DC just snapped a two game losing streak with a home win over NE, but now head out for four straight on the road starting with the Fire who have lost three straight in MLS.
United is fresh off a rousing 2-1 come from behind win over hated rivals New England that saw DC leap to the top of MLS two points clear of the Cascadia combo of Seattle and Vancouver. But having played eleven of their first eighteen matches at home, United’s long summer of travel starts in Chicago where DC hasn’t won since 2009 when Bryan Namoff scored the winner two weeks before a concussion that would end his career, and where United has only won three times since Toyota Park opened in 2006. The Fire, on the other hand, are reeling through a difficult season that currently sees them at the bottom of the league having lost five of their last eight games including a 3-1 loss to DC a few week ago in RFK.
So while this is a top versus bottom clash that you would normally think favors the top team, given the situation, it may not play out that way. Starting with DC’s ridiculous schedule and travel along with still some key injuries and a suspension, United coach Ben Olsen will have some tough choices to make for his starting lineup in Chicago. DC will be without regulars Chris Pontius (calf), Sean Franklin (ankle) as well as Davy Arnaud (yellow card accumulation) and they are in the midst of a 6 games in 16 days stretch that started June 16 in Pittsburgh with a 120 minute win, then the NE win, now in Chicago, in Toronto on the weekend, at Philly for the Open Cup next mid-week and ending up July 3rd in Seattle.
The Fire have some key injuries to David Accam and Shaun Maloney, and a suspension to Matt Polster too; however their schedule is much easier to deal with having last weekend off and facing the least daunting Open Cup opponent in the next round which will be at home for them too. For comparison; since June 15 when Chicago beat Louisville City at home to advance in the Open Cup the day before DC, they had last weekend off and incredibly will have next weekend off as well before hosting the USL Charlotte Independence before traveling to Houston for their July 3rd match. DC has 6 games in 16 days, 5 of 6 on the road; the Fire, 4 games in 17 days 3 of them at home. Nice going MLS.
Still be that as it may, that’s the task set before DC and most pundits are fond of pointing out how United is the deepest team in the league so let’s take a stab at how Olsen sets up the team for Chicago which is arguably the more winnable game than either Toronto or Seattle, much less the bottom of the bench team that will be sent to Philly. Replacing Arnaud is easy as the Finn, Markus Halsti can slot in there easily enough and indeed will make quite a few folks happy to see him play some true first team minutes with the first team. Franklin too can be replaced easily with Chris Korb, but Pontius is a much tougher loss as DC is very thin on the wings. Rolfe obviously can play there, but he’s played a lot lately and might be better off the bench against his old team in his old stomping ground, but more on that later. Which pretty much leaves Conor Doyle or Miguel Aguilar as Olsen’s options as the winger opposite Nick DeLeon, and if DeLeon is rested, there are both your starters.
So, looking into my crystal ball, I think Olsen tries to get one more match out of Fabian Espindola before resting him and starts Jairo Arrieta along with him at forward, but will be getting Luis Silva into this match early. I think going with Espindola gives DC the best chance to score early and maybe make the last place team in the league hang their heads, then he can replace him with Silva to hopefully hang on to the win. Silva has been getting only garbage time lately and not playing well at all, so I doubt he starts, but he will have to take a big chunk of minutes in the next couple weeks so he has to start getting bigger minutes now to build up to more down the road.
In midfield, I suspect Doyle and Aguilar will start both to rest DeLeon and because Chicago’s wing play won’t be as dynamic as last time with Accam and Maloney out which likely moves Harry Shipp inside to Maloney’s playmaking position. I think it very likely Perry Kitchen plays alongside Halsti in midfield, but Perry has been playing quite a bit lately too, so part of me thinks Olsen might pair Halsti with Jared Jeffrey for a couple reasons. One being that it’s likely Jeffrey and Halsi play quite a bit together in practice and they did start together in Portland, also Jeffrey has been pretty poor in his limited time, but that was with a complete bottom of the roster team in Portland. Might be a good idea to see what he can do with a lot more regulars around him against a team that doesn’t have a good midfield in general, as well as give Kitchen some rest. Which only leaves the backline which should be pretty stable and interchangeable weathering this glut of games and injuries as they were last time. Taylor Kemp, Steve Birnbaum (or Kofi Opare), Bobby Boswell and Chris Korb will be fine until Franklin gets back, especially with reigning goalkeeper of the year Bill Hamid seemingly back to health and starting.
