DeRo during the pre-game ceremonies prior to United's 3-2 win over the New England Revolution. Photo: Martin Fernandez.

DC’s Back Against the Wall Again

DC United hosts the New England Revolution in a crucial match that will that may well determine their playoff lives. A win over the lowly Revs for the third time this season and DC is still in the hunt, a tie or a loss and DC might as well kiss their chances for the postseason goodbye.

Fresh off the brutal news that United has lost their captain and defending league MVP, Dwayne De Rosario for the rest of the season due to a knee injury while playing for Canada in World Cup Qualifying, United has to regroup and find a way to force themselves back into the playoff picture with a string of good results that must start with a win over the visiting Revs tomorrow night.

One thing the last four seasons have had in common is a point late in the season where DC were pushed to the brink and needed to go on a serious run simply to reach the MLS playoffs, and then a dagger was slipped in at the last moment and made the job even tougher. Obviously, United wasn’t up to the task in recent years, but hope flames eternal that this will be different.

Interestingly, after largely ignoring or humiliating his designated players for most of the year, DC coach Ben Olsen will likely need them to produce in a big way if the team is to end a brutal four year playoff drought. Of course Olsen may well stick to his guns and play his preferred wheelbarrow load of journeymen, but as mentioned, hope flames eternal.

So, it will be interesting to see how Olsen replaces his irreplaceable talisman. Branko Boskovic and Hamdi Salihi would seem to be obvious solutions, but obvious has rarely been in the offing so far this season. What is obvious is Olsen’s disdain for his high paid talent this season, and the fact they played recently in Europe for their respective National teams, it’s easy to see Benny keeping them under wraps in this match as well.

In a lot of ways, this will be Olsen’s watershed moment. DeRo’s versatility and dynamic play kept opposing teams honest and somewhat allowed Olsen to get away with starting very little talent on the field. Oh, lots of worker bees buzzing around exuding effort and sometimes grit, but no real class outside of Pontius or the occasional flash in the pan from Najar or DeLeon. Now, without DeRo, Pontius will be the focus of any defense DC faces so it is pretty unlikely that hustle and bustle will get the job done the rest of this season.

Seems to me, Olsen has a choice of sticking to his guns and starting Long Tan over Salihi and Marcelo Saragosa over Branko Boskovic, as well as keeping Andy Najar at right back in order to keep Chris Pontius in midfield; or admitting defeat and going with Salihi alongside Lionard Pajoy, Boskovic at playmaker in front of Perry Kitchen, and moving Pontius up to forward allowing Najar back into his midfield role. Quite frankly, my money is on Tan, Saragosa, and another dismal effort trying not to lose a match instead of trying to dictate and win it.

However, the Revs are set up so that a team that pressures them and dictates to them can beat them fairly easily as DC has done so far twice this year. Olsen has had a disturbing tendency to focus on the game in front of the team rather than the long term, and incredibly if Olsen does game pan specifically for this match, it could work in DC’s favor.

NE’s Jay Heaps has his own serious injury concerns and big money players on the bench as he’s lost Frenchman Saer Sene for the season and has stapled former US National teamer, Benny Feilhaber to the bench. But, the Revs have added Honduran marksman, Jerry Bengston, since DC faced them last and he’s coming off a big week scoring both game winners in CONCACAF qualifying for Honduras, as well as finally been able to integrate their German defender Flo Lechner into their shaky defense.

So, with NE pretty much forced into a basic 4-4-2 with a lot of worker bees or fresh young faces themselves, DC would be well served to take the game to them and stake a big lead like they did the last time NE visited when DC held on for a 3-2 win after jumping out to a 2-0 lead.

In a reversal from my usual form, let’s look at what NE will try to do. Almost certainly Heaps will be starting Bengston and youngster Diego Fagundez at forwards, Lee Nguyen, rookie Kelyn Rowe, Ryan Guy and former DC midfielder Clyde Simms in midfield, and Lechner, Steven McCarthy, Darius Barnes, and Kevin Alston along the backline going right to left in front of Uncle Fester, I mean, Matt Reis.

