Crucial Match with Fire Looms for DC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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