DC United has little at stake in this last match, but SKC will win the Eastern Conference with a win and will certainly want make sure they secure home field advantage. However, some United players will literally be playing for their jobs, and all will hopefully be playing for pride in front of their long suffering fans in their final match at RFK for the season.
Well, perhaps now that the pressure is off United might actually play with some passion and determination for a full 90 minutes, because they certainly haven’t played that way in the 5 match winless streak that saw them squander all their games in hand and drop them from the playoffs for the fourth straight year.
Granted that final 10 minutes against Portland was about the most thrilling soccer seen in RFK in years, and DC arguably deserved the win, but the fact remains that valiant tie only served to break the crushing four game losing streak that preceded it. Young and inconsistent with ineffective veterans outside of savior Dwayne De Rosario, DC literally crumbled down the stretch under the strain. But perhaps with very little at stake in this final match before the long winter, and their pride and possibly some careers on the line, maybe now they will show a full 90 minutes of effort.
But it won’t be easy as SKC has been as hot as anyone in the league since June when they resurrected their season after moving into Livestrong Park. Since getting their shiny new stadium, SKC has gone from the bottom of the East to a chance at their first conference championship since winning the West in 2004 (and losing to DC in the MLS Cup that year, too).
With a dynamic multifaceted attack that has only been outscored this season only by Seattle and New York (and tied by DC, each with 49 goals in 33 games), as well as the 5th best defense in the league, SKC has become a formidable team after starting the season an abysmal 1-6-3 in their first 10 games and now sits atop the East having rung up a record of 11-3-9 since.
There’s no chance SKC coach Peter Vermes will rest anyone, so I fully expect him to trot out his best players in that wicked 4-3-3 hybrid they play. Which means a forward line spearheaded by Teal Bunbury supported by Kei Kamara (each leading the team with 9 goals) and Grahma Zusi (5 goals 7 assists), and with Mexican Omar Bravo pulling the strings in midfield, and he only has 9 goals himself, as well as rookie of the year candidate, C.J. Sapong with 5 goals coming off the bench, SKC has a lot of weapons to go against a sketchy DC defense.
As for the rest of the team, Vermes has used Roger Espinoza and Julio Cesar pretty consistently lately behind Bravo in midfield, and his backline of Seth Sinovic, Matt Besler, Aurelien Collin, and Chance Myers going from left to right in front of keeper Jimmy Nielsen hasn’t changed in weeks now that Myers has arguably finally begun to live up to his high draft status.
Ben Olsen on the other hand does have some decisions to make. MLS leading scorer, Dwayne De Rosario has been playing with some bad bruises lately and really has nothing to prove in this last game, nor is it smart to risk him simply for a better shot at the golden boot which he might win anyway, leading SJ’s WOndolowski by a goal with one game to go. So I doubt he starts, but should come on for a curtain call for the fans unless he simply can’t play at all.
Also, Olsen all but admitted Charlie Davies is not very effective against defenses that play a deep back line that he can’t get behind very easily, well that describes SKC’s defense pretty accurately, and considering rookie Blake Brettschneider definitely made a case for himself and perhaps deserves some true recognition for the spark he provided coming on for Davies against Portland, choosing which of those players to start can’t be an easy decision.
In addition, Wolff was an embarrassment in that Portland match, pretty much turning over every ball he touched and contributing very little to United’s dismal offense for the first 85 minutes of the game. Now, he’s had a decent season and doesn’t deserve to be dumped on, but he also has nothing to prove either, and if he is simply out of gas at the end of probably his last season being considered a serious candidate to start matches, then he should sit and Olsen should give someone else a chance.
So, given all that I suspect Olsen will reward Brettchneider with the start at forward, and I personally would love to see him give Santino Quaranta a chance at forward, as DC’s prodigal son has been squeezed out a bit of late. But has been a very good soldier about it and seems to be getting back his long lost aggression at going to goal and making things happen in the attack. Tino’s faults lately have been pretty poor defense tracking back, but he’s always been fine pressuring forward on defenders, and as long as his offensive mistakes are from being aggressive, you can live with that.
As for the rest of the lineup, I think Olsen plays Austin Da Luz (or Santino, if Wolff starts) on the left, Stephen King, Perry Kitchen, and Andy Najar in midfield. On defense, unless Dejan Jakovic is leaping tall buildings and flat out begging to start, then his hamstring should not be risked except for a curtain call as well. In that case, it will be Daniel Woolard, Brandon McDonald, Ethan White, and Chris Korb in front of Bill Hamid. Which would challenge for one of the youngest lineups in MLS history, but hey, these young guys are the guys who’ve earned it lately.
