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.