Ben Olsen. Photo: Martin Fernandez.

DC Needs a Spark in Salt Lake

Though Ben Olsen will tell you this current 5 matches in 13 days stretch that ends in Rio Tinto tomorrow night has gone “reasonably” well, truth is DC has stumbled to acquire a mere 5 points in the first 4 matches, so it will take at least a draw at RSL to even make this crucial stretch anything less than a disaster. Trouble is DC hasn’t even played well, much less won in RSL since 2005.

OK, no beating around the bush. This five game stretch was to allow DC to re-establish a rhythm and solidify their playoff position heading into the final games of the season and it has failed miserably at both with two underwhelming draws at home and a crushing loss on the road to Eastern conference opponents fully negating the rousing win they got over Chicago. So, unless they pull off some sort of miracle in RSL, a place that has absolutely haunted them in recent years, the 5 points from these particular 5 matches cannot be considered decent results or much help in their playoff hopes.

In the establishing rhythm department, that’s a tough sell despite some decent play at times during these recent matches. There was no consistency in lineup choices or style of play so saying DC has found their rhythm is clearly a stretch, nor was there any kind of consistency on the field in attaining those results.

The defense played pretty well against Philly despite giving up their goal on pretty much Philly’s only decent chance of the match, but the defense did not play well against Chicago, NY, or obviously Montreal where they lost 3-0. With a hard earned lead over the Fire, DC gave up a killer goal right before halftime another to cut the lead they had regained to make that match a lot closer than it should have been. Another comfortable lead, arguably against the run of play, in the NY match and again the defense fails to close out the match. Obviously in Montreal, the defense was under siege, but still was woefully unequal to the task.

Offensively, the team was dreadful in the Philly match, pretty darn good in the Fire match, hideous in Montreal, and decent in the NY match. Hardly the hallmark of consistency. Oh, but you say some players were not available for certain matches, surely that excuses the inconsistency. No, it does not. Every team in MLS goes through wacky stretches of matches and plans accordingly, the good teams with systems in place to weather these whirlwind stretches. Not so DC. But, the red cards? Surely that’s not DC’s fault? Again, both those cards were pretty well deserved.

Bottom line DC’s offense and defense has shown up together for about 100 minutes total of the past 4 games and that was mainly the last 60 min of the Philly match and the first 44 minutes of the Chicago match. Not a minute since then, and they’ve changed midfield tactics twice and both offensive and defensive personnel more than that. Hardly consistency for a team looking to show they are a playoff caliber team with their system in place.

As for solidifying their playoff position, that still hangs in the balance so no joy there either. Dropping four points to lowly Philly, and a NY side that hadn’t won on the road since May is obviously not good enough despite beating Chicago handily. The ugly loss of composure leading to a draw with Philly is just inexcusable. The fact they held an unlikely lead very late before a gruesome collapse and couldn’t hold off NY in that draw is not the type of performance playoff team’s display.

Bottom line, on one hand 4 of their 5 points came against teams above them in the standings which is decent albeit home matches where you really need all 6 points. But, on the other they dropped 5 points to teams below them in losing to Montreal and allowing Philly to tie them at home.

So now they need a huge performance in RSL to bail themselves out and that seems pretty darn unlikely given DC’s road form lately and their incredible streak of futility in Utah.

Reading my crystal ball, I believe Ben Olsen may just have decided on his forwards. I wish it was Chris Pontius and Dwayne De Rosario, but I think it will be DeRo and Lionard Pajoy again. I also think the bloom is off the rose with starting both Perry Kitchen and Marcelo Saragosa in central midfield, so I believe Branko Boskovic gets a rare start to see if he can spark the team from the get go instead of as a sub once the game is essentially over.

I can see it now. Good luck with that Branko! Here’s your last chance, make it a good one at altitude against one of the best midfield’s in MLS. Don’t screw it up or it’s the bench again for you! Now possibly, Olsen goes for Pontius and Pajoy as forwards and DeRo in midfield, but A, DeRo is wasted in midfield and B, it would mean playing Andy Najar in midfield to make up for the loss of Pontius there. We’ve seen where Olsen stands on that issue.

Almost certainly, it will be DeLeon on the other wing, although if the rookie is dragging in these last couple practices, it could be Lewis Neal instead. Almost certainly it will be Kitchen with the thankless job of containing former league MVPRSL playmaker Javier Morales to complete the midfield. Possibly, Olsen rests Kitchen for the only time when he has been available all year and sics Saragosa on Morales, but I’d be surprised if that happens.

I also think Olsen is going to live or die with Brandon McDonald anchoring the defense as Dudar seems to be back in the doghouse permanently unless there’s an injury or something drastic. So, I fully expect to see Chris Korb, Dejan Jakovic, BMac, and Najar going left to right as the defense in front of likely Bill Hamid. Former RSL defender Robbie Russell is listed as possible, so perhaps he would allow Najar to be used in midfield by going up against his old mates in his old stomping grounds, but I doubt he gets the start after such a long layoff if he plays at all.

And I say “likely” Bill Hamid btw, as United has had a habit of throwing backup keepers to the wolves in these virtually automatic loses in RSL, so it is quite possible we could see Joe Willis in this one. Let’s hope he has better luck than Jose Carvallo or Jay Nolly.

