Playing the Fire is always a battle and this year will be no exception especially as DC finally got those monkeys off their back when they booted them from the Open Cup, as well as won the season series with a Fire team that simply had the whammy on them in big games for years. That overtime win, which included the requisite ejections and even a lifetime ban for Senor Blanco, which ousted the Fire from the Open Cup was the first time DC had ever eliminated their nemesis from a Cup competition and DC even stole the season series when Emilio stunned the Fire with two goals in the final minutes in Toyota Park.
So, given a history that spans years of brutal games, from a surreptitious punch in the face in a Cup final, to Gomez spitting on CJ Brown, to the dust up last year in the Open Cup, there’s no question the Fire-United rivalry ranks right up there in brutality as well as long memories. Anyone expecting anything less than plenty of physical play and hard fouls is kidding themsleves. But, hopefully a soccer game does break out and given the current situation with missing players, DC United does have a decent shot at upending their nemesis once again.
First of all, the Fire will be missing their two best defenders to international duty, and arguably their two most deadly players will also more than likely be coming off the bench if they play at all. With Bakary Soumare playing for Mali and Gonzalo Segares playing for Costa Rica on this international weekend, as well as Blanco coming off a knee injury and Rolfe coming off a virus it’s likely the Fire will be down at least four starters, although Blanco and Rolfe could come off the bench.
But maybe not Blanco. The Mexican Superstar had an interesting week in that he was benched to rest his ailing knee in Dallas, and visibly chafed at not being on the field while Golden Boy Brian McBride wore the armband, then came on to score a stunning freekick. But not satisfied with that he then proceeded to shoot off his mouth to the Chicago press in a not so subtle slap at coach Denis Hamlett’s defensive tactics. Now, him shooting off his mouth is not unusual, after all he’s the guy that called his own fans drunks and idiots, but this fit of pique could easily be the beginning of another of the famed Blanco meltdowns that permanently sour relationships whatever coach is currently in his sights.
Plus, given his wild punch to Clyde Simms and subsequent flooring by Marc Burch in that infamous Open Cup match last year, even if Blanco does take the field, you can be sure DC players will be looking to goad him into another tantrum. Even though Blanco is clearly the most talented player on the team, Hamlett may simply say this is a good opportunity to put him in his place as well as protect him from further abuse.
But, enough about that fool. DC has their own missing players to deal with. The head bangers McTavish and Janicki are not going to play, nor are Quaranta and Fred. Even Crayton is still likely to be out given his niggling leg injury and his lack of sharpness from missing most of the pre-season. Even Moreno seems destined to remain out even though he says he is ready to go. Clearly, the coaching staff wants to ease him back onto the field, and besides Pontius clearly earned another start after that brilliant display in LA.
So, it’s likely to be Wicks in goal again and United will be scrambling around a bit to fill out the defense. No doubt Soehn will go with a 3-5-2 again in order to help minimize the absent defenders, so it seems logical Namoff, Jakovic, and Burch going right to left across the backline. Which will make it pretty compelling TV every time Blanco drifts out to the right if he does take the field.
It’ll also be interesting to see how Soehn handles the loss of McTavish on that right side. Boyzzz Khumalo played a lot there in pre-season and could be a great addition to the offense, but given Mapp playing over there for Chicago, his lack of defensive skills could pose a problem. Maybe Benny cheats over to that side and Namoff stays home more, but those adjustments present their own problems in other areas of the field. Still, unless Soehn is willing to risk putting an untested player out there like Barklage, or put Olsen out wide and play Jacobson, or even switch to a 4-4-2 with Peters getting the start, there’s really no clear good choices for solving that problem on United’s right side.
But, Chicago will have problems of their own. If Blanco starts, they need to protect his defensive liabilities with five in midfield, but they really don’t have a good set of three defenders healthy enough to go three in the back and a 4-5-1 could stifle their attack far more than they’d like. So, I think Hamlett keeps Blanco on the bench and goes with resurrecting CJ Brown from the dead and starting him for Soumare, which has the added bonus of sticking his ugly mug in Gomez’s face and maybe goading him a bit given their history. Then he could push Conde out to cover for Segares, and play Desan Robinson next to CJ in the middle, along with the woeful Tim Ward on the right.
So, if that’s the case, DC has some decent matchups that could swing their way on offense. Emilio, Pontius and Gomez against Robinson, Brown and Pause should be a net gain for DC as long as referee Matt Geiger doesn’t forget to bring his whistle, and Wallace can surely get behind Ward. However, if Chicago’s usual campaign of hard fouls to skill players right off the bat isn’t held in check, then DC will surely have problems.
Defensively, things are not so good either. Even though Chicago tends to play very conservative on the road, they are deadly when they get chances as we saw in Dallas last week and in RFK last year when they scored two goals on two shots on the way to shutting out United in RFK in May. McBride and the speedy and tricky Nyarko are quite a way to welcome Jakovic to MLS and also pose matchup problems for Namoff and Burch too.
In fact, DC’s best hope is for their five man midfield to stifle Chicago’s four so much, as well as get enough forward pressure on Chicago’s defense that guys like Conde have no time to send balls over the top. That way McBride and Co. never really get any good looks at goal, or at the very least, those looks are minimized.
On the good side, the intangibles do favor DC. It’s their home opener and they’ve only lost one of those this century (KC 2007). In fact, they’ve never lost to the Fire in a home opener in three tries. DC beat the Fire 2-0 in ’02 (after a 2-1 loss in LA to open the season that year in an eerie coincidence), and tied them twice more in ’03 and ’05. And for all the dominance the Fire have had in knockout games, in the regular season DC holds the edge over them including a lifetime 9-5-3 mark in RFK.
As for the rest of MLS, I had a decent week for the opening weekend. DC-LA, and Hou-Crew tied as I expected, and Chivas won for me too. SJ should have won, but Dallas and KC really let me down. Still, 3-3 isn’t a bad start.
Toronto shocks the Crew 2-1.
NY redeems themselves with a 1-1 draw with NE
Colorado edges KC at home 2-1
SJ stifles an anemic Houston 2-0 as the Dynamo visit their old stomping grounds.
RSL bring Seattle back down to earth 2-1
Dallas shows the home fans they don’t stink as they tie Chivas 1-1
As for DC, I think they pull off their first win of the season 2-1.