Unfortunately, no matter whom DC starts, even DeRo in his superman cape, United simply does not match up well against SKC and their amorphous attacking system and rock solid defense. I’d like to see if Santino could put Besler and Collin on their heels, and I think Brettschneider has as good a chance as anyone to bang successfully with those guys too. However, even Davies and Wolff don’t seem to be better options, especially considering the way they’ve been playing recently.
Now, possibly Najar gets the better of Sinovic, but Espinoza is great at helping out and it might be a little too much for Andy to be able to carry the attack on his own, and let’s face it, if he beats Sinovic to the end line, only Brettchneider has shown any skill at getting n the end of a cross lately, but then again Collin and Besler eat up crosses. On the other side, Myers is much more the weak link and either Da Luz or Santino could find success against him, but his speed in recovery is very good, and neither DC option defends the wing well enough to negate Myers’ jaunts up the right side.
Then of course without DeRo, United’s central midfield is toothless in the attack, but King and Kitchen together will defend Bravo and company much better than if DeRo was on the field. So, all in all, DC’s attack is likely to struggle without some luck or SKC playing below their ability, but that’s really to be expected given the situation.
Defensively, things are even worse if possible. Even with Kitchen and King hopefully negating Bravo and keeping Espinoza from jumping into the attack; Bunbury, Zusi, and Kamara are a handful for good defenses and DC isn’t one of those. Woolard has been very consistent, but is a physical mismatch against Kamara, Zusi is much better than Rodney Wallace and if Korb lays off him, he has an absolutely wicked shot from distance, but if he bodies him, Zusi is tricky enough to get the ball or himself around United’s rookie right back. Bunbury is a specimen too, fast and tricky enough to get away from McDonald, and while White could stay with him, unless White has suddenly learned to concentrate 100% of the time, Bunbury (or later, Sapong)will punish DC.
Plus, SKC switches all over the field to create mismatches and DC has trouble marking the players they are expected to defend and patrolling their own area effectively. Once SKC starts to exploit the spaces United leaves fairly regularly, or even worse forces United to pass off players to each other which will brutally expose DC’s notoriously poor communication skills, they could score at will. No, unless DC plays above themselves and SKC lays an egg or DC flat out gets lucky, then book this as a loss.
Interestingly, there is some reason to hope when looking at the trends. SKC is a mere 3-7-6 on the road being outscored 24-20, including only 1 win, and being shut out twice in their last 5 away matches. They are also 0-4-3 against the rest of the East on the road losing in Chicago, New England as well as NY, while being outscored 9 to 5 overall, and were shut out four times, too: in NY, Philly, Toronto, and Columbus.
Kansas City also hasn’t won or tied in RFK since 2007 and that 4-2 loss early in 2007 is the only blemish in 5 straight wins over KC since 2006. Incredibly, DC has beaten KC in RFK all three of the last dismal playoff-less seasons, even a miracle 1-0 win in last year’s abysmal season. KC is also a pitiful 4-12-4 here in their history being outscored 33-23 in the process. DC holds the all-time edge against them 18-15-9 as well, although KC has outscored DC 66 to 60.
Granted United isn’t exactly light’s out at home as any season ticket holder can attest, but they are 4-4-8 and have outscored opponents in RFK 32-27. Even better, DC has 2 wins, only 1 loss, and 9 points in their last 6 at home (2-1-3). Unfortunately, DC is also 1-3-3 against the East in RFK with the lone win being against the Crew in the first game of the season, and they have been outscored 15 to 11 in those East matches to boot.
Another thing to consider is SKC has the inside track to win the East with a tie, or even a loss if other results go their way. SKC sits at the top with 48 points tied with Philly, whose season is over and KC has the tiebreaker edge over Philly (in total goals scored, being tied on everything above that)as long as they don’t lose by more than a goal. If that happened, only Columbus could then snatch the East away from SKC, but the Crew would have to beat the Fire in Chicago. Certainly possible, but it does leave the door open slightly for SKC to not be totally committed to a win mentally.
So there you have it. On paper, DC shouldn’t win, but historically they’ve been able to pull it off even at the worst of times. The pressure is off, it’s the last game in front of the fans, and maybe the last match for DC ever for some guys, and SKC might quite understandably be looking past DC especially as they could still win the East anyway. Granted all that is a stretch, but the soccer gods do have a sense of humor and hopefully some compassion.
It would be nice to be left with a good performance for the long bitter winter nights ahead.