Fresh off an undefeated three game home stand, DC United heads to Portland to play the Timbers at Jeld-Wen field, where the expansion side is a perfect 5-0-0 so far this season, including 3 shutouts in their last four games.
Heading into the middle third of the season, the jury is still very far out on DC United. They are clearly ahead of the pitiful state they were at this time last year, but they are also still a bit of an enigma. Capable of horrendous 4 to something losses at Colorado and Houston, or just as capable of impressive shutouts like against Dallas or in Toronto. Capable of sparkling forward play and beautifully orchestrated goals or just as capable of being shut down into impotence.
Now would be a good time to show what this young team is on their way to becoming. Portland is perfect at home and certainly ahead of United in MLS to date, but maybe not quite as fearsome as their record. Interestingly, both teams started the season wide open, scoring and giving up goals galore, but have since gotten results by tightening up defensively.
For Portland, that has meant rock solid, but somewhat uninspiring play all over the field, and an over-reliance on free kicks or individual brilliance to salvage their turnover prone offense. For DC, it is just as tight defensively of late, but perhaps a bit more collectively creative on the offensive end, especially when Josh Wolff is on the field; however, DC’s turnover problem is no less obvious.
Especially hampering matters for DC is the likelihood that team leading scorer Charlie Davies isn’t likely to play much if at all, and his partnership with Wolff is the greatest thing United fans have seen since Luciano Emilio teamed up with Christian Gomez (and Jaime Moreno of course). He tweaked a hamstring and is just back to practicing recently, if he plays, it probably won’t be too many minutes. Then again, Davies and DC did play pretty well when he came off the bench earlier this year, so there you go.
DC Coach Ben Olsen has some interesting decisions to make in replacing Davies too. Santino Quaranta, Joseph Ngwenya and rookie Blake Brettschneider all have made a partial case that it should be them playing alongside Wolff. Santino is the prodigal son of course. He played well against Ajax in his natural forward position, but didn’t score and hasn’t played much forward in MLS in years. Ngwenya also played well against Ajax, but athletics and stone boots are not usually a good combination unless you are scoring, which he didn’t either. Although he did set up the one guy that has scored recently as Brettschneider poked Ngwenya’s cross into the net versus Ajax. So, the rookie has staked a claim as perhaps the best finisher of the bunch and is a reasonably big body to throw at the teeth rattlers in Portland’s central defense.
Olsen also has some defensive decisions to make too as it out appears Jed Zayner is still out with a balky hamstring of his own (hopefully he is back by the time Dejan Jakovic is of to the Gold Cup for Canada). Third pick in the draft Perry Kitchen has been playing right back in MLS recently and very well too. However, the Ajax match was perhaps illuminating for the future as Kitchen played a defensive midfield role and was not out of place at all going against a Dutch midfield that could make fools of anyone in MLS. Particularly inspiring was his aggressive forceful tackling and ball winning, things Clyde Simms has apparently misplaced from his game of late.
Adding another twist in the tail of this is that Uruguyan disappointment Rodrigo Bresesco has been abysmal in central defense, but he played pretty darn well at right back against Ajax. It just might be a good time for Olsen to see if he’s a better right back than Simms is a defensive midfielder right now.
Unfortunately, that might experiment might not happen Sunday night as Portand’s left side is easily their most dangerous, while their central midfield has been a bit less frightening outside of dead balls of course, but more on that later. Kitchen is easily the better defender to date than Bresesco, so he should maybe stay at that right back to keep Portland’s Kalif Alhassan in check better than the wayward Uruguyan. And Simms is easily less physical and more MLS savvy than Kitchen, and perhaps less likely to give up too many free kicks which Portland feast on.
Getting to the matchups, the Timbers play a straight up 4-4-2 as does United, so it’s essentially man on man all over the field. Portland will almost certainly line up Kenny Cooper and Jorge Perlaza at forward. Then number two pick in the draft, Darlington Nagbe, Jack Jewsbury, Colombian DP Diego Chara, and Kalif Alhassan across the midfield from right to left. In defense, it will almost certainly be former Terp Jeremy Hall at right back, former Crewser, Eric Brunner, former USL Timber Mamadou “Futty” Danso, and former DC left back Rodney Wallace manning the backline, with former United keeper Troy Perkins in goal.
So, looking at the matchups, this game will be won or lost in midfield or more likely a simple defensive mistake, indeed as most games are, but especially this one. Cooper is the classic 7 foot center taking jump shots, not really going to hurt you unless you let him. Perlaza is a wild card, uncontrollable one game invisible the next. So, DC’s central defense of Jakovic and White should be just fine. As long as Jakovic’s savvy grace and White’s rugged athleticism negate those same traits in their opponents, DC will be fine in the run of play at least.
