DC United, unbeaten in three matches look to vault past The New England Revolution into 5th place in the Eastern Conference standings if DC coach Ben Olsen wins his duel with NE’s Jay Heaps as the youngest two coaches to face each other in an MLS match when United visits Gillette Stadium tomorrow afternoon.
Heaps became the latest MLS player to matriculate into coaching when he was surprisingly named head coach of the Revs, the team he retired from two years before. However, at 35 he is slightly older than Ben Olsen who took over DC United last year and won’t be 35 until next month. Surely the youngest two head coaches to ever face each other in MLS history.
Unfortunately, both of their respective teams did not get off the mark very well so far in this MLS season, each team with resounding losses in their first two matches before inching back into respectability recently. United is unbeaten in their last three having given up a mere one goal in that span, a goal that should have been disallowed as FCD’s Blas Perez was clearly offside. The Revs on the other hand were on a two game winning streak until giving up a stoppage time goal in Dallas last weekend for a 1-0 loss.
And, like United the weekend before who lost Brandon McDonald to a league mandated suspension, NE will be without the services of star midfielder, Shalrie Joseph as he was suspended midweek by the MLS disciplinary committee for a serious foul on FCD’s Ricardo Villar.
Undoubtedly, the loss of their best and most experienced player is boon for United, especially as former United midfielder, Clyde Simms, who NE picked up from DC in the offseason is ailing with a calf strain and designated playmaker, Benny Feilhaber, likely still out with a heel strain, NE’s midfield could be gutted for this match.
My money is on Simms making the starting XI, but not Feilhaber. Last week Heaps used rookie Kelyn Rowe as the playmaker to mixed results, but he scored against LA in that upset win, and along with the strong play of French forward Saer Sene, NE has boasted a surprisingly agile attack for a team from NE schooled in Nicolball.
So, I expect Heaps to continue to play attacking ball surrounding Sene as the lone forward with Rowe, Irishman Ryan Guy, and Lee Nguyen in attacking roles backed up by Simms to complete the midfield. Across their backline which has only given up two goals in their last three matches, since giving up four in their first two, should be Chris Tierney on the left, Stephen McCarthy and AJ Soares in the center, and the newly signed Germna defender, Flo Lechner in place of the injured Kevin Alston at right back in front of longtime United nemesis Matt Reis.
DC, on the other hand has a full roster to choose from, but that could mean some very tough choices for Ben Olsen. With rookie Nick Deleon and Danny Cruz playing so well for Chris Pontius and Andy Najar, it will be tough to sit either one of them in favor of the incumbent starter recently back to health or from Honduran National team duty respectively. Even tougher will be pulling Joe Willis from goal for Bill Hamid after what should have been three straight shutouts in the last three games had that Dallas goal been disallowed as it should have. Then there’s what to do with Brandon McDonald, who was very capably replaced by Dejan Jakovic in central defense against Seattle.
Another head scratcher will be what to do with Hamdi Salihi and Branko Boskovic. Olsen has persisted in starting Salihi, but although very hard working, he has produced no goals although by all that is holy his shot off the crossbar against Seattle deserved to be the game winner. Still, considering Boskovic is clearly making a huge contribution in the limited minutes he has been seeing, and Maicon Santos scored two of United’s last four goals, so the temptation to sit Salihi, move MVP Dwayne De Rosario to forward and insert Boskovic into the lineup has to be banging away insistently in Olsen’s brain.
However, I predict Olsen stays the course and starts the exact lineup that faced Seattle and will pick his spots to insert players as it becomes necessary. Which means I think Salihi and Santos start at forward, DeLeon, DeRo, Perry Kitchen, and Danny Cruz start left to right across the midfield, and the defense will be Daniel Woolard, Emiliano Dudar, Dejan Jakovic, and Robbie Russell at right back assuming his ankle knock has receded, Chris Korb if he’s still hobbled in front of Willis.
Looking at the matchups and the style of play, DC has clear advantages, since both Seattle, Vancouver, and Dallas to some extent all play a similar style as NE’s attacking system and DC only gave up a goal over that whole stretch. NE lives or dies on service to their big man Sene, and while it might be tempting to start McDonald to bang with him, Dudar is plenty capable of hanging with him and together with Jakovic is the among the best ball handling central defensemen in all of MLS, so if the midfield do their job and Billy Joe Willis keeps pitching shutouts, NE will struggle to score.
And the matchups in midfield favor DC. Cruz can pester anyone into an aneurism, Nguyen will be hard pressed to have an impact on the match. DeLeon against Rowe is a rookie of the year matchup and could go either way, but Ryan Guy has shown nothing so far that should trouble Perry Kitchen.
If so, that frees up DeRo to seriously help the attack, and the defending league MVP has been strangely silent so far this year. This could be a breakout game for him, especially with no Joseph to worry about and with a former teammate in Simms hoping to contain him. Also, NE’s central defense has not been impressive at all despite the recent string of decency. McCarthy is a converted midfielder, who has been caught out repeatedly and ejected once already for a hack after being caught out. Soares is decent, but hardly imposing. Salihi and Santos should be able to find holes in and around those two, especially with DeRo’s help, and even assuming the German stuffs DeLeon, and Cruz struggles against the under-rated Tierney.
Clearly on paper, DC has the edge. However, it must be said, DC often has the edge on paper, but that has rarely translated to wins in NE, which is among DC’s most unlucky venues in all of MLS. Incredibly unlucky things seem to regularly happen to United there leading to stinging losses, like the one last year where a clear hand ball was not called and a phantom PK doomed DC in the first 20 minutes. Or two years ago when United peppered the NE goal all game only to see former NE hardman Pat Phelan score his improbable only MLS goal to decide the match. The list goes on and on.
So, it’s one of the most heated rivalries in MLS history as these two original eastern conference foes face each other for the 57th time in league play, and while United holds a slim edge over the Revs all time with a 25-23-8 record, DC is a mere 9-15-4 at NE. Even worse, DC hasn’t beaten NE anywhere since 2008 and hasn’t won in NE in almost 5 years since Josh Gros scored the game winner early in a 3-0 win in 2007. In fact the Revs are currently on a 5 game winning streak over their long time rival.
So there you have it. On paper, odds makers should be backing DC. History and the soccer gods are just as clearly behind the Revs at home. I expect a 2-2 tie, which actually would be enough to tie DC with NE in points in the East, but DC does not have to win to sneak by the Revs in the standings. A draw would give them the lead on goal differential and the edge in head to head meetings.