, and with the hardness expected of an MLS team fighting to get above mediocrity, DC has been overwhelmed and humiliated. Seattle, they are on a mission for an MLS Cup this year or they know Sigi will break up that team if they don’t at least come close, so expecting them to come in here and lay an egg is a long shot. And that’s not even including the fond feelings Seattle must have for RFK having beaten United all three times they have visited including snatching away an Open Cup.

Now, the question becomes what is the best lineup to staunch the gaping wound that is United’s defense. Now, to begin with all of DC’s defenders have made absolutely painful mistakes at some point this year, so it’s not so simple as to say play the “best” defenders on the team. But, on balance and considering Jed Zayner is out vacationing his hamstring again, DC’s best defense is Chris Korb, Dejan Jakovic, Perry Kitchen and Marc Burch. Although I’d be sorely tempted to see if Ethan White could play left back instead of Burch, who should be setting pins in a bowling alley. But, the spirited Burch does compete at least, even if it is ineffectively done too often for his experience level.

However, that is only half the battle. DC’s defensive problems are just bad, if not worse, in the midfield. Clyde Simms has been atrocious, simple as that. He needs to be way more of a physical presence or he should be shown to the bench. Dax McCarty hasn’t really been much better, but he has maybe done enough to keep his job, especially now that Branko Boskovic is now going to be out essentially for the rest of the season (hey, he didn’t come into camp in shape twice when he had two healthy knees, now after ACL surgery? Please).

As for the outside positions in midfield, considering Chris Pontius and Andy Najar or Fred or even Santino Quaranta, none has shown much in the way of helpfulness defending on the wing, but Fred and Santino have at least tried. Najar is certainly capable, but his personal life funk couldn’t possibly have come at a worse time, so he’s perhaps a bit of a hope to recover in time to bail DC out again after doing it most of last year. There’s precious little on the bench, either. Brandon Barklage is an option, but he has only seen Open Cup play and that in the defense, where he hasn’t looked that good.

In this game, Olsen has to be sure to have midfielders who will work very hard on the defensive side of the ball, even to the expense of the offense. For me that means McCarty, Fred, Najar (fingers crossed), and Morsink (I never thought I’d ever write that!). And even then, I’d have Barklage and Santino ready to go as soon as it’s obvious a starter is not doing enough. But, no matter what, midfield defense must get a lot better or this defense will continue to bleed like a leaky paint bucket.

Interestingly, the forwards have not been a problem defensively. Josh Wolff, Charlie Davies, Blake Brettschneider, even Joseph Ngwenya for the most part have been pretty active defensively, so any of them is a good bet. But, obviously, if DC is going to pack it in and counter, then balls over the top to Davies or worked quickly up field to the savvy Wolff would likely be more effective.

Those also give DC its best matchups against a pretty deep Seattle squad that lost Steve Zakuani horrifically and O’Brien White unexpectedly to surgery this past week. Seattle is facing three games in eight days (DC has three too, but an extra day of rest having played Friday instead of Saturday), so Sigi might change things up. Heck, it would be understandable if he took the DC game lightly considering the way they’ve owned DC here and in order to focus on the likely tougher away match in Columbus on the weekend. But, I think he goes with his best for most of this match to secure the more sure points, and adjusts for the Crew match which he shouldn’t expect too much from anyway.

That said, I expect Seattle to field Fredy Montero and Mauro Rosales at forward. Maybe Nate Jaqua instead, but he and Montero have not really ever played well together, well except in RFK so maybe that should be qualified, but seriously I think he saves Jaqua a bit to batter the bigger, meaner Crew defense.

In midfield, it’ll most likely be Erik Friberg, Brad Evans, Osvaldo Alsonso, and Alvaro Fernandez going right to left across midfield. Perhaps Evans stays on the right where he lit up TFC, but I think Sigi likes him pushing up the middle, and he’s a better two way player in there than either of the two imports. The defense almost certainly will be Tyson Wahl, who’s taken Leo Gonzalez’s job on the left, Patrick Ianni, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, and James Riley going across the backline. Perhaps Mr. Irrelevant Jeff Parke gets in there, but I doubt Sigi breaks up a defense that pitched their first home shutout of the year. And they have had plenty of rest to date anyway as Sigi has played a number of combinations back there so far this year.

