DC United clings to the top of MLS despite recent slump and hopes to keep the suddenly respectable Philadelphia Union at bay.
An early season surge with a glut of home games and good results against the fairly weak East has vaulted DC United to the top of the league despite crucial injuries and suspensions, but DC appears to be coming back to earth while dregs of the East seem to be dragging themselves back into contention.
OK, it’s been almost a month since Conor Doyle’s wonderstrike stunned Chicago and delivered DC a road win that cemented their place at the top of the East 10 points clear of anyone, but since then DC has failed to score in Toronto and Seattle and only scraped one own goal in a three game winless streak with two losses on the trot. Philly on the other hand has gone from one win in their first eleven games to five wins in their last ten games plus ousting DC from the US Open Cup with only ten men a couple weeks ago.
With their attack withering on the vine and leading scorer Fabian Espindola failing to stay on the field enough to keep DC’s anemic attack afloat, United dealt away a key scorer from last season in Luis Silva the talented but oft injured striker, for the aging sniper and perennial scorer Costa Rican Alvaro Saborio from RSL and he should be available for DC for this match. The acquisition of Saborio reunites the strike partnership of Real Salt Lake that saw them dominate the West for 4 years, but both players are well removed from those times to say the least.
After a dreadful start to the season, Philly has also made a key trade this week by moving right back Sheanon Williams, who had lost his spot to Raymond Gaddis, to Houston essentially for cash in order to upgrade their roster, but that trade has yet to play out. DC might well catch another break as Philly will head into this match woefully thin on defense with the loss of a dynamic right back in Williams for the roster and salary cap room to bring in a difference maker such as Swiss winger Tranquillo Barnetta who has yet to sign with the team and won’t be available this weekend even if he does sign after this article is posted.
MLS has a new rule involving acquiring new players by paying down salaries on existing players which in effect allows a fourth DP player for teams willing to splash out money such as LA, NYFC, etc. However, it will is having a knock on effect for lower budget teams being able to get premium players for bargains from teams who have their eye on bigger fish. No chance RSL cuts loose Saborio or Philly jettisons Williams unless they have their eye on a much bigger prize with the new “targeted allocation money” which is the newest MLS Calvinball mechanism for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer. But that is a rant for another day.
OK, time for nuts and bolts. DC is reeling lately with no rhyme or reason to their offense and while they have a ridiculously stiff defense, you simply can’t put up zeros every weekend in today’s MLS. Espindola has been making United respectable for going on two years and Olsen has been doing it with smoke and mirrors this year while Fabi has been suspended/hurt/susupended again. However, Fabi is back and he will be able to take a different role now that a true “number 9” striker has been acquired in Saborio. Fabi himself has stated since the trade that he relishes the chance to play more on the fringes of the offense now that Sabo is here to occupy the central defenders, something Olsen required of Espindola this past couple years and something he is not really suited to do albeit he did it effectively.
So, the question is how will this trade change DC United’s anemic attack and yet not disrupt its lights out defense, and how will this play out against Philly?
First of all, DC plays a defense first counter-attacking style which seeks to frustrate an opponent and pounce on any mistakes looking for goals on counters or set plays. Saborio obviously helps on set plays, but he may well help in forcing mistakes too. He’s no where near as nimble as younger guys like Silva or Rolfe or Arrieta as a forward, but then again, he will play higher up forcing those guys to play quicker and allowing guys like Espindola and Rolfe to snag mistakes and/or have a guy to finish their plays. Espindola and Rolfe both are excellent whipping dangerous balls into the box, but unfortunately unless they are the ones on the end of those balls, they are often wasted. But Saborio changes all that. He is a finisher. Granted a couple years past his prime, but he is a dagger in the box the likes of which DC hasn’t seen since Luciano Emilio and that’s not a far-fetched comparison to a former MLS MVP. Saborio has the same skill set. If he gets the chances, he will convert. The question is will he get the chances. DC does not exactly light up the league in chances.
So let’s break it down. DC will most likely start Saborio and Espindola as forwards, and I fully expect Rolfe, Davy Arnaud, Perry Kitchen, and Nick DeLeon to play midfield going from left to right. Then Taylor Kemp, Steve Birnbaum, Bobby Boswell, and Chris Korb to play defense from left to right in front of Andrew Dykstra in for the ailing Bill Hamid. Philly almost certainly goes with CJ Sapong as the lone forward in front of Andrew Wenger, Cristian Maidana, Vincent Noguiera, Brian Carroll, and Sebastian LeToux in midfield as that is their unquestioned strongest attacking combination, although Venzuelan banger Fernando Aristoguieta and speedy Cameroon midfielder Eric Ayuk could sneak in there as well. In defense, Carroll sweeps up in front of Fabinho, Maurice Edu, Ethan White, and Gaddis, but White and Edu both picked up knocks in their Open Cup win over NY in midweek. Both could play, but Steven Vitoria is creeping back to fitness and the big Portugese Canadian is a force. No doubt former NASL keeper Brian Sylvestre starts in goal however despite fourteen high dollar keepers on Philly’s roster.
So, looking at the matchups and likely tactics, this looks like a bruiser of a game with likely a last man standing more so than a team running away with a win. DC will seek to cede possession but shut down Philly while looking to counter against their relatively weak defense. This will be a good test of what Saborio will bring to DC as he and Espindola could easily find joy against Edu and whoever in central defense assuming they get some type of service. And that is the question as Philly’s midfield looks too strong for DC to handle. Rolfe will hold his own of course against Gaddis, but is almost certainly going to need to help out Kemp contain LeToux or Ayuk so his help in the attack could be negated. DeLeon and Korb against Wenger and Fabinho is more promising, but those are the two most inconsistent and weakest attackers DC has. Perhaps Kitchen and Arnaud outplay Maidana, Noguiera and Carroll, but I doubt it.
DC has a strong defense though which will frustrate Philly. I don’t see Sapong or Aristoguieta unsettling Boswell and Birnbaum that much. LeToux and/or Ayuk’s speed could panic Korb or Kemp depending on what side he plays but unless he scores himself which he did against DC earlier this year, he still has to set up a guy to beat Boswell which hasn’t happened all that often this year.
Bottom line is that Philly’s slightly better offense has to beat DC’s much better defense more often than DC’s slightly weaker offense has to beat a philly defense that has been shown to cave under pressure much more often. Philly has barely scored more than DC at 26 goals to 24, but DC is the second best defense in the league, 20 goals against in 22 games, while Philly is the absolute worst defense in the league with 34 goals against in 20 games.
Good that the current season metrics favor DC as the intangibles and current trends certainly don’t. DC lost to 10 man Philly in the Open Cup a couple weeks ago as well as lost to them in Philly on a last minute goal two months ago to start their current swoon of six losses in twelve games. That win also helped Philly from only one win on the season to their current surge of five wins in their last ten games. DC did eek out a sketchy win in RFK a couple weeks later, but the less said about that the better. DC has owned Philly at home 3-1-3 in RFK against their closest rival to the north, but it hasn’t been quite convincing of late with the PK controversy last time Philly visited and the 1-0 win in 2014 and the 2-3 loss in 2013.
Bottom line, DC should be able to shutout Philly. The only question is will DC score to win it. This would be a good time for Saborio to step up and show why it is they got him.