DC United Faces Big Test in LA

Finally, DC United gets a pre-season without CONCACAF distractions tailor made to give the team time to solve their defensive woes and get the team focused on the MLS season right from the start, but sadly the team seems to have made little progress defensively and now has two key starters out as Fred and Santino Quaranta pulled hamstrings in Charleston.

But first things first, DC’s defensive problems. United lost the most games in the league last year with the second worst defense and talked about how committed they were to improving the defense. Yet one lone Canadian and a decidedly underwhelming Carolina Challenge Cup later, the team doesn’t seem to have fixed any of the basic problems they had last year and still has question marks not only about who will start where, but even what formation to use. Hardly the way to build confidence heading into the season.

Quotes and reports since Charleston seem to indicate the team will drop their four man backline system in favor of a 3-5-2, and while they had the most success with that formula in their last game and a half of pre-season, losing to Toronto and scraping by a Battery team that had practiced for a week are not exactly results to crow about.

It’ll be interesting to see how United lines up their three too. Janicki played the center with newcomer Jackovic on the right and Burch on the left. However, with Namoff back in the lineup, he’ll almost certainly take the right which means Jakovic will either replace Burch on the left, or send Janicki to the bench and play the middle. I have no doubt he could play that central role, but given his obvious ball skills, he might actually help the team more playing an outside role. Plus, playing a crucial central role in your first ever MLS game when Landon Donovan and Edson Buddle will be lining up against you isn’t exactly setting up the new guy for success.

But, either way DC simply has to figure out how to successfully defend balls coming at them over the top which put DC’s defenders in one on one matchups that they often lose. Chad Barrett and Rohan Ricketts tortured them in the loss to Toronto. Even Charleston found ways to put United’s defense on its heels and desperate. This is especially crucial as LA’s bread and butter is long balls from Lewis and Klein to Donovan and Buddle over the top. Donovan already has a history of torching DC, if they don’t sort out this particular flaw, he could hang another 3 on DC like he did last September in the Tool Box if they’re not careful.

How Soehn handles the five man midfield will be interesting too, given the loss of Fred and Quaranta as well as his needing to shore up what could be a shaky defense. How healthy Ben Olsen is could very well be the key to solving those problems, but where to play him? On the right would be nice as that would allow McTavish to help Simms clean up a lot of things in front of the back three, but that’s a lot of running up and down the wing for Benny’s newly recovering ankles. Playing Benny in the middle with Simms would likely be easier on his ankles and he provides way more experience and leadership, but he’s not as good defensively. While McTavish is not as good offensively on the right, or alternatively Khumalo is not as good defensively as McTavish out there should Soehn go that route. Given LA using Eddie Lewis and Mike Magee out there, DC might be smart to think defense first.

On the left Soehn has some tough decisions too. Pontius has looked very good in pre-season, but Wallace has come on well too and is the faster, more athletic player yet with a bit more defensive mindset. But, either one of them are rookies in their first MLS match, so Soehn could be persuaded to play Burch there if he gets bumped from the backline by Namoff’s return. Experience over talent? Tough choice for Soehn, especially going against Klein who is about as good as it gets in MLS on that right side for LA.

At least the center midfield and forward lines are a lock. Gomez, Emilio, and Moreno should really be able to put the fear of god in LA’s also weak backline. Emilio and Moreno should toy with the rookie Gonzalez and either Sanneh or Roberts if Gomez can get the ball to them, which is where the rub comes in. LA picked up Dema in the off-season and there is almost no one better at harassing attackers than Dema on the warpath, and they play Moncheechee Tudela in there too. Gomez might struggle unless he gets help.

Still, you’ve got to think DC can manage a goal or two. The key will be keeping LA to one less, which is of course the 800 pond gorilla in the room. If LA scores 3 or more as they are well capable of doing, DC is sunk. Two goals, and DC maybe pulls off a tie. One or by some miracle a shutout, and DC could be looking at their first road opening win since Chivas in 2005, which coincidentally was in the HDC.

Unfortunately, even the intangibles really don’t favor DC. United has opened the season three times against LA and only won a shootout back in ’97. They lost The Debacle in 2000, nothing further will be said about that, and also lost 2-1 in LA in 2002, where Ruiz got Convey tossed with a thespian death roll if memory serves, then proceeded to score twice and steal the game away from DC. Plus, road openers in general haven’t been good for DC in this century. Since ’99, DC has gone 1-4 in road openers, winning only that inaugural Chivas match.

On the good side, LA historically starts slow too. In fact they haven’t even scored in a season opener since 2004, much less won one. For certain the RFK faithful will be hoping for that trend to continue, however unlikely it seems at the moment.

One final note is Jaime is one assist shy of the double triple mark. With 122 career goals and 99 career assists, a helper in LA sets a mark that doesn’t get broken for a long time, if ever.

Taking a look at the rest of the league, some predictions you can feel free to take with the usual grain of salt:

Crew at Houston has 0-0 written all over it.
Dallas scrapes by a Blanco-less Fire 1-0 and my money is on Cooper with the finish.
KC blanks Toronto in their home opener 1-0 with Davy Arnaud taking advantage of TFC’s weak central defense.
SJ edges NE 2-1 at home with SuperBobby getting the game-winning assist.
Chivas dominates Colorado 2-0. I’m thinking Marsch and Galindo do the damage in that one.
As for DC, I’m praying for 1-1 as Donovan pulls a hamstring and Emilio opens the season with a goal.

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