So looking at the matchups, it’s tough for sure, but maybe doable for DC. Montero has not really broken out yet this year and Rosales is a wild card so far, so Kitchen and Jakovic could keep them to one goal or less, if they cut out the obvious mistakes of course, if they don’t it’s blood bath anyway so it doesn’t matter who they face.

In midfield, McCarty and Morsink or maybe an inspired Simms are a decent match with Evans and Alonso, Seattle has a slight edge of course, but not huge and easily negated if DC plays with some heart and intensity. I like the idea of Najar going against the aging Uruguayan Fernandez. Fernandez is crafty and has two huge goals for Seattle this year, but if Najar is back to himself, he is way feistier and will run the World Cup veteran’s legs off, likely keeping Wahl in check too. Fred against Friberg is also pretty decent for DC. Both are offense first players, but Fred is the more experienced in MLS and I think good enough to cause the Swede trouble and keep Riley pinned back too. Friberg is also the only player to Fred a ball over the net worse than Fred ever did too. So he’s got that going for DC too.

Going the other way, obviously DC will need some luck, but Davies can outrun anyone they put in central defense up to and including El Presidente, Hurtado, if DC has the presence to send him as often as possible. I also like the crafty Wolff against Ianni or Parke, especially in RFK. If Fred or Najar, or Santino or Pontius, or McCarty, whoever, can win their midfield battle too and add more to the attack, then that’s even better. McCarty’s freekicks will be huge too.

Obviously, the trends do not favor DC. Seattle is 2-0 here in MLS play outscoring United by 2 goals, 3-1, which is ironic since they’ve never beaten DC at Qwest field, and so are 2-1-1 lifetime versus DC, but even that win took two monumental gaffes by Kasey Keller, thinking that will happen again is even more remote than Seattle just laying an egg. Possible, but unlikely.

Also, Seattle is tough on the road even this year when they didn’t start out so hot. But after losing to NY in the Red Bulls home opener by a lone goal, they have gone 1-0-2 on the road since then outscoring opponents 4-3 having tied SJ and Philly, and beaten Colorado 1-0 their last time out of Seattle. United on the other hand is a shaky 1-1-1 at home after that rousing start against the Crew, but that 3-1 win was negated brutally by NY’s 4-0 thrashing the last time in RFK, so DC has now been outscored 4 to 6, with two PKs one of them pretty lucky Abby was calling the game.

All signs point to a loss for DC, so now’s the time for the soccer gods to intervene on the side of all that’s right in the universe. Now’s also the time for DC to put in the work and compete hard enough to give the soccer gods reason to smile on them too. We can moan and groan all we want about teams like NE or Houston stealing points, but until we work as hard and as disciplined as those teams do, we will continue to be robbed like blind beggar.

Time to see some heart from DC. I doubt they win, but at least a tie is imperative. Another multi-goal loss and this season could be heading into the crapper at warp speed.

DC Has a Problem in Houston

For a team hoping to dig out from under a hideous week, heading to Houston is about the last thing they want to see as the next match on the calendar, but for DC United it even more ominous as Robertson stadium is the only venue where DC has never won, aside from the expansion stadia they yet to visit of course.

Well, it doesn’t get much more daunting than this for United. Coming off a brutal home loss to hated rival Red Bull, and perhaps an even more painful loss to the hated Revs that bounced them from the Open Cup, DC now travels to Houston where they have never won, have barely ever even scored there since the Dynamo were created in 2006.

0-4-1 over the last five years, 3 goals scored (all in one loss in 2009, the tie was 0-0 in 2008) and 9 goals against, 0-5-1 if you count a 1-0 Superliga loss there too. That’s United’s record in Robertson stadium. Not a pretty picture. Add in that Houston, while no longer the MLS powerhouse they were, is still a Kinnear coached team that is organized, plays with discipline and is currently on a five game unbeaten streak, while United is young and has spent the past week being humbled by its betters and is facing a stretch of 3 games in 9 days all against tough opponents. So, it could easily be a nightmare scenario for United.

