East leading DC’s current three game winless streak began with an embarrassing loss in Philly to the lowly Union, and Philly’s current two game win streak began in that match as well. Both teams will have something to prove in RFK tomorrow night.
DC hold on the East has been steadily undermined by a horrid three game road streak that saw the Black and Red inexplicably lose in Philly, then barely scrape a draw against 9 man New England, and then simply gift Portland with a win despite a valiant effort by a makeshift lineup. The Union on the other hand was 1-7-3 and on their way to another disaster season until DC gifted them all the points with a pitiful effort in Philly. That win helped spur a subsequent win in New York and that has propelled the perennial cellar dwellers to the verge of a playoff position in the East. DC may well rue the gift they gave Philly a couple weeks ago.
At least Ben Olsen is likely to trot out his best XI as opposed to the mix and match travesties he has done lately that has certainly been part of the reason for DC’s swoon in the last couple weeks. Still out are forwards Fabian Espindola and Luis Silva, DC’s co- leading scorers last year, but Chris Rolfe and Chris Pontius, as well as midfielder Davy Arnaud should be back in the fold after not even making the trip to Portland. Rested defenders Sean Franklin and Bobby Boswell should be available as well as former starter Steve Birnbaum who played in Portland, but is having a tough time wresting his job back from Kofi Opare.
Meanwhile Philly’s defense is absolutely reeling with injuries, but have their gotten back the majority of their offensive weapons. Their big defensive signing, Steven Vitoria is still out with a hamstring problem, Conor Casey with a quad strain, and Raymond Gaddis with a rolled ankle. But Cristian Maidana, two assists in NY win, and Vincent Nogueira, a goal in NY win are back in form and Philly’s offense is starting to look good again. Plus, the shaky defense in front of the also comical goalkeeping situation in Philly has solidified with two straight shutouts of Eastern conference opponents by the newly signed Brian Sylvestre in the nets.
So, looking at the matchups, I see no reason why Olsen should not go full bore with his best available even though DC faces another three games in eight days, all of them are at home against the weaker teams in the East and he has some intriguing pieces to play with now. I fully expect Jairo Arrieta and Chris Rolfe to start at forward as they give the best shot at actually scoring a goal. You would think it wouldn’t have escaped Olsen’s notice that the 3 game winless streak coincided with 3 games in which DC seriously threatened the opponent’s goal exactly 3 times and scored only once. I also expect Pontius, Perry Kitchen, Arnaud, and Nick DeLeon to play midfield (if Deleon isn’t 100% back, then flip Pontius to the right and start Facundo Coria instead); and Taylor Kemp, Boswell and Franklin to play in defense in front of Bill Hamid. But whether it is Opare or Birnbaum partnering Boswell might be down to a coin flip. I’d go with Opare as he’s in top form and is perhaps the better physical matchup on CJ Sapong who will likely start for Casey, but if it is Fernando Aristeguieta, who was left off Venezuela’s Copa roster and is back with the Union starting, I’d go with Birnbaum who is more experienced overall and Aristeguieta is cagey as well as physical. I would take a hard look at not starting Kemp too, but more on that later.
Which brings us to Philly. It’s really tough luck for Union coach Jim Curtin that Casey went down as it was really his re-emergence that kind of got Philly back to basics and being a consistent threat on offense. Sapong is similar true, but nowhere near as strong, cagey or effective. Aristoguieta is all of those things and will be a problem for DC, but it is unclear whether he will play having just recently made his way back to the States. Still, it remains their wildly attacking oriented midfield that is their strength. They’ll play a form of 4-5-1 with Sapong as the forward and Maidana and Nogueira underneath to support and Andrew Wenger and Sebatian LeToux on the wings. Former DC defensive midfielder Brian Carroll has been a rock too of late and filled in for suspended Maurice Edu in the New York win. Edu is the starter though and unless Curtin wants to play him in defense, Carroll might be back on the bench. In the defense, Sheanon Williams and Fabinho will almost certainly be on the outsides, but if Edu isn’t one of the central spots, it might be former DC defender Ethan White partnered with Richie Marquez the central pairing that shutout NY and White had a hand in DC’s shutout.