RSL coach Jason Kreis likely has a bit of juggling to do with his lineup as well. After dropping Fabian Espindola for the 0-0 draw in Philly, he may well be inserted back in as the rather clunky 4-5-1 they used in Philly was nowhere near as good as their normal clockwork effective 4-4-2. Kreis has also tried Morales as an off forward like DeRo, but that hasn’t worked well either so I think, unless Flip Espindola is cemented into the doghouse for his erratic emotions and more importantly impotent play being without a goal since June, the Predator seems likely to get another chance against a team he has tormented in the past.

So, I fully expect Kreis to trot out Saborio and Espindola at forward, Wil Johnson, Morales, Kyle Beckerman, and Ned Grabavoy across midfield from left to right. I would be shocked if anyone other than Tony Beltran, Kwame Watson-Siriboe, Nat Borchers, and Chris WIngert going right to left in front of Nick Rimando. With both Jamison Olave and Chris Schuler just coming back from injuries, I can’t see Kreis risking them in this game. It’s not like he’s facing a juggernaut given the way DC has been playing, so no sense risking big guns in a match he should comfortably expect to win with pea shooters.

So, looking at the matchups, DC does have some hope to score at least although St Nick has had a habit of shutting out his old team fairly regularly, but pretty much every other matchup goes the other way.

I think DeRo and Pajoy have a decent shot at getting some joy against Borchers and Watson-Siriboe. DeRo is quicker than Borchers and way smarter than KW-S. Pajoy has shown a good touch in laying off to DeRo and is big enough to draw Borchers most of the time, so they should connect for a goal unless DC is just playing horribly, which is certainly possible given their road form. But, actual playoff teams should not be paying horribly this late in the season. We’ll see how that turns out.

Pontius against Beltran is a reasonable expectation of success too, although I think Beltran is fairly under-rated around the league. He’s their Woolard, doesn’t seem to be athletic enough to succeed, yet he hardly ever gives up a bad goal. However, DeLeon against the rock solid Wingert isn’t too promising at all, nor do I think Boskovic will have much success in the center against Beckerman. Even worse, RSL is too disciplined to give up a ton of free kicks for Boskovic to capitalize on, and he would need a number of chances, since he has to be rusty given his limited game time lately.

But the wheels really come off the wagon defensively for DC. Saborio and Espindola will hector and harry McDonald and Jakovic into mistakes as well as be savvy enough to find the holes they regularly leave in the center of defense. Najar will be hard pressed to negate the Canadian Johnson and Korb will find Grabavoy a tough out as well.

But, the real trouble will come right down the center of the park as Morales and Beckerman are as deadly a combo in central midfield as anywhere in MLS outside Seattle. Kitchen will have his hands full and then some even if DeRo or Boskovic actually helps out which neither seems likely to do. And if those two draw back Pontius and DeLeon to help out defensively, DC won’t score at all. It’s possible seeing this matchup makes Olsen decide to play Saragosa in there to help out Kitchen, but he’ll get beat too, and Saragosa is the death knell of United’s attack especially against a team that has actual experienced organization in their defense.

Maybe Olsen pulls a Nichol and packs ‘em in hoping for the draw, but if DC goes under siege in this game, it could get ugly real quick. Plus, playoff teams don’t just react to what other teams are doing they go out and establish something that the other team has to react to. The longer Olsen refuses to be proactive and think long term, the less likely it is DC ill have a future and the long term will be the planning for next season after missing the playoffs for the fifth year running.

And DC could certainly surprise RSL by taking the game to them. RSL has not really been world beaters lately, even at home. RSL were 0-3 in August until the draw in Philly and have only scored 2 goals in the month. In Rio Tinto, they are 9-4-1 so far this year, but are coming off a loss to FCD at home and 4 losses at home is quite the chinque in the armor for a team used to being unbeaten a t home.

Now, that’s the good news, unfortunately the bad news is most of those painful times have come during the time they were stretched with CONCACAF Champions League travel and matches. They have had a welcome week off and should be raring to get healthy by ripping into somebody to get back on track for their playoff push themselves. That someone could be DC, who are an ugly 0-5 in their last 5 road matches and been outscored a crushing 13-3 in those matches. Plus, this is DC’s 5th game in 13 days, while RSL has had a whole week off for the first time in weeks and knows how to turn it up at crunch time when they are rested. So much for current trends.

As for past trends, despite a miraculous tie their last year due to the famous Charlie Davies Dive that gave DC a late PK for the 1-1 draw, that was the only point in RSL for DC since RSL’s first expansion season in 2005 when Freddy Adu got the winning goal for DC. And DC rarely even scores out there, much less comes close to winning, being outscored 14-4 in their last 6 matches out there, including 3-0 and 4-0 losses in two of the past four years.

So, on paper and given the trends, DC has a monumental task ahead of them in Rio Tinto. A win could absolutely be season altering, a loss could be equaling season altering in the opposite way. A tie would be respectable, but would really ratchet up the pressure on those home matches coming up against NE and Chivas after a week off to stew about the points that slipped away during this stretch.

Results the past few weeks have actually helped DC stay in contact and Chicago hosts Houston so one of them losing all the points will help DC as well. But the Crew and the Fire also have a game in hand on DC, with the Crew and Fire both having 5 home matches, and Houston 4 at home, left to DC’s 3 crucial matches left at RFK. So, even if these teams knock each other off on the road, they will all still finish higher than DC if they hold serve at home.

So, DC simply has to find road points somewhere. RSL would be a glorious place to start. Fingers crossed for a miracle.

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