One thing that could be in United’s favor is they are getting healthier, a certain young Honduran seems to be returning to form, and their unspectacular (to date) DP might be showing signs that he is ready to actually contribute in MLS, at least if the damage NE inflicted upon him continues to heal well and he gets some quality minutes in Houston.

First and foremost, word is that Jed Zayner is back to full fitness and might start in Houston. If that is so, it is a huge relief in that it would put the woefully inadequate Marc Burch back on the bench where he belongs and should help tighten up a suddenly porous DC defense. Possibly Olsen has drank the cool-aid and will sit rookie Chris Korb instead, but Korb has been a bright spot and certainly has a heck of a lot more upside than Burch.

Also, Andy Najar seems to have put his personal problems aside and gotten back to focusing on soccer as his play in the Open Cup can attest. Both against Philly and NE he was very bright in the attack and pretty much his old feisty self contesting balls in midfield. And, it seems news of DP Branko Boskovic’s broken leg was a bit premature. All NE managed was a bone bruise apparently. No doubt Nicol will fine Koger for his lackadaisical tackle there. Still, while Pub Crawl (he hits every bar!) may not start, word is the Montenegrin Magician should be available for some serious minutes.

So, all that in mind, I would imagine Olsen goes with his absolute best in Houston, expecting to mix in reserves for the home matches coming up against a Zakuani-less Seattle and a Ferreira-less FCD next week.

I would expect Charlie Davies and Josh Wolff to start at forward; Chris Pontius, Dax McCarty, Clyde Simms, and Andy Najar to start across the midfield left to right, with Boskovic coming off the bench first if the game is close. In defense, it has to be Zayner, Perry Kitchen, Dejan Jakovic, and Chris Korb. If it isn’t, then it better be because Jakovic is sat so that Ethan White can block a few more shots off the goal line. Certainly Bill Hamid will be in goal, so former Houston keeper Pat Onstad, who will be honored by the Dynamo after the game, won’t be playing against his old team unless Hamid comes up lame, soccer gods forbid.

Houston is on a five game unbeaten streak and has started the same lineup the past three games, including coming off a tie at Chicago last week, so it will be a shock if Kinnear changes anything even though they did sign 28 year old Spanish midfielder Koke this week and he is expected to be available. So that means Cam Weaver and Wil Bruin at forward; Brad Davis, Geoff Cameron, Lovel Palmer, and Danny Cruz in midfield going left to right. In defense, it will be Hunter Freeman, former DC defender Bobby Boswell, Andrew Hainault, and converted midfielder Corey Ashe across the backline going right to left, with Onstad understudy Tally Hall (HO!) in goal.

Now looking at the matchups, DC does have some positives. Bruin and Weaver are not particularly frightening except on Halloween, so Jakovic and Kitchen can certainly blank them, especially if they avoid the horrendous mistakes we’ve been seeing lately and the midfield starves the Houston target forwards of the ball. Now, Houston talisman Brian Ching will come off the bench second half no doubt, and he’s a handful for any defense in the league, but hopefully, the game is decided before that point.

Also, Cruz is a lively attacker, but Zayner should have no problems with him, heck even Burch might manage to contain him. Plus, McCarty and Simms should be fine against Cameron and Palmer. The only really bad matchups are Brad Davis against the rookie Korb, but Najar has been a tenacious defender in the past and could help Korb tremendously. Then, on the other side Freeman is a threat on overlaps and Pontius is not exactly the best wing defender in the world. Once Kinnear puts in Colin Clark for Cruz, DC could be in serious trouble down that side, but again hopefully it’s too little too late.

