Two weeks ago, DC rolled into Columbus looking to get themselves back on track in the East, but failed miserably losing 1-0 in a game where the Crew were the ones to come out of the match with renewed momentum. However since then, DC has notched a 1-1 tie over visiting Paris St. German despite giving up an early goal to one of the world’s best strikers and will be looking to reverse the results from their last league match.
DC United is entering a crucial stretch for their season, an early surge put the team solidly near the top of the table and well into the playoff picture, but poor play and long stretches of time without any games has derailed that early enthusiasm. Now United enters a stretch of weekly games and really needs to get themselves back to playing consistently well on the field as opposed to fairly consistently bad as the playoffs could easily slip away if the team is not careful.
As is my mantra, I for one think some consistency would be the natural result of Coach Ben Olsen actually employing a consistent lineup and having a solid rotation of guys playing a single role coming off the bench. Encouragingly, Olsen has made similar comments of late as well and does have an almost complete roster available with just Robbie Russell (foot) and Andy Najar (Olympics) out, so I expect United to settle on their starting XI for the playoff push starting with this match against the Crew.
Evidence piled up to date has made it pretty plain that DC United plays its best soccer with its most talented players on the field and that they hoof it up field and hope when they play with their talent riding the pine or wasted in midfield.
Offensively, DeRo needs to be playing as a second forward. In midfield he has to work too hard, gives the ball away too cheaply and dangerously, and it takes his usually deadly finishing too far away from the opponent’s goal. Chris Pontius has clearly earned the other starting forward spot with his dynamic play and his elegant confidence in front of the net. Salihi deserves to only come off the bench as long as DeRo refuses to pass to him, and as long Santos continues his rapid reversion to form as his effectiveness has dropped off the table recently and his play has become too erratic making him another second half option at best.
In midfield, Pontius is actually the best option for the left midfield position, but until Salihi is allowed to integrate into the team or Santos rides his roller coaster back toward the top, Pontius needs and deserves to play forward. Second best on the left is Najar, but until he returns, rookie Nick DeLeon is showing sparks of the extremely promising play that had him an early rookie of the year candidate. On the right, Danny Cruz is not nearly the offensive threat he should be, but he’s consistent and reliable. Maybe DC’s newly signed Brazilian, Raphael Augusto, forces Cruz, Najar, or DeLeon off the field in the coming months, but until then, those guys stay at the top of the heap.
Which leaves the center of the park where Perry Kitchen has been playing far above his years and simply has no challengers for his starting spot. In front of him in the playmaking role should be Branko Boskovic as the evidence is clear that DC is a markedly better passing team, and is far more deadly off set pieces when he is on the field. Granted he’s not the hardest worker out there, and never seems to go seek out the ball enough, but his contributions offensively are clearly needed and he rarely has unforced errors that put the team in trouble. Far more often than not, he retains the possession needed to give DC’s beleaguered defense the break they deserve.
In the defense, I think the jury has weighed in with its consternation about how it is possible Emiliano Dudar simply cannot make the starting XI. All the guy does is display elegance on the ball in retaining possession and starting plays, he rarely gets beat individually, rarely makes mistakes, organizes others around him very well, is extremely unlikely to ever get beat in the air, etc. How Brandon “Hoof it and Hope” McDonald stays ahead of him on the depth chart is mind boggling, especially as his defensive mistakes have been chilling and his excessive use of force maddening. So, I’m making a stand right here that Dudar should be given the starting slot as his to lose for the next month.
Just as obviously, Dejan Jakovic needs to be Dudar’s central defense partner, which Olsen has been loathe to do, perhaps because neither is all that physical, but MLS has advanced beyond the need for a rock and a hard head in central defense. United could ascend to much higher plane if this change works and there is evidence that it should.
On the outsides, obviously Robbie Russell is out, but I would argue Chris Korb would be a better option even if Russell was healthy. Russell has been far from the calming veteran presence United was hoping for when they traded for him and his mistakes and ball watching have been shocking for a player of his pedigree and familiarity with the league. No doubt, Korb has had his share of gaffs too, but he is younger and might as well get his experience now as he’s clearly no worse than Russell.
