No rest for the decrepit apparently as United drags their poor overworked bodies down to El Salvador to play Firpo, where no doubt more excuses about the cruel fates that force them to such extremes as playing two games a week in hot, steamy conditions will abound after a cruel loss or scoreless tie eliminates them from CONCACAF Champions League.
Not that I have any sympathy at all for them by the way. DC United knew this schedule for months, almost certainly even had a hand in creating it in fact, as I’d bet DC wanted the expense of extra days in Houston or San Salvador, or even worse two extra flights had they come home in between, to be eliminated by playing this match Tuesday as opposed to Wed, or Thurs.
Even worse, Soehn exacerbated United’s roster problems by using up virtually all of the team’s ammunition in that Houston debacle. Now, I thought for sure he’d have saved a few live loads for use in the match in El Salvador, but no, looks like he’s going with the pellet guns again. Silly me, when Soehn said he was going to “pick up the pieces” after the Houston match, I assumed that meant he was going to make some effort to make sure there would be some big pieces left over after the crash. Not detonate the team completely and then proceed to crush the residue with a hammer before going about piecing them back together for the knockout match with Firpo.
Let’s just see who played all 90 minutes in that lost cause in Houston. Pontius, Quaranta, and Fred spring to mind immediately to begin with. That’s 3 out of the only 4 good wing players on the team. At least Wallace was suspended so he’s fresh anyway. Then there’s Jacobson and the entire starting defense. Granted, they are mostly young and hopefully fit, but I wonder how well they hold up against Firpo, especially as John got used 45 minutes too.
Let’s see, who else. Ah yes, the geriatric brigade was egregiously used up too. Moreno played 80 minutes, Gomez, Emilio and Olsen 45 each, so all of them were used instead of at least two of them rested completely. Now, I’d bet Gomez can go in El Salvador, and almost certainly Emilio too, but no chance Moreno will play more than spot duty if that. It’ll also be a miracle if Olsen’s creaky ankles allow him any minutes either. Nor can Soehn really take the risk to use either of those guys as starters, as this match could easily go 120 minutes, so you can’t play three or maybe four guys, none of whom can actually play the full 90 plus minutes.
Bottom line, that’s the top 12 players, not counting Wallace, who did not get rested. Leaving, you guessed it, the entire bottom half of the roster as the only completely fresh meat available to be shuffled in mixed and matched wherever on the field a body is needed. Apparently that worked so well last time, Soehn figured they’re sure to do better on the road in El Salvador, where even the US National team struggle to get wins.
Now, I hate to harp on this, but seriously, very little thought seems to have gone into managing the roster for these two games properly. Houston was a stone cold loss from the get go, and N’Silu should have been the player off the bench in that one, not Emilio two goals or not. Plus, overusing Moreno was a waste, as was under-using Olsen. He should have stayed out there, yellow card and all because he’s far more likely to have had an impact on that match, then he is to be able to recover enough to do anything at all in this one. Frankly, he shouldn’t even have been started at all, and saved for this match for that matter, but I digress. Now be assured, I will gladly eat my words if Soehn somehow gets a win or a tie greater than 1-1, but for the life of me I can’t see how that will happen.
Still, latent furies aside for the moment, let’s see what we’ve got to work with, starting from the top. N’Silu is the only forward fresh as a daisy, but his early yank last time will hardly send shudders into Firpo when he trots back out there. So, I think Soehn has to go with Emilio and Quaranta up top. The only good thing about using Emilio in that lost cause in Houston was he got off the shneid in a big way with two goals, and he’s a streaky scorer. He also scored in United’s only CONCACAF win in central America ever, over his old team Olimpia.
On that theme, I think Gomez has to start too. He scored twice in that 4-1 win over Olimpia and I say try to recreate as many good vibes from that long ago win as possible, since there’s precious little else United ever wants to relive in Central America. The team is 1-5 after all and outscored 16-4. Yep, that’s right. They’ve been shutout every other time they have played in Central America, and most of them were pretty whopping loses as 16 goals given up in six games will attest. (Edit: DC is actually 1-6 in Central America in CONCACAF Cup play, I forgot one of the Chivas losses. And DC scored in that one too, so that makes the goal differential actually 18-5, not that it’s much comfort. Thanks for the email pointing that out.)
