DC United On its Last Gasp in Kansas City

Yes, when Chicago won and Jabloteh lost, it was pretty much a poke in the eye and just about the worst day of the season for DC United, but DC have a golden chance to redeem themselves and scrape into the MLS playoffs with a win in Kansas City and some good results around the rest of the league.

OK, so last year, it was NY hanging around waiting for someone to knock them out, and it never happened so they backed into the playoffs when DC lost and parlayed that good fortune into their only MLS cup run ever. Now, the shoe is on DC’s foot as they are pretty much waiting for other teams to knock them out, but they can make that task a lot harder by winning in KC, a place that has been exceedingly friendly to United over the years.

So, without further ado, I will make your playoff scenario lives easier. If DC wins and Dallas wins, United are very likely to make the playoffs. If DC wins and Dallas loses, DC is almost certainly out unless Colorado fails to win too and some other results go the right way as well. Now, incredibly, DC can make the playoffs with a tie if a lot of other results fall perfectly, but those chances are dicey to expect, so it’s not even worth thinking about them. Bottom line, DC must win on the road in order to need the least amount of help getting to the playoffs.

Incredibly, all the other teams at 39 points vying for that last spot are also playing on the road too. TFC ostensibly has the easiest match at the pitiful Red Bulls, but that is the last match in Giants Stadium, and under Richie, NY is a lot tougher out than they have been all year and what better way to audition for the DC job next year than to help them into the playoffs! DC at KC has the next easiest match, then NE at the Crew and Dallas at Seattle both have tough matches, but against teams that have already clinched the Supporter’s Shield and their spot in the playoffs respectively. No doubt, those two higher seeds will not want to lose their final home matches, but you would assume the visitors would easily be the more desperate teams.

Away records are not much help either as Dallas and NE have but three wins on the road, while TFC, Colorado and DC are right in there with two each. Of course, DC’s two wins were utter flukes, but hey they were robbed a few points on the road too. Looking at road performance, DC and Dallas have scored the most on the road, but also given up the most too, with Colorado and TFC coming in a couple goals behind them. Incredibly, NE with a 6-0 loss in RSL has still given up far less goals on the road than anyone else, but then again they have only scored half as many too with a mere 10 goals and therefore have the worst goal differential by far. FCD has scored 23, DC 22, TFC 19, and Colorado 18.

But all that goes out the window anyway when you consider the opponents each team has to face. NE has to go to Columbus where the Crew have only lost twice in 26 games over almost two years (to Seattle and Cruz Azul) so clearly that’s not an easy win. Nor does Colorado have an easy task as RSL is 7-1-5 this year in Rio Tinto (KC beat them shockingly, not Houston, LA, Seattle, Chivas, much less Colorado!). Plus, TFC has never won in NY in their history as well as the fact that as bad as NY has been this year, they are still 4-6-4 at home with a -1 GD as opposed to their overall -25 GD. Dallas does not matter as DC holds the tiebreaker edge over them as long as no other teams horn into that tie as their better per game average points would kick in to help them.

So, there you have it. If DC wins, they have as good a chance as they will get, albeit slim shady for sure. So, the real question is can they win and the answer to that is a resounding maybe. DC is certainly capable and KC is probably only going to play spoiler a bit halfheartedly. Plus DC, as bad as they have been on the road the past few years, they have only lost once in KC since 2004. DC is a shocking 3-1-4 in KC with the only loss being that season opener last year when their minds were elsewhere as they were traveling to Pachuca for their next match.

However, stats and tendencies aside, DC has some real hard questions still to be answered up and down the team and that is no way to claw your way into the playoffs. Incredibly United, heading into the last game of the season mind you, still does not have a system in place or even a reliable set of starters. So, maybe Soehn hits the jackpot with whatever new lineup he trots out there this time, but just as likely he craps out.

Case in point, The Crew “win” was pretty much a lucky result gutted out by the old guard, while the Toluca tie was a brilliant performance (yes, a bit lucky too, but that Toluca reserve team was miles better than that Crew team in RFK) by the new wave of young and hungry types so Soehn will have to decide which way he will go, or how he will strike a balance, particularly since Quaranta and Namoff remain out.

So, right from the start, what formation does Soehn use? 4-4-2, 4-5-1, 3-5-2? What does he do with Moreno, Olsen, Fred and Gomez? What about young guys that have clearly stepped up like Khumalo, Jacobson, and Szetela? Amazingly for this late in the season, there is just so many fundamental questions still left to be answered.