Daniel Woolard on the other side is the only other starter outside Kitchen that simply has no one even close to challenging for his slot. And just to complete the team, Hamid still deserves to start, but after Willis’ heroics this year including massive saves late to keep PSG from sneaking out of RFK with a win, make him a very pleasant alternative should Hamid falter.
As for the Crew, they haven’t gotten much healthier since we last played them when their injury report looked like casualty list from Antietam, but they did manage a surprising win in Kansas City last week with essentially the same starting lineup that beat DC the week before. Of course, tomorrow the Crew will be without Cole Grossman who lost his mind in the waning minutes of the KC win and got tossed, and thankfully won’t have their newly signed designated player, Argentine forward Federico Higuain either as he awaits paperwork.
So, in all likelihood, Crew coach Robert Warzycha will go with Costa Rican sniper Jairo Arrieta the hero against SKC and Justin Meram at forward. Maybe Warzycha lets Emilio Renteria or Olman Vargas out of the doghouse, but he has never been one to free undesirables from his gulag once he incarcerates them.
The Crew midfield almost certainly will be Eddie Gaven, Dilly Duka, and Chris Birchall, so the only question is who replaces the suspended Grossman and I think it extremely likely Tony Tchani gets the nod. The defense in front of Andy Gruenebaum in goal should be Sebastion Miranda, Carlos Mendes, Chad Marshall, and Josh Williams although Williams took a knock on the ankle and Julius James appears ready to return from injury.
So, looking at the matchups, DC continues to have the advantage as they did when they went paws up in Columbus two weeks ago. If they play to their potential, they beat the Crew easily as their central defense does not have the skill or athleticism to stop DeRo and Pontius. If Chelsea couldn’t stop the pair, journeyman Mendes and a fading Marshall are not going to either. True, on the outsides DC will struggle as Williams athleticism is easily enough to frustrate Cruz, and Carmen Miranda might be their best defender of late, so unless DeLeon finds that earlier gear he had, he will struggle too.
But Boskovic and Kitchen should be smart enough to pass their way around Birchall and Tchani easily enough, plus Boskovic’ set plays keep united dangerous even and able to grind out points even when the team is not firing on all cylinders.
Defensively, Arrieta is wily and opportunistic, but Dudar or Jackovic should be able to handle him easily enough if he is left on an island as he has been with the energetic, but somewhat ineffective Meram up there as his partner. Eddie Gaven against Woolard is a good matchup of solid veteran pros which hopefully cancels each other out although Gaven might have an edge if we’re being honest. Dilly Duka also had quite a bit of success last time out against DC, especially when Williams overlapped on that side as well, so Cruz simply has to help out Korb in keeping Duka quiet, but that is the only real concern DC should face defensively assuming they play like they actually play like they normally do at home.
As for the trends, they favor DC a bit as well. Historically, the Crew have struggled in RFK with DC holding the edge 16-6-3 lifetime outscoring the Crew 52-34. Although ominously, the Crew have won 3 of their last 5 visits to RFK handily defeating DC during the past four lean years. However, this season, DC is 6-1-2 at home not having lost since the opener, while the Crew is an unsightly 3-4-3 away from Columbus, although with a quality win in Seattle and are coming off that shocking win in KC. As for current form, DC has clearly been reeling with 3 losses in their past 4 games, but all those losses were on the road obviously, and the win was against the lowly Impact. While the Crew is on a two game win streak courtesy of DC and KC, two of the top teams in the East.
So, here you have it. DC has the slight edge as it seems likely they settle on a starting XI and hopefully begin a nice run of points with 7 games in the next 5 weeks to build some consistency. How well they establish themselves some consistency and develop some attacking and defending chemistry likely decides their playoff future. After four years on the outside looking in, the playoffs really are a must for a team steeped in good news lately on the business side.
Now for some good news on the field.