Managing fouls will be crucial in this match however. Brad Davis is as good as it gets in MLS, and most of Houston’s offense is generated by his free kicks and corner kicks. 5 of their 7 goals this year are off dead ball situations and Davis is second in the league with 4 assists so far. If DC is sloppy and fouls too much around their own area, Houston will score buckets simple as that, unless DC’s defense suddenly discovers how to mark the back post, that is. But, given DC’s dead ball defense to date, that seems a bit unlikely, so they better avoid fouls in bad spots and had better kick the ball to the sidelines or they will be in a world of trouble.

As for going forward, Houston’s soft spot is right down the middle of the defense. Boswell and Hainault could easily be exposed by the speed and cleverness of Davies and Wolff. Houston had a hideous defense last year, and most of them are still starting this year, so they can be rocked even though they have tightened up a bit this year so far. Also, Najar (or even Fred, who is the only current United player to have ever actually scored in Houston) going at Ashe is a clear winner for DC.

So, DC can certainly score. Granted the only time they ever did down there was trying to come back from 3 goals down in a game they would eventually lose 4-3, but hey, it can happen. Houston is only 1-2 at home this year losing to Philly on opening day and has beaten expansion Vancouver and a Shalrie Joseph-less NE a couple weeks ago. This is also DC’s last shot at winning in Robertson Stadium as Houston is in the process of building a new stadium for next year, so they need to pull something out of their hat as I don’t believe there’s ever been any venue in MLS history where DC has never won at least one game.

Obviously, the past trends do not favor DC, nor does the current form favor DC either, clearly. But, this is a crucial match for a possibly fragile young DC United team. A point would be huge, and a win would be a hallelujah moment, even a hard fought loss could be swallowed, but if United gets blasted by a couple or more goals with the spectre of last year’s futility still very fresh in their minds, and have to come home to face a Seattle squad that has never lost in RFK, followed up quickly by MLS Cup finalists FCD in a little over a week, and all of a sudden DC could be in a death spiral heading into the summer.

No predictions. Fingers crossed DC finds a way to get at least a point.

Daniel Woolard

DC Hosts Revamped Revs in Open Cup

DC United takes on the New England Revolution in the second stage of the MLS qualifiers for the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup tomorrow night at the Soccerplex in Boyds, Maryland, United’s 17th straight home match in the oldest Cup tournament in the country.

The Open Cup, especially the play-in matches have long been a place for reserves and sometime starters to show their stuff, and with DC coming off a bad loss to NY and facing a short week having to travel to Houston for their next MLS match Friday night, it seems almost certain United will go with a mixed bag of players in this match like they did against Philly a couple weeks ago.

But, considering Nowak trotted out his entire starting lineup, and New England now has a couple of shiny new players to integrate into their tactics, Nicol might just play his big guns to make a run at the Dewar Trophy they last won in 2007, and if the play of Benny Feilhaber and Rajko Lekic this past weekend against KC is any indication, that could be trouble if Nicol goes that route.

Of course predicting Open Cup lineups is a crap shoot, but DC coach Ben Olsen seems pretty likely to go with a very similar lineup to the one that felled Philly. I’d expect Charlie Davies, Chris Pontius, Fred, Bill Hamid, and quite possibly Dax McCarty, Clyde Simms, Dejan Jakovic, and just maybe Marc Burch and Perry Kitchen will get the night off.

So, that leaves rookie Blake Brettschneider and Josh Wolff (or Joseph Ngwenya or maybe Santino Quaranta if Wolff is rested too, but I don’t think so) starting at forward. I think Santino plays the left side of midfield while Branko Boskovic gets the start in central midfield with Kurt Morsink, and Andy Najar on the right. It could be McCarty will play centrally as he only played 45 minutes against NY which would push Boskovic to the left. Frankly, I would do this (and play iron man Simms, too) as it gives you a chance to assess whether this formation has any future. Boskovic is playing so well lately, Olsen simply has to figure out a combination that gets him on the field other than mop up duty and reserve league starts.

