DC United is coming off a spectacular win over league leading Dallas last week to push their unbeaten streak to five games and will be looking to push that to six in Portland if they can take advantage of the defending Western Conference champion’s early season funk.
Last year Portland was nearly unbeatable and cruised to the Western Conference title with a mere five losses on the season and only one loss at home where the Timbers Army reigns supreme, but has struggled to find that form so far this season still being winless eight games into the season. However, after a slow start of their own to the season, DC United has suddenly found the chemistry DC coach Ben Olsen was hoping for when seven new starters were added this past off season. From no goals or shutouts in the first two games of the season, DC has averaged two goals a game over the past five games and has two shutout wins while only allowing one team to score more than one goal, The Fire in a 2-2 draw five weeks ago.
The only concern is the continued frustration on display from their designated player Eddie Johnson who has yet to find the back of the net and came off last week with a tweaked hamstring. It is not a stretch to think the snakebit EJ is a bit frustrated in his lack of production and chagrined to see his running mate Fabian Espindola involved in almost every scoring play as well as his replacement, Conor Doyle forcing the action on the game winning goal against Dallas. Under normal circumstances only a little patience is needed to see EJ start to bag goals at his usual rate in MLS, but with time running out to impress Jurgen Klinnsmann ahead of the World Cup, EJ has to be thinking he needs to get on the score sheet and soon.
Portland on the other hand has been about as unlucky this year as it was lucky last year. No doubt the schedule has done them no favors with their first four on the road in Dallas, Houston, Colorado and RSL all tough places to get points this year. However, it is the points they’ve dropped at home that have really hurt. They haven’t lost at home, but they haven’t won either. Four draws to start off their home campaign and aside from the wild 4-4 draw with Seattle, Portland had winnable games against Philly, Chicago, and ChivasUSA that they let slip away. All the bounces that went their way at home last year have been going against them, but also last year’s wondercoach Caleb Porter could do no wrong, but his tinkering with the lineup this year has not done anyone any good, especially his erratic forwards corps that simply has not been able to find consistent chemistry or even a consistent group of starters.
Last week it was Gaston Fernandez who got his turn at point forward and he scored the tying goal in Houston. With Kalif Al Hassan taking some of the pressure off Darlington Nagby and Diego Valeri, Portland’s attack is starting to show signs of coming together, but then again the draw in Houston was Portland’s fifth of the season without a win. Fernandez was also the starter earlier in the season and scored Portland’s first two goals of the season, yet he was dropped in favor of Maximiliano Urruti until this past week, so who knows what Porter will do this time around.
Portland’s strengths are clearly it’s tough and dynamic midfield and generally stout defense. Playmaker Diego Valeri was newcomer of the year last year with a double double in goals and assists, while Diego Chara and Wil Johnson make life miserable for opponents as well as tossing in some crucial goals from time to time. Defensively, Portland has been prone to give up chances and soft goals, but they keep the game close regardless of mistakes or how good the attacking team is. Argentine central defender Norberto Paparatto has had some shaky moments adjusting to MLS, but Gambians Pa Modou Kah and Mamadou Danso have been solid backing him up. Fixtures at outside back have been Michael Harrington and Jack Jewsbury in front of former keeper of the year in Donovan Ricketts.
It would seem likely Ben Olsen goes with the same starting XI as last week, the only question being whether or not EJ or possibly Sean Franklin, who both came off with slight injuries last week, are able to go. But if either or both are unavailable, DC has solid replacements in Doyle or even Luis Silva for EJ and Chris Korb for Franklin. I think it likely both EJ and Franklin start however. Franklin didn’t look like his knock was serious, and EJ will want to be on the field every chance he can get before the World Cup camp opens in a few weeks. That would make DC’s lineup EJ and Espindola at forward, Nick Deleon, Davy Arnaud, Chris Rolfe and Perry Kitchen in midfield, and Franklin, Bobby Boswell, Jeff Parke, and Christian Fernandez along the backline in front of Bill Hamid in pretty much a straight up 4-4-2.
So looking at the matchups, DC has some areas of concern, but also some good areas of the field they can attack. Portland plays a hybrid 4-3-3 for the most part and tends to play somewhat narrow which plays into DC’s strengths down the middle defensively. I do not see Urruti or Fernandez being too much of a difficulty for Parke and Boswell and given the way Kitchen and Arnaud have largely eliminated guys like Gonzalo Higuain and Mauro Diaz recently, Valeri might well find DC’s a defense a tough row to hoe as well. The only real concern for me is Darlington Nagby who does present a matchup problem wherever he lines up as our outside backs do have a tendency to lose quick shifty guys like Nagby. Offensively, DC likes to attack wide and should be able to stretch Portland out of shape if DC avoids the temptation to play too defensively on the road in front of a tough crowd. DeLeon and Rolfe are playing as good as we’ve ever seen from them right now and should be able to unbalance Portland’s defenses. EJ’s speed and strength are a problem for anybody and with Espindola as hot as anyone in the league right now, should DC come in playing like it was a home game and dictate the rhythm, Portland’s funk might well continue despite their desperation to please the perhaps the best stadium environment in MLS.
DC won their first ever meeting in Portland in 2011 and haven’t beaten them since, so not too many positives from history in their favor, but it’s a new day dawning for United fans as years of misery seem to be coming to a close. DC has become the solid team that was expected of them after overhauling their starting corps from last year. United’s defense has tightened up their communication and occasional sloppy play at times to be in the running for pitching a shut out in any given game. Arnaud and Rolfe have solidified the relatively weak midfield DC started the season with, allowing Deleon to become a lot more dynamic without feeling like he is carrying the sole burden for generating chances. Espindola looks to be on pace for his usual 10 plus goals a season and has been involved with 7 of DC’s 10 goals this year. Once EJ gets off the schneid and starts bagging his usual 12 plus goals a season, DC is going to be a tough team for anyone to beat.
They are not an elite team yet, but they are solidly in the upper middle class and might be moving on up if the rest of the league continues to overlook their dramatic progress after the last few years of misery. DC is the league doormat no longer. Overlook them at your peril.