DC United in Columbus for Huge Road Test

OK first of all, I need to get one gripe out of my system. For the 8th time in 12 years, DC has to play in someone else’s home stadium on the Fourth of July. DC United has never hosted a July Fourth match ever. There is no other team in the league that has never got to watch their side on the Fourth and get a fireworks show afterwards to boot. That’s bordering on criminal.

Now, granted DC has stolen two straight road matches on the Fourth the past two years, but that only brings them to a paltry 3-5 over the years on Independence Day. Seriously, DC almost never opens the season at home, and they never ever play the biggest holiday of the summer at home, so that’s two huge games that the Black and Red are behind the eight ball on a regular basis. Bitter.

DC United might well have even more bitter feelings aside from being away from their families yet again on a major holiday…… (OK, sorry, I’ll move on).

Anyway, considering DC was knocked out of the playoffs last year in that wretched last game of the 2008 season and this is their first time back to the Ohio Fairgrounds since, I’d think there will be some thoughts of revenge on DC’s mind in addition to the current situation at the top of the Eastern Conference, especially as this time DC is on top and the Crew are looking to move on up.

It won’t be a true measure of each team however, as both sides will be missing some key players. DC won’t have Moreno or Emilio both out injured as well as Quaranta and Jakovic on Gold Cup duty. The Crew will be without Robbie Rogers and Chad Marshall to the Gold Cup as well. So, the match will be more of a test of who has the better depth than who really deserves the top of the table in the East, but there you go.

It will certainly be an enormous road test for DC though. United has stumbled recently and was pounded badly in Colorado their last time out as well as barely scraping by an amateur team in the Open Cup in midweek. United still only has one lone road win against the woeful Red Bulls, despite several very respectable ties away from RFK. So, any kind of result in Columbus would be huge.

The Crew on the other hand are undefeated at home (4-0-3) which is a bit unusual for them as they normally torment their home fans unmercifully. But, they were incredible at home last year and have kept that going despite their ugly start to this season. However, even so, they barely scraped by NY at home last week and they were bounced from the Open Cup in midweek by Rochester, so they are not going like gangbusters right now either.

Plus, losing Rogers is really a serious problem for them as they are so thin on the wings to begin with. They’ve played Alex Grendi there, moved Ekpo around, tried various sketchy central midfield combinations to allow Gaven to play wide, but nothing has really jumped out as a solution for their lack of depth out wide (which makes trading Noonan a real puzzling move, but I digress). Plus, while they have defender depth and are getting Hejduk back in the lineup, Marshall is their best defender and will be tough to replace. So, it will be interesting to see how Warzycha solves his midfield puzzle.

DC, on the other hand has to cope with losing their top three forwards, as well as there best defender in Jakovic. Clearly, the Khumalo – N’Silu forward pairing was a disaster against the Barons, so the only forward left with any kind of effectiveness is United’s rookie of the year Chris Pontius, which is obviously a good option, but leaves a hole on that right side of midfield, which he has shared most of this season with Quaranta.

When Pontius came into that Open Cup match, though it pushed Khumalo out wide and DC was suddenly generating buckets of chances, so I suspect Pontius plays forward with Lt. Sulu, the doctor Khumalo plays the right side. With Fred running well and looking healthy before that Barons match, maybe he starts on the right instead, but I suspect Soehn will bring on the Fredster as a sub, especially as it’s a road match.

Now, Janicki as the center back in place of Jakovic is a much more dicey proposition. He is not fast and while he has played very well most of the minutes he has gotten since joining the club, he has not looked good recently in the Colorado loss or the Open Cup match. I think he’s ready to show he can play well in pace of the Canuck, but I can see where others are a lot more nervous than I am.

However, Columbus, especially without Rogers is the one team in MLS where attacking speed is not really a problem. Moreno is a banger and Schelotto is elusive, not fleet of foot. Ekpo is fast, but the Crew’s system won’t get him isolated very often and he’s the only speed guy they have anyway. One speed threat can be contained, especially if it comes in a very pedestrian offense that struggles to generate chances.

So, the Crew’s defense should be fine and they will get the boost from a home crowd, but their offense, which has been struggling anyway, takes a huge hit. DC has shown, outside of that Colorado debacle, the ability to get something on the road offensively, but their defense is obviously weakened without Jakovic.

So, this is maybe there most important road test to date. Columbus is the defending champions and are a huge Eastern Conference rival. Losing to Western teams on the road are not that crucial, but failing to get at least a point when playing East rivals on the road is punishable by a rapid drop in the table.

DC United has corrected so many inherent flaws in their team overall with their very savvy additions to the team’s depth, but one huge glaring flaw remains in their mentality and effectiveness on the road, especially against the Eastern Conference. United has only beaten NY and tied KC, and while it was a cruel loss to NE, it was a loss nonetheless. 1-1-1 on the road in the East is still not good enough especially as that NY win was literally a miracle. Time for your depth players and your whole team overall to show you can command respect even outside of RFK.

This will be DC’s third straight road match in league play and it hasn’t really been pretty so far. Counting Columbus, DC still has 6 of their next 8 on the road as well as some Open Cup, CONCACAF, and Real Madrid distractions in the weeks ahead. United absolutely needs to show they can and will steal points on the road and this is as good a time as any considering the two teams relative depth. This could be a turning point for DC or it could be the continuation of a downward slide. Getting at least a point is a huge test for United right now.

Still, looking with a coldly dispassionate eye, given the Crew’s solid, but unspectacular play at home as well as the blow to their offense in losing Rogers; and DC’s plucky, but not very convincing road form as well as the blow to their defense in losing Jakovic, this really seems to have 1-1 tie written all over it. Which would be a very good result given the situation. It’s the dog days of summer and all DC needs to do is survive right now.

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