As for the rest of midfield, it’s quite a bit trickier. Well, Wallace is a no-brainer on the left, but Firpo will be prepared for him as he was one of the most threatening players DC had when DC faced them last week. The rest of the midfield is a quandary though as really only Szetela, DiRaimondo and McTavish are fresh, and only Szetela was even remotely presentable the last time DC faced Firpo, so Pontius or Fred is going to have to suck it up and play that right side if Soehn expects anything from this match. I suspect they will each play a half.
As for the rest of midfield, I think Soehn probably tipped his hand in Houston with that switch to 4-4-2, because it’s a good idea to run out that formation again. It should save a lot of running backward by the outside players and also lessen the space tired defenders are expected to cover, as well as give Soehn a bigger variety of options when it comes time to substitute. So, that means Szetela plays behind Gomez to complete midfield as he’s the only player able to fill that role adequately given the situation.
Defensively, John should be fine, Burch and Jakovic too, although things will get awfully dicey if the match goes into overtime and Namoff will almost certainly need to be subbed at some point. But let’s face it, if DC doesn’t score right out of the gate, this match is almost certainly over and it’s just a death march until the end anyway.
Plus defensively, four in the back gives DC more cover against the strength of Firpo which is clearly in their attackers. That Benitez is obviously tricky and good, as well as the Brazilian Leandro Franco. That extra defender will help keep those two under wraps. At the same time, the loss of a player in midfield for DC shouldn’t be too much trouble as Firpo is not particularly fast in their buildup or very elusive in their transition game, so Szetela with a reasonable amount of help from Gomez should be enough.
Christian Gomez really is the key too. He has always been the fiery force in international games to the point of literally carrying the team against much tougher opponents than Firpo. He almost single-handedly beat Catolica, as well as kept DC afloat against Pumas with the goal in that 1-1 draw at home that could have been much worse (and was hideously worse when United played the return match a week later). Big games, playoffs, whatever, Gomez almost always shows up huge. This is a big one and if he shows up big and the rest of the team rallies around him, and a suddenly hot Emilio, DC has a good shot.
Bottom line, that gives DC the best chance to win, or at least get a lead early and put Firpo on their heels chasing the game. Then, Soehn still has Moreno to come in late to hold up the ball if DC is winning or N’Silu, who might benefit from coming off the bench, come in if United needs a spark. Then, there’s McTavish, DiRaimondo or maybe even Ely Allen able to come in for a variety of positions depending on injury or exhaustion. Not saying that’s what Soehn will do, but it’s probably the best chance to save his bacon in this tournament.
In the unlikely event DC actually does advance, they will enter one of the toughest groups for the next phase of the tournament, but more on that later should it come to that. Ironically, if DC does make the supreme effort and pulls off a pretty unlikely upset given the current situation, their reward is mostly pride and a very difficult three months to end the season with 6 more tough regional games and travel added to their schedule.
So it would certainly be easy to punt and get some extra rest to concentrate on MLS, but I will be wildly disappointed if the team pulls another el foldo in CONCACAF. I would hate to think DC has become a team that looks for the easy way out, instead of going for success every time they take the field.
Also, I’m a little bummed the match isn’t going to be played in Firpo’s actual home stadium. True, it would be extra travel to Usulutan and sketchy accommodations probably, maybe a little Salvadoran project mayhem too. But, how classic it would have been to say DC once won in the “Devil’s Cauldron”, as their home Estadio Sergio Torres is called, and in front of 5,000 fanatical Pamperos too! Now that’s the beauty of this tournament. Not playing in a gigantic stadium, probably only 25 percent filled if that, because it is where their rival Alianza FC plays its home matches.
Ah well, maybe next time. Oh, and in case you’re curious, San Francisco of Panama won their home leg 2-0 over San Juan Jabloteh of Trinidad and obviously has the inside track for reaching the group stage to complete United’s group should the Black and Red indeed advance.