Now set pieces are another matter. Obviously DC lets in bad goals on set pieces more than a cat meows for its dinner. Even worse is that Portland scores on free kicks more than a jack rabbit on a date, 8 of their 13 goals to date off set pieces. 5 of them from defenders including their last three on the trot all game winning or game tying strikes. Obviously, if DC gives up enough bad fouls or makes a mistake, they will lose, but if they keep that mental element of the game tight, Portland might well struggle to find offense all on their lonesome.
Which is why this game will totally be decided in the midfield. If DC wins the midfield battles, Portland will not score outside a fluke. Nagbe is a talented rookie, true, but a inconsistent rookie nonetheless. Chara is a DP, but has yet to adapt to MLS offensively (think Boskovic, Branko circa 2010), although the Colombian is not at all shy about laying out some lumber despite his relatively small frame, something the bigger Boskovic never did learn or adapt well too. Then Jewsbury is an MLS lifer with a hard shot both from a dead ball and to the chops, but only 16 goals in over 200 MLS appearances (Yes, 2 goals this year and granted he was certainly a United killer for KC in the past!). But, Portland’s midfield really ticks behind the pay of Alhassan, he has really been sparklingly dangerous and is among the league leaders in assists.
To counter that, DC’s Andy Najar seems poised for great game. He is as competitive a midfielder as any midfielder DC has ever had, including Ben Olsen himself. Now, he’s not Richie Williams level defensively, but I believe he will bite an ankle if necessary. More importantly, if he forces Alhassan backward because he’s causing trouble for his former team mate Wallace playing the left side of Portland’s defense, who is still no great shakes at defense, then DC will be in good shape. But, Wallace does have 2 goals this year and he must be stopped from going forward to help Alhassan at all costs, and Najar should do that at least. Meaning Kitchen is a good choice to smother Alhassan.
Centrally, Dax McCarty and Simms, or even Kitchen should Benny decide to go that way, will be fine against Jewsbury, who has a bit of a groin strain, and Chara. Chris Pontius and Daniel Woolard will be fine against Nagby, who also has a bit of a groin strain and Hall on United’s left, so it’s really down to mental fortitude and clamping down on that right side of United’s defense.
Now, on the flip side, DC can score for sure. Wolff is playing as good as he ever has, and he has 70 some goals in MLS. He can flummox Brunner and “Futty” for sure. Even better is that I think Olsen gives Santino a chance to earn a forward spot and I love the way Santino and Najar seem to find each other from one side of the field to the other. With wandering Wallace guarding the harassing Honduran, I can see a back post finish or two from Najar easily. Pontius too, should have an edge over Hall, who isn’t so good when forced to defend either.
The only thing standing in DC’s way is a suddenly resurrected Perkins in goal for Portland. He has been silly in goal since coming back from a knee problem. He has 3 shutouts in his last four games, only a 3 goal barrage in LA prevents him being among the league leaders in goals against. A far cry from the tentative Troy we had here last year, who I do not recall having a single shut out as he steadily lost his job to a teenager, Bill Hamid, who he will face again tomorrow. Perkins might well want to send his old mates a message about how good he actually is. That could be trouble.
Looking at the trends is easy. DC has never faced Portland before obviously, so it’s down to current form. DC is undefeated in three straight, but one win and two ties at home is not definitive. Also, 1-3 on the road overall and being outscored 10-6, with three of those goals in the Toronto win, is not so promising either. However, DC has scored in every away match this year which has been unexpected and most promising despite the defensive lapses that they might well have tightened up lately.
Portland is on a four game unbeaten streak of their own outscoring their opponents 4-1, and is a perfect 5-0 at home outscoring their opponents 10-4 overall. The last three being 1-0 shutouts at home after a couple wild games early on, but that is perhaps deceptive as they caught travel weary Crew and Philly sides, and caught RSL right after their CCL let down. DC is well rested, and interestingly both teams played Ajax within the last week and DC played the Heredivisie winning side better losing 2-1, while Portland lost 2-0, but more importantly, reports have DC playing the Dutch Masters way more competitively.
And DC will have some locker-room fodder too, thanks to an incredible article in Portland that states the Timbers face some tough matches at home after the DC match that will test their home winning streak. Well now. The game is already won? I think not, nor do I think Tiber coach John Spencer overlooks DC either and will have his team ready. But, DC has a proud tradition, tarnished of late to be sure, but discounted altogether? You think Olsen will let his team gloss over this public slap?
I think not either. Timber Joey’s saw might go cold this weekend.