Defense will be interesting. Against Philly, Olsen used Daniel Wollard on the left, Rodrigo Bresesco, Ethan White, and Brandon Barklage on the right and that lineup played very well together once Breseco got hurt and Jakovic replaced him. Perhaps Breseco gets another chance, and that would be prudent to see if he redeems himself, but I wonder if Olsen won’t want to give Kitchen more time to integrate back into the team and see how the rookie tandem with White works out. I wonder if Burch will be sat too. He was horrendous against NY, and he might get another start to get some confidence back after that thrashing he took. If so, then I think Korb gets the start too to see how the three rookies play together and if that will be viable in MLS play, if not, then it’s Wollard and Barklage on the corners for sure. Pat Onstad in goal has already been all but announced.

As for the Revs, Nicol is a tough one to figure out. He has rarely taken this tournament seriously, and indeed the last time DC faced NE, Nicol gifted United a trip to the final by playing one lone starter, in a semi-final where the Revs were the defending Cup champions no less. Of course DC took advantage and then edged Charleston for the Dewar Trophy in 2008. Thanks Steve!

New England also has a road trip to LA to take on Chivas looming this weekend too, so Nicol seems likely to be a bit cautious. If I had to guess, he won’t start his big guns, but they will come along and play if it’s close late. I suspect he plays Zach Shilawski and Kenny Mansally (or maybe Kheli Dube, but he seems to have dropped out of the Revs plans lately after signing a relatively big deal this past off season). Perhaps there will be an Ilija Stolica sighting, but I suspect that big stiff is buried deep in Nicol’s doghouse, so that seems pretty unlikely.

In midfield, I think Nicol gives Former French International, Ousmane Dabo a shot at his first MLS minutes after recently returning to fitness. Likely he will play centrally along with whatever bruiser of the week Nicol chooses to loose on United, Pat Phelan or Stephen McCarthy (or maybe even Shalrie Joseph gets his old job back after playing forward this past weekend). Then the Zak Boggs should play the left and Sainey Nyassi on the right. Maybe Tierney plays the left midfield, but I think it way more likely Nicol rests his creaky left back Didier Domi, and plays Tierney as the left back.

In NE’s defense, Tierney on the left as mentioned, then Ryan Cochrane and Darrius Barnes in the center, and probably Kevin Alston at right back. Unless maybe one of his starting central defenders gets the nod to start, most likely Franco Coria as it won’t be long before he gets some mandatory MLS rest with the suspensions he has looming in his future, then Barnes will play the right. Seems likely Bobby Shuttleworth plays in the nets, which means a big sigh of relief as United’s forwards can leave their cranial protectors at home for this one.

Looking at those matchups, DC has about as many positives as they have negatives. Brettschneider and Wolff (or Ngwenya) are about even with Papa Gino Cochrane and Long Throw Barnes. Boskovic and Morsink should have an edge over Dabo and Phelan (or McCarthy), but not if Joseph plays. Najar and Barklage on DC’s right should have an edge over the Energizer Bunny Boggs and under-rated utility man Tierney, but Tino and Woolard (or Burch) are even at best against Nyassi and Alston or Long Throw Barnes.

Defensively is pretty dicey too. Mansally tore up DC last year and Shilawski threw one into the net against DC a few weeks ago, so they could easily give Ole Breseco and White troubles, but Kitchen playing would swing this DC’s way. Obviously, if Nyassi and Boggs pin back Najar and Quaranta respectively, then DC is in for a world of trouble.

It will get even worse if the game is tied and Nicol sends in the troops, Feilhaber and Lekic. Then again, Olsen has some troops he can use too, and NE needed a second half comeback to overcome a dog tired Sporting KC team playing their fifth straight away match last week. So, even with their new talent on the field, they aren’t invincible by any means.

Should be interesting. Should United win, they are scheduled to play Sporting KC with the final MLS slot in the Open Cup proper on the line. It will be DC’s first away match in this tournament since losing to the Harrisburg City-Islanders in 2007. I say scheduled because until United actually takes the field somewhere other than RFK or the Soccerplex in this tournament, I won’t believe it. I don’t put it past Payne in the slightest to find some way to get this match switched to friendly confines.