In a rematch of last year’s first round playoff exit, DC United faces the New York Red Bulls in Harrison NJ no doubt with a small measure of revenge on their minds.
DC was the Eastern Conference champions last year when New York drummed them out of the MLS Cup playoffs far too easily. So while a win tomorrow won’t make up for that completely, spoiling NY’s home opener should be a prime motivator for DC to regain that chip on their shoulder they had all last season that propelled them to the greatest turnaround in league history from last in 2013 to first in 2014.
And make no mistake, regaining that edge is crucial to United’s success. On paper, DC has nowhere near the talent level of the majority of teams in MLS, and so far this year is even further decimated by injuries and a suspension, so their main source of success will come more often than not from their cohesion as a group and the mentality to prove detractors wrong.
That edge to their game which earned them the best record in the East last year has been glaringly absent so far this season. From the paws up performance in Costa Rica and subsequent exit from the CONCACAF Champions League to the pretty uninspiring win over the emotionally drained Montreal in DC’s home opener two weeks ago.
New York should be a good opponent to find that fire again. Not only a long time traditional rival but a team in transition as well having fired manager Mike Petke despite his success; and losing their most talented player with the retirement of Thierry Henry, and their best defender by far with the trade of Jamison Olave back to Real Salt Lake.
League leading scorer, NY forward Bradley Wright-Phillips, returns and will surely be a threat, but he’s a player that relies on other to set him up and Henry was their main threat to do that. Now newcomers, Felipe from Montreal and Sacha Kljestan in a revamped midfield have to figure out how to get BWP the ball enough times to make up for his horrid strike rate. He led the league in goals last year tying the MLS single season record, but he also had to have set the record for botched opportunities that will never be equalled. If he’d have scored all those wasted sitters, he’d have set a scoring record no one would touch in a 100 years.
As for DC, they have to contend with the loss of most of their top three scorers from last year. Leading scorer Fabian Espindola is serving the second game of a six game suspension for pushing a referee at the end of that playoff loss to Red Bull in last year’s final game. There is also the continued absence of their other designated player, Eddie Johnson due to apparently some sort of a heart ailment that has him sidelined indefinitely as well as Luis Silva struggling to return from a hamstring injury.
Picking up the slack has been newly acquired Costa Rican forward Jairo Arrieta, who was about the only player to play well against Alajuelense and scorer of the winning goal against Montreal, and Chris Pontius who should have scored against Montreal if the soccer gods had been paying attention.
Looking at the lineups, with no news that Silva or the newly acquired Finnish defender Markus Halsti are ready to return, it seems likely DC will trot out the exact same group that squeaked by Montreal. Bill Hamid in goal, defenders Chris Korb, Steve Birnbaum, Bobby Boswell, and Sean Franklin going left to right in front of Hamid. The midfield will almost certainly be Chris Rolfe, Davy Arnaud, Perry Kitchen, and Nick DeLeon supporting a forward line of Arrieta and Pontius.
For NY, it will be former DC draftee, Luis Robles in the nets with likely the newly signed left back, Kemar Lawrence from Jamaica in place of the injured Roy Miller. NY’s French connection central defense of Ronald Zubar and Damian Perrinelle might be broken up by Zubar carrying a knock picked up in their draw with KC in week one. Should Zubar not start, it will be homegrown Matt Miazga taking his place with Chris Duvall at right back. NY’s five man midfield will be former Carolina Railhawk, Mike Grella, Kljestan, Dax McCarty, Felipe, and speedster Lloyd Sam on the right supporting lone forward BWP.
So, matchupwise, DC could be in some trouble in midfield as NY floods forward in a similar way that Alajuelense used to expose serious flaws in United’s defensive structures unless they are 100% sharp mentally. Centrally, DC should be fine as Boswell and Birnbaum will negate BWP and Felipe when he ranges forward, as well as Kitchen and Arnaud handling Kljestan and McCarty well enough.
The key will be who wins the wings. If Rolfe and Korb outplay Sam and Duvall, as well as DeLeon and Franklin keep Sam and Grella honest, then DC will have the edge. However, if Rolfe or more likely Deleon get caught upfield too much, then DC’s defense will get stretched and out of shape to the point where mistakes happen far too often, and they’ll just have to rely on BWP missing his chances.
In particular that matchup of Korb against Sam will be crucial. Korb has played well defensively, but Sam is a game changer who has to be kept quiet or DC will be in real trouble. Sam scored the tying goal in KC last week as well as the winning goal when NY beat DC in the last regular season matchup in RBA. If Korb repeatedly needs help from Rolfe, DC’s offense will suffer. If he gets beat pulling Birnbaum or a central midfielder out of position too often, DC’s defense will likely struggle even worse.
In terms of current form, Red Bull gave Sporting KC all they could handle in Kansas City a couple weeks ago. If they’d have finished better, they’d have beat KC. However, they didn’t, even with a man advantage so their offense is a bit suspect right now. As is their defense which gave KC plenty of chances including a missed PK. DC isn’t much better though. They missed chances to put away a listless Montreal team that barely put up a fight. Both defenses got lucky as much as showed good form as well.
DC recent record in Red Bull Arena isn’t too good lately either. DC hasn’t won in RBA since 2012, and 1-4-1 there since DeLeon knocked them out of the playoffs in the snow game. United is ahead all time though at 33-23-9 over their most hated rival in the East. In addition, DC is 13-13-5 all time in New Jersey having outscored NY 50 to 41 in their house.
Too close to call this one. New York has the home opener edge and the more talented although getting the new chemistry right hasn’t quite showed up yet. On the other hand, DC is the more consistent team in terms of chemistry having made few changes since last year, but the results aren’t there yet. As with all DC-New York games, there will be drama as well.