There’s no question DC United will be happy to never see Rice-Eccles’ parking lot turf field ever again after the hideous luck they have had there the past three years. After an easy win in RSL’s inaugural season (Freddy!), United has badly lost the last three matches played there getting outscored 8-2 in the process. There was the John Wilson PK fiasco, the molasses slow Jay Nolly special, and of course Robbie Findley added a hat trick to bring his total to five against DC in an embarrassing performance from early last year that’s better left forgotten.
But RSL now plays on grass in their new home Rio Tinto, so no team need fear the brutally punishing bounces that put visiting defenders into therapy and gave Real such an advantage at Rice-Eccles. Unfortunately, that’s about the end of the good news as Robbie Findley is still on the team and obviously smoking hot right now having just torched the defending champion Crew for three goals last week.
Still, DC has pulled off an undefeated start to the season and outside of two mistakes and a blind referee, has shown a remarkably improved defense this season which should continue to improve as the season goes along.
But, there is some room for skepticism on how good DC’s defense really is right at this moment. Looking at DC’s matches so far, there was the LA collapse, also catching the Fire without Rolfe and Blanco for most of the match (as well as three quarters of their defense on international duty or injured), catching Houston still trying to cope without DeRosario and having a tired Brian Ching, etc. But a fully healthy and frightfully good Real Salt Lake team should be a big test as most people have the Royals being among the very best in the West this year as evidenced by their complete dismantling of the Crew last week.
Given that Soehn refused to backslide into a 4-4-2 last week and it paid off handsomely with United’s first win of the season, I can’t imagine he’ll trot out a four back system anytime soon, if ever. But, even aside from that, a 3-5-2 is perfect for frustrating RSL given the way they play with a lot of their offense coming right down the center of the field behind their Argentine midfield general Javier Morales, or over the top to their two speed merchants Findley and Movsisyan which has typically been United’s undoing the past few years.
Obviously, having a central three means Olsen and Simms should keep Morales in check for the most part if all goes well. But the other key will be pressuring the ball all over the field so that those balls over the top are more hopeful punt variety than the precision strikes that Findley will eat up. Which means United’s rookies, who were so impressive playing Mullan and Holden to a standstill last week, will have to do even better not only negating Wil Johnson and cowboy Clint Mathis, but also make sure Wingert and Robbie Russell (or Tony Beltran) can’t get their heads up to launch long balls either.
So, it seems likely that defensively, United will try to jam up the middle and make sure anything over the top is cut out cleanly, or pressured into a turnover. Then it’s just a matter of keeping RSL’s deadly freekick takers from getting too many cracks at goal. Assuming that works out, that’s half the battle.
Offensively is where DC’s lineup will hurt them a bit unless Gomez takes his game up a notch. He should be the free man if he can get away from Beckerman and push up as RSL’s central defense is built more for power than speed or adaptability. Olave and Borchers are not going to be out-muscled too often, but they can be evaded if Gomez and Emilio are up for it.
Also, DC’s rookie wingers will have to spread the field effectively in addition the their defensive responsibilities if DC is to really generate a lot of chances, otherwise RSL will just collapse on Gomez and Emilio and call in the dogs for supper. Wil Johnson is a scrappy young guy and Chris Wingert is a very tough guy to beat, so Pontius will have his work cut out for him, but he has done nothing but continue to rise to every challenge, so let’s see if he does again this week.
Rodney Wallace, on the other hand has the easier out. Mathis hates to defend, and Beltran is about as bad as it gets as a right back now that Heaps has moved inside. However, it looks like Robbie Russell is ready to return, so Kreis could plug up that hole with him if he’s ready to start, or even use Ned Grabavoy there giving the youngster Beltran a bit of time of the bench to see how it’s done in the big leagues.
Now, even though Fred, Quaranta, and especially McTavish are all basically back to health, I would be shocked if Soehn tinkered with the starting lineup from the players who got the job done against Houston. However, for sure if a spark is needed in the second half, Fred and Santino should see time, maybe even McTavish if Soehn is looking to protect a lead, soccer gods willing. No Moreno, though obviously as he’s suspended, so his experience and possession skills won’t even be there.
So there you have it. Obviously, the intangibles all go against DC including the weather which could be cold and slick favoring speedy quick guys and not favoring Emilio and Gomez who seem to hate the cold. But, United still has a shot at reversing their fortunes in RSL if nothing goes horribly pear shaped. For certain, it will be tough point or three, but it’s doable especially if United scores first which they have in every game so far. Unfortunately, it’s just as doable for RSL to bounce out to an early lead and never look back, as United doesn’t strike me as a team that will come from behind on the road too often this year.
As for the rest of the league, things are looking up! Obviously, I’m never picking against Seattle again as I’ve learned that lesson and Colorado pipped LA in a game where I expected a tie, but I called the other six matches correctly. The Crew lost twice and so did NY, while the rest of the East all won as I predicted. Which brings the old record right on up from mediocrity to 13 and 9 overall. I think I’m ready for Vegas.
Dallas shows they still stink and get shutout in Toronto 2-0
SJ ties the Fire 1-1 at home
The Crew come back to life at home over Colorado 2-1
Houston drops NY like a bad habit 1-0
Chivas pounds LA 3-1
KC shocks Seattle with a goal, but the Sounders still roll 2-1
As for DC, I think a 1-1 tie is asking enough of fate. Anything more and hubris kicks in to the tune of a 3-1 spanking or something equally horrible, so let’s just keep the fingers crossed for a valiant point on the road.