Obviously this season has not gone as expected for DC United and they are currently hovering over the slippery slope of despair at 0-2, but there’s a very simple recipe for notching that first win and it’s to simply get Eddie Johnson the ball and let him beat out the Fire.
He is the biggest of DC’s off season acquisitions and was recently rewarded with the big contract he has wanted since coming back to MLS. So DC has shown him the money, now Eddie Johnson has to show us the goals. Unfortunately, he has been largely invisible in United’s first two matches. That has to change if DC is going to turn their ship around and start finding ways to win games.
Two shots on goal in two games by the whole team is about as ugly a stat as it gets, but it is not all EJ’s fault as some other telling stats show that the attackers around him have averaged less than three completed passes apiece to him in the attacking third of the field. That’s appalling. If they won’t get him the ball in dangerous spots, it’s tough for him to impact the game and he was brought in to be the game changer. He needs to be regularly getting on the end of crosses, balls over the top, as well as set pieces for DC to be successful.
It is obvious DC wants to attack the wide spaces having picked up attacking fullbacks in Christian Fernandez and Sean Franklin, and the Fire are weakest defensively at outside backs. So it should be a steady diet of wide players whipping balls into the box where EJ only has to use his quickness and physicality to beat the Fire’s stout central defenders a few times to give DC a good chance at getting their first couple goals of the season. Even if the Fire concentrate their efforts to eliminate EJ from the game, he should draw so much attention that trailing DC attackers could capitalize.
Defensively, DC simply has to cut out the crucial and extremely avoidable mistakes that have dogged them so far this season. All the goals they have given up were simple missed assignments such as Nick DeLeon gifting the Crew their first goal of the year, or flat out mind-boggling bad plays like Bobby Boswell sprinting back to keep Gilberto onside and allow for Jermaine Defoe to eventually win the game for TFC last week.
The Fire attack has players that all like to interchange positions and attack fluidly, but they always eventually end up being most dangerous right down the center of the field, so if DC can clog up the middle of the field, the Fire do not seem likely to score more than one goal. It should be a simple game plan defensively. Plant Boswell, Jeff Parke and Perry Kitchen keeping them tight in the center of the field and allowing them use their brains to keep the Fire from finding holes created by their constant switching and movement. Do that and the Fire should not score more than one goal.
Offensively, the game plan is even easier. Pound the ball to EJ in the box as often as possible. Granted, Bakary Soumare and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado looked very good in shutting down Henry and Tim Cahill last week, but EJ is a lot more physical than Henry and much quicker than Tim Cahill. If he gets on the end of plays in the box five or more times, he is almost certainly going to tie the game if not win it outright.
Almost certainly DC and the Fire will play the same starting lineups from last week, so looking at the matchups, DC does have the necessary edge in key areas, especially out wide, to accomplish their goals if they play well.
That most especially means DeLeon, Luis Silva, and Davy Arnaud (or Kyle Porter or Lewis Neal) if Arnaud is still out from the head butt from Michael Bradley) MUST play a lot better than they have been playing. United’s midfield has been a complete mess, but the Fire’s lineup favors DC’s midfield to come out of their slump with their weakest defenders Matt Watson and Gregg Cochrane (or Gonzalo Segares if he’s back form injury) on the outsides. In addition, Harrison Shipp and Benjy Joya are dynamic young attackers, but they aren’t much yet in terms of defensive help. Assuming Franklin and Fernandez get upfield as well, the Fire could be in real trouble on the wings. Silva is unlikely to find much joy inside going against Larentowicz straight up, but if the Ginger Assassin is pulled wide to help scythe down DC wingers, Silva might find tons of room to operate for the first time this year.
Defensively, Boswell and Parke are very familiar with Mike Magee and Quincy Amarikwa. Magee won an MVP trophy by finding those little spaces and holes in a defense to get off his deadly accurate shots, but he does not typically beat a defender with speed which are Boswell and Parke’s biggest weakness. In fact their strength is in positioning and intelligence to close down those little spaces Magee wants to exploit. Amarikwa is more the speed and power player, but he is also well known and can be negated with superior positioning as well.
Kitchen and Franklin have the intelligence and experience to be effective against the crafty old Alex and shifty young Shipp respectively, but another DC player that simply has to play a lot better and closer to his obvious abilities is left back Christian Fernandez. The Spanish back has shown flashes of brilliance in attack and some solid play overall defensively, but he has also been prone to bad turnovers and some horrendous marking decisions and communication problems. If he has another bad game, the very dynamic Joya will crucify DC. Arnaud (or even better Lewis Neal) had better help out on Joya. Hopefully, Hamid has another blinder and stones the chances Joya is likely to create, or failing that at least keep the damage to a single goal.
Bottom line is that DC has not even come close to their capabilities so far this season, but the Fire present them with some glorious matchups that could get them out their funk if they are ready to cut out the stupid mistakes and play to their strengths.
Historically, matches in RFK against the Fire, especially those in the rain, have been some barnburners and this match is shaping up that way. Looking at the weather tomorrow, two infamous early season matches against immediately sprung to mind. The glorious win in a deluge in 2000 when the Fire of Nowak, Stoitchkov, and Razov were beaten by two stoppage time goals from Ben Olsen and Jaime Moreno, and Boswell scoring a header late to beat the Fire 4-3 in 2006 when he was on his way to earning defender of the year.
DC is 11-8-4 against the Fire in RFK, and while most of that damage has been done by the Fire in recent dismal seasons as the Fire have won three of the last four times they visited RFK, United also has a history of getting their first points of the year in RFK against the Fire, having done that an incredible four times over the years including that dramatic win in 2000. DC started the season 0-2 that year as well, but perhaps that analogy should stop right there.
And don’t look for any coaching statistics to bouy your spirits! Olsen is a lackluster 1-4-3 against the Fire, while former DC assistant coach Frank Yallop is a whopping 10-5-5 against United.
A loss would be a lot more devastating than a simple 0-3 start to the season. It’s still too early to push the panic button, but at the very least DC has to show they can play smarter and that their off season acquisitions really are going to turn their fortunes around. The next three matches are in RFK with NE in RFK in two weeks is another winnable match. DC simply has to get some points in the next two matches or the perhaps find themselves sinking back into the futility of the past few years that they hoped have left behind with the drastic overhaul of their roster.
Eddie Johnson is the key. If DC figures out how to get him the ball regularly, they become a dangerous team, if not, it could be another long dreary season.