DC United (and designated player, Branko Bosokvic, above) head to Vancouver to face the surging Whitecaps hoping to find their form after starting the season with losses to SKC and LA. The two teams split their two matches last year, but both have made significant changes for the 2012 season.
Vancouver, after finishing last in the West in their inaugural season last year, vastly improved their already solid offense by trading for the Flying Frenchman Sebastion LeToux and his 25 MLS goals in the past two seasons. The move also upgraded their midfield by moving Swiss attacker Davide Chumiento and his 9 assists last year into midfield, a midfield that was already improved with the acquisition of Japanese holding midfielder, Jun Marques Davidson.
But perhaps more importantly and with less fanfare, quietly improved their porous defense from last year (3rd worst GAA in the league), with the addition of South Korean World Cup veteran, Young-Pyo Lee, and Argentine central defender Martin Bonjour to partner with American international Jay DeMerit, and Canadian Alain Rochat.
Those changes have sparked Vancouver to a 2-0 start to the season including their first ever MLS road win last week against Chivas. However, arguably DC will be a different challenge as the ‘Caps have perhaps been the recipient of the most lenient schedule in MLS so far by getting to start at home against this year’s hapless expansion team, Montreal, and then travel to the equally hapless Chivas USA (who were without their main offensive threats available).
Assuming United’s Ben Olsen has come to his senses, or DC’s designated players have gotten the message to earn their starting roles (whichever scenario you prefer), United’s off-season shopping spree should arguably present more of a challenge than anyone Vancouver has faced so far.
My personal opinion is that Olsen saw Albanian striker Hamdi Salihi and Montenegran playmaker Branko Boskovic struggle in their first match this year and felt that they might need a bit more time to acclimate to MLS before being thrown to the KC and LA wolves, both last year’s conference winners and current MLS Cup favorites. He essentially was doing the same thing with Argentine defender Emiliano Dudar by leaving him out of the starting XI for both matches, and he only played the second half versus LA due to an injury to Dejan Jakovic.
However, regardless of the reason, DC United absolutely needs to begin developing some chemistry between and among their high priced talent now. Arguably, the team had little chance to develop chemistry against seasoned experienced teams with almost no changes to their lineups, but that is not the case against Vancouver who has made changes, and might be a bit overconfident considering their relatively easy start compared to United’s trial by fire. Granted they passed their SATs and DC failed the Bar exam, but hey, I’m just stating the facts.
Of course, United does find themselves a little further behind the 8-ball as former rookie of the year, Andy Najar, joins Perry Kitchen and Bill Hamid away with his national team for Olympic qualifying. But, United’s off-season shopping didn’t end with the window dressing, they also picked up some quality depth in players like Danny Cruz from Houston who is likely to replace Najar and Marcelo Saragosa who should remain the backup for Kitchen in defensive midfield.
Tactically, Vancouver plays more of a 4-1-4-1 and in the attack relies on Chumiento and LeToux to generate chances for their big Frenchman Eric the Red Hassli to finish, or to knockdown for the crafty Brazilian Camilo Sanvezzo to finish. Defensively, they look funnel everything centrally for their big men to snuff out which also allows Lee and Rochat to pay almost as wingbacks and get forward as much as be called upon to defend. DC almost certainly will play Olsen’s beloved 4-4-2 which means they will have an advantage in the attack out wide, but must be conscious of not letting Saragosa and their center backs get overrun right down the middle of the field.
So, assuming DC goes with their best players on paper, looking at the matchups, DC has some advantages assuming they begin to assert some form of chemistry on the field.
When attacking, obviously Salihi is a new element for Demerit and Bonjour to try and contain, and if Salihi shows the running and defensive work he showed in the first match, he will cause problems for DeMerit and Bonjour, especially if defending league MVP, Dwayne De Rosario is back to his usual form. Unfortunately, in midfield Boskovic might again be at a tactical disadvantage and be forced to do more shovel work than fine motor control, but if he occupies that hole and keeps the ‘Caps from owning the center of the field, than he’s done his job, because DC’s best chances will come from wide play and Cruz against Rochat and Pontius against Lee will likely decide DC’s fate. If they force those outside backs backward, United has the advantage and look for Salihi to get his first MLS goal.
Defensively, DC is still in decent shape. Obviously, LeToux against Woolard, who should regain his starting slot from Korb who, due to that assist he provided on one of LA’s goals, should spend some time back on the bench thinking about the value of square passes in the defensive third of the field. Also, Woolard did very well against another physical mismatch in Kei Kamara in the first match, and quite frankly never seems to have the physical advantage on anyone, yet also never seems to get burned that often.
Robbie Russell on the other side has seen Camilo plenty last year when he played for RSL and shouldn’t be too troubled by him as long as the play DC’s defense stays coordinated. Even better, in central defense, Dudar has actually played against Eric the Red and Chumiento in Switzerland and shouldn’t be too surprised by either of those two keys to Vancouver’s attack. As long as Saragosa stays tight in front of Dudar and McDonald, DC will be tough to break down, even with all the weapons Vancouver has.
Obviously, the trends do not favor DC, 0-2, 0-1 on the road having been outscored 4-1, versus ‘Caps, who are 2-0, 1-0 at home with a 3-0 goal differential, but as I said those stats are a bit misleading. The two teams split their games last year with DC thumping Vancouver 4-0 in RFK (Stephen King even scored!), and falling 1-2 last year in Vancouver (Santino Quaranta with his last United assist on a Brandon McDonald goal after the ‘Caps staked a two goal lead).
Obviously, a betting man goes with Vancouver in this one, but I think DC can surprise the ‘Caps. I won’t say anything more than that as the Martin jinx is well known as the kiss of death, but I think the real DC United begins to show its potential tomorrow night in Vancouver.