So, looking at the matchups and style of play, DC has some advantages, but only if DC’s midfield plays right up to its maximum, too many turnovers or loose defending and Philly will roll over DC mark my words. Philly will pound the ball into Sapong (or Ariteguieta) and look to knock it back to their surging midfield attackers Noguiera and Maidana; or they will seek to get DC unbalanced by getting LeToux and Wenger behind the outside backs. DC has faced many a 4-5-1, but most have been with two holding type players, Philly flips that and plays with one in more of a 4-1-4-1 which will put a lot of pressure on Arnaud and Kitchen to protect the back four and limit Franklin and Kemp getting forward as much. Which is why I’d start Korb instead. LeToux could torch Kemp and if Kemp can’t get forward enough to do what he’s best at, then play Korb to give you a better shot at keeping the lanky Frenchman from causing a lot of problems and accept the loss of offense as the price of doing business.
Offensively, DeLeon and Pontius (or Coria) as well as either Rolfe will be key. Those guys will have to supply the offense and have to get deep enough to allow Franklin and Korb or Kemp to get forward. Pontius and Deleon both love to cut inside and this is a good team to do that on as White and Marquez don’t like to get rushed and forced back on their heels. Edu back there might clean a lot of that up, but then again maybe not as he’s had good games on the backline and some not so good games there. Rolfe plays a role here too if those guys can take advantage of Edu (or Carroll) being caught to one side, then a quick switch and a cut inside creates a 3 on 2 in the middle and crafty guys like Rolfe and Arrieta can punish those situations. LeToux and Wenger don’t like to defend either, so force them back and that’s to DC’s advantage as well.
However, all of that happens because DC plays the ball quickly and has their heads up looking for runs off the ball. Something they haven’t done lately, but Rolfe, Arnaud, and even Arrieta (or Coria and maybe Halsti and Aguilar) have shown they will move the ball quickly and make those runs. However; if goes back to head down dribbling or not moving quickly to create angles, DC will struggle to attack and eventually the defense will make a mistake. Then it’s down to Hamid and hope he pitches a shutout. I would have Pontius and Deleon on a short leash in this one as they tend to dribble right into trouble when open passes are there to be made. Coria was in Philly’s camp and didn’t make the team but he knows them and he has shown some interesting attacking flair and decision making. Also, Miguel Aguilar was not good in Portland, but he has shown the gumption to force the action and it might be nice to see what he can do with some actual starters around him. And play him on the right for goodness sake. He’s used to going around people to the right with no one outside of him, so having him cut inside from the left is encouraging him to dribble into trouble, a habit we don’t want him to learn from DeLeon and Pontius. He’ll grow into that role eventually, use him now playing in a familiar role for goodness sake.
The intangibles favor DC though. Obviously not current form as mentioned, but in RFK that’s a different story. DC is currently on an 18 game unbeaten run in RFK and 19 would tie a team record should DC win or draw. United stands at 4-0-3 in RFK this year and Philly was a woeful 0-4-2 on the road until that win in NY last week. Philly has also only won once in RFK too. DC holds a 2-1-3 edge over their closest rival in RFK, with that lone Philly win back in 2013 and former DC forward Lionard Pajoy got a goal in that match which is all that needs to be mentioned about that game and indeed that season.
So, there you have it. This will be a close one unless DC’s midfield really plays their best soccer of the year. I think the defense can shut down Philly well enough that Hamid can pitch the shut out, but not if DC turns the ball over constantly and is always under siege. DC has some things they can exploit in the Philly defense if they play their cards right. I won’t tempt the soccer gods by saying DC should win given what happened last time I wrote a preview for a Philly match so we’ll just leave it at that.