Now if I was in charge and considering rest really isn’t an issue even with that tough match in Mexico a few days ago, I think this is the time Soehn has to say these are the best I’ve got and they will win this one and ride out whatever playoff string United can muster.

That means Emilio and Pontius starting at forward. They are easily the best pairing United has produced to date, and when Pontius tires Khumalo can move in for him as he has earned it with his sparkling play lately. KC has been doing a bit of shuffling in their central defense with the rookie Besler taking over for Hohlbein as partner for Conrad, so maybe that’s an area where DC can take advantage.

In midfield, even though United could afford to play five midfielders, since three in the back is fine on that tiny KC field, they should play a standard 4-4-2 as it is their best formation right now with the players they have and considering the way KC plays as well as who and where they will play in the playoffs should they get that far.

So, in the center, Gomez and Simms are the best DC has and they match up very well with Jewsbury and Hirsig (if he’s healthy), and especially against Zusi if Hirsig remains out. Maybe Szetela for Gomez if Soehn is really ready to let him out of the doghouse, but with Quaranta out and Jacobson a bit banged up, Gomez is really the best option right now unless Soehn is ready to start auditioning Szetela for that role next year.

As for the outside players, Fred barely gets the nod over Khumalo on the right. Boyzzz has probably earned it more, but sadly he plays almost no credible defense at all and Fred is at least competent in the sense that he gets in the way like the proverbial sleeping dog that trips up the burglar trying to rob the house. So, with Lopez out there for KC backed up by the very lively Harrington coming forward from his left back slot, DC needs to play someone at that right midfield slot who will track back with some type of reliability even if it is just a body to trip over.

As for the left, Wallace is a no brainer, he’s the best left midfielder DC has hands down and going against Myers for the injured Leathers and Watson is a pretty nice matchup for DC too. Plus, with the snakebit Arnaud, or maybe the anemic Herculez Gomez out there for KC, Wallace’s defensive flaws will be less crucial to the outcome most likely.

You’ll note there’s no Olsen or Moreno in those plans and as sad as it is to say, those guys are now officially past being consistently effective players. They now become the super-subs who help cement wins coming on late to provide some control and leadership, or maybe they can run out a stretch of games if injuries hit or what have you, but they are done as starters and probably finished wearing Black and Red unless they are willing to take huge pay cuts and much diminished roles in the future. We’ll see.

Now, the defense has lesser questions. McTavish or Vaughn can play the right well enough for Namoff, I’d play Vaughn personally as he has done the most at that position lately, but McTavish is great and maybe a bit more experienced in that role with DC overall. Either one of them can keep Lopez contained as good as anyone in MLS can. Then Jakovic and James are etched in stone in the center and they should be fine against Wolff and Arnaud or Zoltan.

So the only question is at left back. Burch has been average to terrible, but John is a wild card who can be brilliant or utterly useless. Burch is more experienced here and a better threat going forward, but John is a more solid defender and less likely to make mistakes. However, John has a tendency to the costly foul and does sometimes get lost. I’d play John, since KC’s attack down their right is not that scary, but either John or Burch has risks.

As for goalkeeping, I must bite my tongue and say Cronin has been fantastic. I think it’s a horrible message to send to your young players that they will get replaced at the drop of a hat by the newest flavor of the month who might be brought in, but I guess Soehn has been doing that all year in lots of positions, so why stop now. There have been none of the communication problems I expected anyway, so hopefully young Cronin keeps his streak going because with that tight field in KC, weird things can happen. Might be no shots for half an hour, then 10 in 5 minutes, or it could be end to end action for long stretches, or no action at all for a whole half.

Even the intangibles somewhat favor DC. United is 6-9-4 overall in KC, but considering the team went 3-8 there over the first 9 years of the league, DC’s recent record there isn’t too shabby. Plus, no danger of biblical storms or weather related travel fiascos either. DC is relatively hot coming off those big results against the best teams in MLS and Mexico, and they should be more motivated considering their playoffs chances, while KC hasn’t won in almost a month and they have nothing to play for.

So, there you have it. DC has the ability to win this one if they exhibit some of the will to do so. That has always been the question for this team, but now is the absolute last chance for this team to establish some kind of rhythm and maybe make some noise in the playoffs if they are lucky enough to get there.

If DC ties, they could still qualify for the playoffs, but they’d need Colorado to win, Dallas to tie, and NE and TFC to lose in order to make it on the first tiebreaker. If DC loses, they are out as they can’t pass NE or TFC in any tiebreaker scenario.

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