DC is off to their best start since the Supporter’s Shield winning side of 2006 and shares the lead in the East, but the Whitecaps are off to the best start in their history and lead the West for the first time this deep into any season.
Unfortunately, after two straight disappointing draws at home, DC would have to get back to their winning ways in a place they have never won against an opponent they haven’t beaten since 2011 if they hope to keep pace with the elite in the league. DC won ugly early on, and has improved since, but that hasn’t yet translated into wins after giving up a 90th goal to NY and a soft goal to Houston to drop 4 points in their last two matches. United will be looking to last year’s talisman, forward Fabian Espindola finally back from his six match ban to start the season to bring the scoring touch that saw him lead the team in goals last year and be the team MVP.
Vancouver on the other hand has been nothing if not efficient having won 5 of their last 7, with 4 of their 5 wins by shutout, and they have shutout DC the last two times they have hosted United. They have ridden Uruguayan newcomer, Octavio Rivero, who leads MLS in scoring this year with 5 goals in 8 matches, 2 of them game winners. But the ‘Caps are led by league MVP runner up last year, Chilean playmaker Pedro Morales who has added three assists in the last four matches he’s played this year after a slow start to the season.
Once again this is another matchup of the new wave of MLS playing a version of the 4-5-1 against Olsen’s tried and true 4-4-2. So far it has been mixed success for DC, with United beating a listless Montreal and scraping by a depleted LA and Orlando scoring winners against each in the 90th minute. But DC were crushed by NY, and while they took leads on NY and Houston respectively both adjusted their formations for the second half. DC couldn’t hold either of them off and had to settle for the draw in both matches.
Vancouver’s version is very much an attack minded 4-2-3-1 much like NY, Orlando, and the way LA played us when they were missing the key components of their usual 4-4-2. Vancouver sits Mathias Laba and Russell Teibert (or sometimes Gerson Koffie) behind playmaker Morales. While Darren Mattocks and Nicolas Mezquida (or Kekutah Manneh) patrol the wings outside central striker Rivero. For Vancouver, Mattocks has emerged as the free roamer who can combine up top with Rivero much the way Lloyd Sam has that role with NY, Kevin Molino for Orlando, and Villareal played that role with LA. Of note is that in all of those cases, DC did not do much to contain those threats and mostly survived those matchups because Orlando and LA either missed the broad side of the barn or despaired when Bill Hamid put on his cape.
Vancouver’s attack can strike in many ways, 10 goals in 8 games and only shut out once in the feisty loss to San Jose that saw Morales tossed. Rivero and Mattocks lately have shown they can put away crosses clinically and Vancouver has the wingers capable of launching those crosses consistently. The ‘Caps may well have the best counter attack in the league with Morales as Magic Johnson running showtime; as well as hitting pin point freekicks, and they have Mattocks to overload an area pulling defenses out of shape to be exploited if opponent’s midfielders are not wicked sharp following midfield runners. DC has been guilty of letting in goals in all those ways lately. Everyone except Boswell are vulnerable on crosses and set pieces, DC’s transition defense is appalling for the most part, and as mentioned they have survived the overloads mostly through Hamid and poor shooting. The other times, it was late runners like Sam and Ricardo Clarke, or almost all the soccer playing males of Alajuela, who punished them.
The ‘Caps have given up goals too though, 7 of them, but have spaced them out with only 4 goals given up in the 7 games since Toronto hung 3 on them in their opener, and two of those in the Columbus tie two weeks ago. Most of their goals come from one on one defensive mistakes. Poor clearances by defenders or even keeper David Ousted, or poor marking or poor concentration mistakes usually made by their relatively weak central defenders, Pah Modou Kah and the big Jamoke, Kendall Waston.
With their tactics and weaknesses in mind, Olsen has some decisions to make. Obviously, what to do with Espindola is the most important, but being on the road and facing some daunting attackers is another. Olsen will of course think defense first, but in this case I agree with him. I hate the pack it in tactics for the road, but in this specific case it can work and surprise Vancouver if DC plays it right.
So, thinking defensively first, Olsen should obviously pray that Hamid’s thigh bruise has healed. Hamid hides a multitude of defensive sins for sure. Dykstra is capable, but obviously not Hamid and enough said on that. Also, Olsen really should consider starting Chris Korb over Taylor Kemp. Kemp is getting better as a defender, but especially with Birnbaum still out and Opare beginning to show cracks, Korb would go a long way to tightening up that side of the field where Mezquida and Morales will surely look to expose. Olsen also should again start Michael Farfan over Nick DeLeon. As Farfan showed against Houston, he’s not flashy, but he’s a far better defender and doesn’t turn the ball over anywhere near as much either. Of course you lose offense with DeLeon and Kemp, but keeping a lid on this game is a lot better than hoping to outscore Vancouver.
On the flip side, I think Olsen should roll the dice and start both Espindola and Luis Silva. Their chemistry last year carried the team down the stretch and the quicker they regain it the better for DC. They scored the majority of their goals by pouncing on mistakes anyway, so DC going defensive from the start shouldn’t be too much trouble. Just start them to harass Vancouver’s possibly shaky central defense into mistakes, or make sure you also start the cagey two way vets, Chris Rolfe and Davy Arnaud (and to a lesser extent Farfan) to keep things tight but more importantly look up and spring Silva and Espy downfield as often as possible. Frustrate the ‘Caps physically and tactically and look to pounce on a mistakes is how SJ and the Crew both surprised Vancouver. Play tight, hope for a lead, then bring off Silva for Pontius and hope hatred of humanity carries Espindola to the final whistle.
Even if the lead doesn’t come, 0-0 is the result DC has left Vancouver with the past two years and that’s not bad at all considering the circumstances. In fact, there has only been one goal scored between both teams the last three years. Vancouver scored a 1-0 victory here last around those two scoreless draws there. Then again, if the soccer gods forbid and DC does fall behind, you still have DeLeon, Pontius, and maybe even the feisty Miguel Aguilar off the bench to provide a spark for the attack instead of the usual Conor Doyle to provide nails for the coffin.
Looking at the intangibles is grim, but has to be done I suppose. DC hasn’t beaten Vancouver since a 4-0 win in RFK in Vancouver’s expansion season and hasn’t even scored against the ‘Caps since the return leg 1-2 loss later that season. Current form isn’t much help either, as mentioned both are compiling points fairly well right now although DC with draws and Vancouver with wins sandwiched around the SJ loss. DC is 1-1 on the road outscored 2-1 losing to NY then beating Orlando; while Vancouver has won 3 straight at home since losing to TFC scoring 2 goals a game in beating LA and Portland and tying the Crew the last time playing in BC Place.
I think it interesting to note that in 2014, DC had a fairly shaky start but crept back in with some solid draws and big win in their sixth match 4-1 over Dallas. Their seventh match was in Portland and DC came back twice after falling behind and fully deserved a valiant point only lose horrifically in the 94th minute. However, DC barely looked back after that. Hardly a bobble along the way as they marched through the rest of the season right to an Eastern Conference title. In 2006, the last time DC ever started this good and their second best start ever, DC lost their 6th game, but then rattled off a 14 game unbeaten streak before grinding their way to a Supporter’s Shield. Interestingly, both teams were bounced in the first round mostly because they lacked depth and refused to adjust their tactics when circumstances arise.
This match has 0-0 written all over it, but I can’t shake the premonition of a 2-1 loss tomorrow. Still, more importantly I will be looking to see if Olsen will begin to show the ability or even the inclination to adapt to the way the league is changing. I believe it has to happen sometime if DC is ever to find the promised land again.