It’s a top of the table clash as the two top teams in the East battle in Foxboro tomorrow night with DC looking to shake off a bad loss to Philly and keep themselves ahead of the Revolution in the standings.
Ironically, the two longest unbeaten streaks in MLS this season were both snapped this past week as NE was throttled in KC 4-2 to see their 9 game run end while DC’s horrific stumble in Philly cost them what had been an 8 game run and now the two teams face each other with the Eastern Conference lead at stake. Both teams had rested starters in the midst of a dense run of games and paid the price.
DC coach Ben Olsen also has a couple key injuries to deal with as Fabian Espindola remains out with a balky quad, but this week saw his strike partner, Luis Silva rejoin him on the sidelines with a hamstring problem. Last year, Silva and Espindola combined for 22 goals, but this year neither has played many significant minutes nor have the two played together at all. Their loss has put a serious dent in United’s scoring punch and joining them on the trainer’s table will be winger Nick DeLeon hobbled by a twitchy hamstring of his own. All of which severely limits Olsen’s attacking options with another tough stretch of 5 games in 15 days looming on the horizon starting with the match in Foxboro.
NE on the other hand gets all their rested starters back and while they do have midfielder Andy Dorman suspended and lost defender Darrius Barnes with a torn knee ligament, arguably neither were starters and the loss of Dorman helps in that it puts US international Jermaine Jones back in midfield where he belongs instead of spelling defenders on the backline where he has been dismal at best. Barnes is a bit of a loss, but they have Kevin Alston and London Woodberry as very capable right backs.
So, needless to say Olsen’s attacking options are pretty straight forward until he gets his strikers back. I think it almost certain he plays Chris Pontius and Jairo Arrieta at forward, but I hope he reconsiders as Pontius has not played forward that well and has very little chemistry with Arrieta. Chris Rolfe on the other hand does have chemistry with the crafty Costa Rican so I’d rather see him play up top and drop Pontius back to midfield. Who joins Rolfe or Pontius in midfield will be interesting though. Davy Arnaud is the starter and should play next to Perry Kitchen, but Finnish midfielder Markus Halsti was all that and a bag of chips playing centrally in Philly. I think Olsen goes with Arnaud, especially with the glut of games coming up, but it won’t be long until Halsti is a starter. Replacing DeLeon is also a bit of a conundrum. Olsen has gone with Michael Farfan out there, but he is not a wide player and his talents wasted while his deficiencies are exposed. If it were me, I’d go with Miguel Aguilar and see what you’ve got in him. United has a history of young players seizing a starting job around this time of the season. The flashes he’s shown clearly indicate he’s a guy that could join the likes of guys like Kitchen, Pontius, Andy Najar, Josh Gros, heck Olsen himself back in the day. All guys who stole starting jobs and ran with them.
Defensively, Olsen probably needs to start thinking of getting Bobby Boswell and Sean Franklin a rest, but I don’t think both will miss time in the same game. Boswell should start this one and not even go to Portland. Franklin might sit this one out which is no problem as Chris Korb could easily play there leaving Taylor Kemp on the left. Kofi Opare has been playing very well in central defense, but Steve Birnbaum has to be close to starting or maybe even Halsti plays there to get him acclimated for spelling Boswell in the near future. All good options to have in front of Bill Hamid in goal. DC has kept a tight ship so far this year, but NE is arguably the best attacking team DC has faced to date. The Revs couldn’t score early, but are making up for it now and for DC to have a chance, Hamid will have to don his cape this weekend for sure.
NE on the other hand is likely to go with Juan Aguedelo at forward with Lee Nguyen playing underneath him. Kelyn Rowe will play one wing and likely Teal Bunbury the other. Maybe Diego Fagundez gets another shot, but Bunbury has been more effective. In midfield, it should be Jones and Scott Caldwell holding down the Fort so to speak. In defense, Chris Tierney should be back on the left, Jose Goncalves in the center with Andrew Farrell back beside him and Alston or Woodberry on the right in front of Bobby Shuttleworth. It was nice for Brad Knoghton to get a look, but he looked terrible in KC and Shuttleworth is getting a reputation for some wicked saves and is a big reason NE is where they are now after not being able to score the first month of the season.
So, looking at the tactics and matchups it looks pretty grim for DC. Its true NE is built and plays pretty similar to Columbus and DC handled the Crew easily enough. However, NE’s attackers are better more like the weapons NY has and DC hasn’t handled the Red Bulls well this year at all. Defensively, Rowe and Bunbury both are slashers with vision so they can beat you with a dagger pass if you lay back or get behind you if you play them tight. Nguyen hasn’t shown the MVP level play of last year, but he is warming up for sure and starting to click with Agedelo who leads NE in scoring. All of which is trouble for DC in particular Rowe and Bunbury going at Kemp and Korb. DC will have to play to force NE wide by clogging up the middle which I think they will do well enough, unfortunately that only gets them a 0-0 raw unless they score and that doesn’t seem likely at all.
Offensively, with Arnaud and the outside backs likely pinned back, it will be all on Arrieta and Rolfe or Pontius to create out of nothing against two very good center backs in Goncalves and Farrell. Nor will anyone do well against Tierney who is maybe the most under-rated defender in the league. I do like Aguilar’s chances to surprise him though, but Farfan has got no shot of outplaying Tierney. Pontius or Rolfe is the lone matchup that favors DC in that Alston is definitely the weak link in their defense, unfortunately he is also faster than any attacker we have so even if he gets beat, he’ll outrun any DC player to get back in time to make a play no doubt. And DC has to get some joy attacking wide because if Tierney and Alston spend more time in DC’s half then their own, United has none chance in this game.
Very likely this plays out as a 0-0 slog for a while, but NE is too good to not score at least one and that will likely be all it takes as I can’t see any way DC scores unless the soccer gods get involved on the side of all that is good pure in this world. Olsen’s road philosophy has opened up to be a lot more threatening and not as much of a gritty street fight as we’ve seen in the past, but for this particular game, parking the bus might be the best thing. Hamid and hope for a lucky bounce might just do the trick. Olsen has been piling up the points with smoke and mirrors for going on two years now, maybe his team finds a way in this one too. Even a draw would speak volumes to DC’s stalwart defense and veteran leadership. A win and DC puts a hammerlock on the East lead for a bit with games in hand, even a draw extends their lead a bit until New York plays, but a loss would drop DC out of first.
The intangibles are no help either by the way. NE is on a 3 game winless streak, but have been light’s out at home and hasn’t lost in Foxboro since last July. This year, they are 3-0-3 so far and have given up only 3 goals, never more than 1 to any opponent, while DC is 2-2 on the road and coming off a loss. As mentioned both teams got a long unbeaten streak ended in their last match, but DC’s loss to a woeful Philly side is much worse than the Revs getting jobbed in KC. DC does hold the all-time edge over NE at 29-26-9 since 1996, but DC is a pitiful 10-17-5 in NE and in fact only have one win there since a 3-0 win in 2007. Olsen did scrape out a 2-1 win in 2012 but that only makes DC 1-5-2 there since the Supporter’s Shield winning years of long ago. DC is a paltry 3-8-4 in NE this century and one of those wins was an absolute miracle. The Massachusetts Miracle in fact. Look it up, one of the most thrilling endings in MLS history.