Given that lineup and the way they played against Columbus to win 2-0 and break a 10 game winless streak, NE will try to pressure DC and look for quick plays around the box to free up Fagundez and Bengston for open looks. Neither is particularly a threat in the air much preferring to play with the ball on the ground, as is Nguyen for that matter. All their buzzing pressure is designed to mask their most glaring weakness which is a pretty pitiful central defense, although the return of Darius Barnes has helped there quite a bit.

To counter that and give themselves the best chance to win, DC should turn the tables on them and seek to control the ball with precision passing around their pressure giving DC numbers advantage going forward, and isolating their forwards on McCarthy especially, but their weak center for sure.

So, while Saragosa might pressure more in midfield, his massive amount of turnovers could doom DC. Boskovic is not going to defend, but he has just about the best touch on passes on DC’s roster. Frankly, same with Brandon McDonald’s horrendous turnovers out of the defense, but I’ve given up on him seeing the bench. Also, as spritely as Tan dances behind defenses, his appalling touch rarely allows him to exploit his daring efforts. Pontius, or even god forbid Salihi now that DeRo isn’t on the field to refuse to pass to him, would be the better options.

Bottom line, the matchups favor DC exceedingly if Olsen goes aggressive in his lineup. Something like Pontius (or Salihi), Pajoy, Pontius (or DeLeon), Boskovic, Kitchen, Najar, Chris Korb/Mike Chabala, Emiliano Dudar, Dejan Jakovic, and Robbie Russell/Chris Korb would have far and away more advantageous matchups with NE.

A more pedestrian, and quite frankly more likely lineup given Olsen’s tendencies this season, with Tan, Saragosa, Najar in defense, MoonBall McDonald, etc. still has some advantages because NE is really bad this year, but it plays into NE’s strengths and makes the match a muddy slugfest where likely a couple mistakes decide the match. Given DC’s razor thin margin for error in their next few matches, and their past four years worth of pitiful stretch runs, which do you think is the better way to go?

Even better is the trends. DC is undefeated at home and incredibly, with a draw or win against the lowly Revs, DC would set a record for results in RFK with 14 straight games without a loss. (DC were undefeated at home for 13 games in their Supporter’s Shield winning season of 2007.) NE, on the other hand is a woeful 1-10-2 on the road and literally has nothing to play for being all but eliminated from the playoffs.

The Revs also have not fared well historically in RFK. DC is 17-8-4 against the Revs at home including a win earlier this year. Granted NE has thumped DC a few times recently, as DC’s win this year was the first win over the Revs in RFK since 2008, but those bad old playoff-less days are behind us, right?

There’s no sugar coating this one. DC has to win this match because if they tie or even lose and then play their usual dismal road match up in Philly next Thursday, it’s unlikely they will steal the points like they did there earlier this season and all of a sudden, the playoffs are almost an impossibility.

True, United is only 1 point out of the playoff picture behind the Crew in the final slot, but for all intents and barring a complete collapse by the Fire or NY, DC has to catch either the Crew or Houston (4 points ahead of DC) for a playoff berth. The Crew and Houston both have tough road matches this week in NY and in KC respectively, but after that they both have more home matches and just as many winnable road games as DC if not more.

After NE, DC only has two home games against Chivas and the Crew and faces two playoff teams. The Crew has four home matches and faces only two playoff teams in their last six games (unless you count DC and I wouldn’t unless DC wins outright tomorrow night and at least gets a point in Philly). Houston has three home matches and plays no playoff teams for the rest of the year. So, even if DC plays well, they still aren’t likely to catch Houston or the Crew. Even if they manage to catch the Crew, Columbus visits RFK for a match DC has to win for all the marbles in October.

However, it is meaningless to parse games and schedules unless DC actually takes care of business in the games on their schedule. The past four years have shown a clear tendency to fold like a cheap tent down the stretch. If given any excuse t lose, they lose wholeheartedly.

They have a ready-made excuse in the loss of DeRo and they’ve had their destiny in their hands many times in recent years only to say one thing and do another. Let’s hope they back up all their talk about depth and players stepping up to fill their captain’s shoes, etc. If not, it will be another long bitter winter in DC.

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