Now granted on paper, this is a mismatch and LA should crush DC like a bug given their respective league positions, but MLS games are never played on paper and LA might well be ripe for nicking a point if DC can add to their stunning road win in Toronto, and if LA overlooks DC at all. After all, LA is clearly struggling of late despite a solid win over the Crew last time out, and DC is coming together and quite simply has nothing to lose. LA should win this match given their respective play to date, so pressure is squarely on them to produce.
Interestingly, key injuries could be crucial in this match as LA’s Edson Buddle, leading scorer in the league this year with 14, has a bit of a balky hamstring, so he could be benched in favor of Kirovski or he could play at less than 100%. That’s win-win for DC either way. LA’s left back Dunivant has had back spasm issues as well, and Najar could be a nightmare for a guy not at his absolute best. Berhalter too has been hobbled of late with a neck problem and arguably their Brazilian stiff, Leonardo has been more than a bit of a weak link in trying to live up to Berhalter’s arm out of his forehead form.
Of course, United can raise and trump anyone’s injury report now that Pontius, Hamid, and quite possibly Simms can be added to their unbelievably long list of injuries. But, then again, the starting lineup DC is bringing to LA could easily be the best on the roster, so while depth might be a problem for LA, having solid starters for DC is probably not.
Looking at the probable lineups, DC is certainly not as great an underdog to LA as their respective records would indicate. For certain Donovan and Buddle are the most feared players in the entire league this year, but Ricketts, and indeed Gonzalez has proved much less than invulnerable.
At forward, DC will trot out Allsopp and Hernandez, both of whom are scrappy and physical enough to maybe have an edge over Gonzalez and the woefully ineffective Leonardo, assuming Berhalter’s neck is still causing him trouble, and even then, it’s a push.
Then in midfield for DC, Najar Quaranta, and Boskovic have a decent edge going forward if Simms can play through his groin problems. Even if not, King quite possibly can pick up the slack if LA is a bit off, as they clearly have been over the past month outside of their convincing win over the Crew last weekend. Then DC’s defense is set with Graye, Jakovic, James, and Zayner backed up by McTavish as being their only healthy defenders.
However, it depends on Olsen’s guts in taking on the league leading Galaxy. If he goes conservative, DC probably has to hope for a 0-0 draw at best. But if he really goes for it like he has nothing to lose, which he doesn’t, he could create some serious havoc with his lineup choices in midfield. Playing his default starters, Quaranta, Boskovic, and Najar going left to right, backed up by Simms is one thing. But, Olsen could seriously cause problems for a relatively fragile LA side by calling their bluff and daring them to win the middle of the field by playing Boskovic wide left in his natural position, Quaranta in the middle and Najar on the left backed by King who has no conscious whatsoever in attacking forward every chance he gets.
Looking at the matchups then, DC has some enticing advantages. As mentioned, Hernandez and Allsopp have the work rate and toughness to cause problems for anyone, but if Najar and Grayae can outwork Dunivant and the flightly Cazumba, which isn’t out of the realm, and Boskovic and Zayner can do enough damage on the left to pin back Donovan and Franklin, which isn’t out of the realm either, then DC has got the points halfway into their bag. Granted, Beckham changes that Alchemy, but he’s just back to playing and barely fit, if he beats you, so be it.
Now, inserting the all out attacking, light defending Quaranta and King in central midfield is a risk of course in it’s own right, but Juninho and Birchall have been maybe a bit less than convincing themselves. If either of them strokes a game winner, well there you go, but if not, DC has the edge.
Even as the game wears on, DC’s advantage increases. The longer it goes 0-0, the better for DC because if the 60th minute rolls around with DC still in the game, then the newly signed Varela and the delightfully unconscious attacker, Junior will seriously wreak havoc in LA’s stodgy defense. LA has feasted on scoring early and shutting people down, but when they get stymied for long stretches, they lose more than they win.
Even in the defense going against arguably the best attack in the league, DC doesn’t look too bad. Buddle is of course the danger man as league leading scorer, but Jakovic has shown he rises to such occasions and James is much less likely to injure his own players with his reckless play, much less give up hideous free-kicks as he has been wont to do, so DC’s central defense has a decent shot at staying tight. Then as mentioned, if DC’s attack can keep Donovan and Cazumba pinned back for most of the game, then DC has the edge there (if I was the Bruce, I’d play Stephens on the left to tighten that up, but hopefully he doesn’t do that).
Even the intangibles seem to favor DC if you close one eye. LA is 6-2-2 at home, but only 0-2-1 at home recently until their win last weekend against the Crew. In fact, they are 0-2-1 overall in their last 3 until that somewhat deceptive win over the Crew. DC on the other hand has won their last road game and incredibly is not the worst road team in the league this year as they have won two away from RFK, while TFC has only one win (at SJ) at 1-8-1 and isn’t likely to get any others.
DC also has a pretty decent record at the Tool Box. Since HDC opened in 2003, DC has only lost twice there, and one of those was an overtime loss in 2003 that now would be a tie in today’s MLS. So, aside from a 5-2 blowout in 2008, DC is essentially undefeated in the Home Depot Center over the last 7 years, although they don’t have that many wins either. Still, 1-2-4 overall against LA since 2002 is nothing to sneeze at.
Bottom line, DC has to contain Buddle early and frustrate Donovan. If they do that, and soccer gods willing, get an early goal themselves, they have a good shot at all the points. Which would mean they still have, incredibly, not only a shot at the MLS playoffs, but even more unlikely a shot at not being the worst team in DC history as well.
In the grand scheme of things, this game is completely meaningless, but for the few that hold out hopes they are not witnessing the worst in DC United history this game is crucial. A win, and DC still has hope to beat out their previous low point in 2000 for the worst United team in history.
There you go. That’s all we can hope for.