DC host suddenly relevant Real Salt Lake

Some home cooking against Philly snapped DC back on track while a listless RSL suddenly looks a lot more relevant after a couple of solid wins at home over Houston and Kansas City.

To say this summer has been a bit under the weather for DC is perhaps an understatement considering their torrid start to the season. Recently reeling from last minute losses and baffling mistakes United has had to rely on the cushion they built up earlier to retain their handle on the East until a massive morale boosting comeback win over the Philadelphia Union after a shocking opening four minutes. RSL has had a much different journey so far, a desultory 2-2-5 start to the season has morphed into a 3-5-3 record since then until a couple big wins at home has suddenly shot them into respectability again. DC has relied on their tried and true 4-4-2 to help keep the ship above the waves while dealing with crucial injuries and suspensions, while RSL has revamped their vaunted 4-4-2 diamond into a much less reliable 4-3-3 which has only recently begun to gel.

Interesting to note that perhaps the biggest loser in RSL’s transition to three forwards has been Costa Rican target man Alvaro Saborio and deemed expendable he was shipped off to DC last week in return for the very talented but somewhat fragile Luis Silva. The two principles in this recent trade will face each other for the first time barely a week later. Well, they would if the oft injured Silva was healthy but he’s not. Adding another twist to this matchup is DC MVP Fabian Espindola being reunited with Saborio who was his strike partner in RSL for 3 years. To be sure, DC is a much different team than those RSL teams from 2010-2012, but both players should be well motivated for revenge on the team that deemed them expendable for guys like Joao Plata, Sebastian Jaime and Devin Sandoval.

Both teams are a bit banged up with RSL’s defense being hideously thin while DC is surviving on their fairly impressive depth. DC is without Eddie Johnson (essentially retired at this point), Chris Pontius (calf), Sean Franklin (achilles tendinitis), and Bill Hamid (hand and knee surgeries) while RSL’s offense has recently gotten healthier with the return of Joao Plata, but their defense still lacks former defender of the year, Jamison Olave (Quad), Chris Schuler (knee), dynamic left back Demar Philiips (groin), and perennially unrecognized goalkeeper of the year Nick Rimando (knee bruise). However, both teams are well rested and should be able to start the lineups that have seen them surge back into form recently.

For DC, I fully expect coach Ben Olsen to start the exact same XI from the Philly win, which means a repeat lineup for only the second time this season by the way. So Saborio and Espindola as forwards supported by Chris Rolfe, Davy Arnaud, Perry Kitchen, and Nick DeLeon in midfield. The backline will consist of Taylor Kemp, Steve Birnbaum, Bobby Boswell, and Chris Korb in front of the brewer Andrew Dykstra in goal. Now perhaps Kofi Opare gets the nod over the suddenly suspect Birnbaum or maybe there is a rare Markus Halsti sighting, but I doubt it. Olsen is pretty reliable with sticking with his guns particularly when they chalk up points.

RSL is a bit more tricky. No doubt RSL coach Jeff Cassar sticks to his 4-3-3 as he appears ready to sink or swim on that formation and the jury is still out on whether anyone tosses him a job preserver on that one yet. However, he has some options along all three lines as he really hasn’t hit on a great mix just yet. For sure, Devin Sandoval will be the center forward and Joao Plata starts as a wing forward, but whether it’s Sebastian Jaime or Olmes Garcia as the other wing is a coin flip. Same with midfield. No doubt Javier Morales and Kyle Beckerman are two of the three, but whether it’s Luis Gil, Luke Mulholland or John Stertzer is a bit up in the air. Gil is the more talented, but Mulholland or Stertzer provides MUCH better balance to that trio. Even as thin as they are on defense, Cassar has another devil if you do choice to make there. Tony Beltran and Abdoulie Mansally are the sure starters on the outside and Aaron Maund will play a central role, but his partner in central defense could either be Salvadoran Elias Vasquez or impressive rookie Justen Glad. Vasquez has the much bigger pedigree and obvious skills, but Glad has surprisingly been the more effective player. There’s no doubt Jeff Attinella plays in goal though as he is the unquestioned backup to St. Nick.

So, looking at the matchups and tactics this game will be interesting as DC’s 4-4-2 should be able to frustrate RSL’s 4-3-3 on paper alone. Indeed the 4-4-2 is designed to create numbers advantages up the middle to both thwart the “creative” player advantage as well as unbalance the opposing defense with wide play. So, if Barcelona’s 4-3-3 plays Chelsea’s 4-4-2, it’s a matter of attrition and key plays and much to the dismay of the world the stifling 4-4-2 seems to win out more often than not. However, DC does not have the difference makers Chelsea has and RSL certainly doesn’t have the attacking talent of Barca. DC tends to cede possession and rely on counter attacks, while RSL seeks to dictate the pace of the game and pressure high to keep the ball in the other team’s end looking for ball movement to create holes to exploit.

Looking at it that way, the matchups become a lot more crucial. DC needs to keep the pressure going wide down both sides to force RSL apart both to pry them open and to keep them from being close enough for their quick passing to shred DC’s somewhat slow and extremely reactive defense. If DC can keep Korb and Kemp upfield forcing Mulholland or Gil, and even Plata and Jaime or Garcia back, RSL will be reduced to hoping for the odd bit of brilliance from Morales or a DC mistake to even score anything at all. However, if RSL can keep Mulholland and Gil or Stertzer high up the field pinning Arnaud and Kitchen back as well as DC’s wide players, United will be in trouble. That said, Espindola and Rolfe are a couple of the most vicious counter attackers the league has ever seen and if Saborio occupies RSL’s weak central defenders enough to knock down balls to DC attackers coming from deep, or simply keeps them on the back foot allowing Espy and Rolfe the room to dissect them like frogs, DC could cede possession and still win 4-0. That’s if the game is played straight up, if Cassar gets tricky and adjusts back to their old diamond with Beckerman sitting in front of the back line, maybe they fare better, but no matter how you slice it DC has the tactical and matchup advantages in this one. (knock wood!)

On top of that, DC is undefeated against RSL in RFK. That’s right RSL has never won in DC and there’s been some cracking wins over the years too. Gallardo’s wicked inch perfect volley and DeRo’s first half hat trick come to mind right away, both 4-1 wins. DC is 5-0-3 outscoring RSL 17 to 5 in RFK since they entered the league in 2007. (That’s only fair as DC hasn’t won in Salt Lake since Freddy scored the winner in 2007 by the way.) Obviously, DC has been light’s out at home lately with an 8-1-3 record so far this year. The only loss since last June was to Giovinco although it’s important to note that DC also hasn’t shut out anyone at home since the Crew in early May and has given up 2 goals 2 of their last 3 in RFK (the Philly win and the TFC loss) still, DC has outscored visitors by a healthy 21-12 goal margin. RSL on the other hand is a horrific 2-6-2 on the road being outscored 16-6 which is made even worse when you consider they went 1-0-2 to start their road campaign. They’ve been 1-6-0 since outscored 11-3 since their last road win in Chicago in early May.

So there you have it. DC has every advantage on paper and should prevail as long as the soccer gods keep their noses out of it. We’ll see. RSL is the far more desperate team and that sometimes skews the results. DC leads the East comfortably by 7 points and shouldn’t be too ruffled by RSL’s visit especially considering their road record. RSL on the other hand is in a right dogfight in the West simply to remain relevant now that they have come within sight of the playoffs. A win would see them above the playoff line depending on other results, but a desperately needed 3 points to be sure. Still, you gotta go with the magic of a Ben Olsen led team in RFK. Seems like it takes more to beat DC in their house these past couple years.

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