League leading DC United stole three points in Montreal while New York City FC dropped their NY derby series with a clang.
On paper, you would think it’s a mismatch with one team winning in record breaking fashion and leading the Supporter’s Shield race handily as well, while the other is finding ways to lose in agonizing fashion and barely keeping in touch with the playoff race. Then again, you would think it’s a total mismatch the other way in terms of player salaries and pedigrees. But the reality is this game is nowhere near as easy to handicap and that and will be a lot closer than many DC fans would like to admit.
So NYCFC has two players who each make more than DC’s entire payroll and another player who makes more than all of DC’s starters combined. David Villa leads NYCFC in goals with 13 and has won a World Cup, European Cup, Champions League, etc. Chelsea legend Frank Lampard has also won everything there is to win except a World Cup and Andrea Pirlo is arguably the more decorated player than either of them and widely considered a genius in midfield. However, those bright lights also have one other thing in common in that they got absolutely spanked in their first game together in MLS last week when NY absolutely demolished NYCFC to sweep the NY derby and exposed the glaring weaknesses both in NYC’s lineup and especially in these aging superstars.
So, can the league leading team stroll into Yankee Stadium and do the same thing to NYC? In a word, no. DC might be running away with the East, but they were absolutely bolting out of Montreal like a thief in the night after that highway robbery. DC has set dubious league wide records in their last three matches and none of them are records DC is proud to have. The first team to give up goals in the first two minutes in back to back games, the first team to win back to back games from two goal deficits and perhaps the most damning of all, the first team to win a game with only one shot while being outshot 26-1. No, DC is riding a three game win streak, but is doing it with smoke and mirrors lately.
In particular the loss of forward Fabian Espindola is especially worrisome as it is been obvious for years that he is the key to DC’s offense and he is out again injured, this time with a knock to his knee last week which brings his season total to 14 games missed so far this year through suspension or injury. The addition of Costa Rican forward Alvaro Saborio will no doubt help once he’s fully integrated into the team, but it sure didn’t do any good in Montreal. He was so isolated up top that Stade Saputo might as well have been that island Tom Hanks washed up on in Castaway. He was banging all night looking for the ball, but it was pretty much crickets for him. The rumor is winger Nick DeLeon will be out as well after coming to life for his first goals in almost a year with two goals in his last three games which doesn’t help any either.
It will be interesting to see how DC coach Ben Olsen handles the missing starters too. Jairo Arrieta subbed in as Saborio’s forward partner in Montreal for DC’s first ever Costa Rican line but was ineffective. DeLeon’s typical replacement has been Conor Doyle, but outside of a wonder strike game winner in Chicago, he’s regressed offensively since moving to midfield and he was no great shakes to begin with. Despite a three game win streak, DC desperately needs a spark and I don’t see Arrieta or Doyle as being flint much less the spark needed. I suspect we’ll get Doyle and Arrieta as Olsen is nothing if not loyal to a fault, especially when winning, but it might not be the best way to stick the knife in NYC and keep them down.
Looking at the likely lineups, NYC coach Jason Kreis appears to have decided to play Lampard as more of a second forward than a midfielder and Andrea Pirlo as a statue admiring the play of others standing deep in midfield. No, just kidding. I think Kreis’ idea was to play his three superstars as the central attacking force in a 4-5-1, but NY’s tricky central midfield trio forced Pirlo and Lampard so far apart, the Maestro was collecting passes off the defenders feet far more often than he was picking out Lampard or Villa going forward. DC does not have the type of players or tactical formation to even attempt the same thing NY did, so I expect Kreis to go right back to the 4-5-1 and the same starters to see if it works better this time around. And to be sure, it is a small break, but DC likely gets another of their now usual lucky breaks by catching NYC before their lineup settles into a rhythm.
So, Villa will be the lone forward supported by Lampard and Pirlo centrally and with Mix Diskerud and Thomas McNamara on the wings leaving former DC midfielder Andrew Jacobsen as the lone defensive minded player in midfield. Across the defensive line should be Spanish right back Andoni Iraola, English youngster Shay Facey, Colombian Jefferson Mena, and Spanish teenager Angelino at let back in front of Josh Saunders. And make no mistake, this defense is much improved over the leaky paint bucket from earlier this year, Mena is a huge improvement over Hernandez and Watson-Siriboe despite his recent struggles, Iraola is solid, Facey athletic and becoming more consistent and Angelino is nothing short of brilliant as a left back defensively and offensively.
As I said, I expect Olsen to go with his tried and true Saborio and Arrieta at forward, Rolfe, Arnaud, Kitchen, and Doyle in for DeLeon in midfield. Maybe Pontius is ready to start, but I don’t think he risks it this early from a long layoff especially given Pontius’ history. And maybe Olsen gets frisky and sits Arrieta to start Rolfe as forward and brings in Aguilar but I doubt it. Could be a Halsti sighting too in place of Arnaud, but I seriously doubt that as well. Defense almost certainly will be Taylor Kemp, Steve Birnbaum, Bobby Boswell, and Chris Korb in front of Bill Hamid. Maybe Sean Franklin gets a start for Korb but I doubt that for the same reason as Pontius. I get the idea of letting the Costa Ricans work on improving their chemistry, but for this particular game a better spark might be to start Facundo Coria as that second forward as he has a bit more elegance and flair to his attacks while Arrieta relies more on craftiness and violence. Another spark might be to play Kemp as a midfielder and bring in Kofi Opare as left back. That would allow Rolfe to push up as well as get Kemp closer to goal as well while at the same time helping to negate the all-out attacking of Diskerud or McNamara.
No matter what though, this game will be won in the center of the field. If DC’s midfield can keep Lampard and Pirlo back and under control, NY will only score through a mistake or a set piece. If DC cedes possession like they normally do and allow Pirlo and Lampar plenty of touches in the attack, DC will be in real trouble. Lampard got free around the edge of the box three times against NY and uncharacteristically missed. Pirlo sent two or three brilliant through balls that were just cut out. If DC gives them the kind of room they gave Piatti and Donadel in Montreal, they will punish DC. Offensively, DC might well struggle to score, but NYC has shown they will make mistakes and clearly haven’t settled in as a unit together.
There’s no history to mention as this is a first ever meeting. DC is not exactly hot, but they are winning. The theft of three points in Montreal improved DC’s road record to 4-6-2, but only 2-5-2 recently. NYC has struggled at home Lost their last home game to Montreal 3-2, but thrashed Orlando 5-3 before that and with a 4-4 tie to TFC before that have scored 11 goals in their last three home games. However, they are 3-5-4 at home and have given up 3 or more goals in their last 4 home games.
So there you have it. This has all the earmarks of a tough game for DC. United has a very good defense that has been poor or lucky lately and an offense that has been shocking or invisible. Lately, NYC is scoring in bunches and giving them up just as often. So, I expect Olsen to button up the ship away from home and hope to force NYC into mistakes they seem prone to make. On the other hand NYC is scary good offensively and is starting to seriously settle down defensively. I can’t see DC shutting them out. I would expect NYC to get at least two given the way DC gives away possession, so they’ll have to score three to win it. With Espindola, maybe that happens, without him I suspect the soccer gods have to get involved to get DC the win. A 2-2 tie seems most likely, but it could very well be one of those wild and wacky games on that band box of a field in NY.