The Fire’s Frank Yallop will have a much easier time putting his lineup together without future games to worry about. Quincy Amarikwa started against DC at forward in RFK, but hasn’t played much since and still hasn’t scored in MLS although he did get the game winner in the 1-0 Open Cup win for the Fire. Still, Guly Do Prado or more likely Kennedy Igboananike have displaced him at forward. But whether Yallop tinkers with his tactics will be interesting. They have played mostly a 4-2-3-1 as most MLS teams are doing this year, but last time out he played a straight up 4-4-2 against NE that lost 2-0, but then again looked a lot more solid than that score would indicate, especially as it took two world class goals to give NE the win, Diego Fagundez’ cracking goal of the week side volley and a ridiculous reaction header from Charlie Davies on a shot heading out for a throw-in. The 4-4-2 would actually line up better against DC but we’ll see.
Anyway, the last time the Fire had a good run of results two draws and a win about a month ago, they played the 4-2-3-1 with Igboananike up top. With Maloney out, Shipp will almost certainly move underneath him which isn’t good for DC as Maloney has been terrible and Shipp orchestrated the Fire’s lone goal in the 3-1 loss to DC a few weeks ago. Also with Accam out, Yallop will likely go with Jason Johnson as the speed element on that wing, or maybe he goes safe and plays Lovel Palmer to shut down DC, but I don’t think so unless DC starts Rolfe. The rest of midfield will be Michael Stephens on the right, Razvan Cocis and Matt Watson for the suspended Polster holding in front of the backline. The backline should be Joevin Jones, Adailton, Jeff Larentowicz, and Eric Gehrig going left to right, although maybe Palmer plays the right sending Gehrig into the middle and sitting Adailton, he of the two own goals in one game. Could be either Jon Busch or Sean Johnson in the nets although if Yallop has been paying attention to how much of a United killer Busch has been over the years, that would be a no brainer. Johnson has been the starter, but was benched and may well have played his way back in there, so we’ll see.
So, looking at the tactics and matchups, DC has some legitimate advantages as long as Espindola starts and will be even more favored if Rolfe does too. Chicago plays a lot like NE does only with less success and less talent overall obviously. They have lacked a finisher which they hope Igboananike (or Do Prado) will become but they can counter with speed, especially through Shipp and with Johnson slashing in behind Korb or Kemp Chicago can be trouble, not as much trouble as with Accam, but trouble nonetheless. Shipp and Larentowicz hits some wicked deadballs too, but that’s about it. Chicago might get one, but not more than that if DC plays their normal tight road game. It should be noted Chicago’s Mike Magee should be back in the 18, but with such a long layoff, hopefully he doesn’t find his form until DC is long gone.
Offensively, Aguilar or DeLeon is feisty enough to give fits to Jones, Doyle likely won’t do much against Gehrig or Palmer, but he’ll help keep Stephens from causing too much trouble. However, if Rolfe starts, DC owns this side. Interestingly enough, Rolfe has never played against the Fire as he missed both matches last year as well as the first match this year. However, as much as I’d love him to start, it’s probably smarter to bring him off the bench in this one. Still, the real advantage offensively is Espy and Arrieta (and later Silva or maybe DeLeon) going against Larentowicz and Gehrig or Adailton. DC’s forwards are easily crafty and quick enough to torture Chicago’s central defense, especially with Halsti in there as he can hit some dagger balls behind them which Espy and Arrieta will eat up. So, assuming the soccer gods sit this one out, while DC will give up one goal, they should score two and get their first win in Chicago in six years.
Bold statement when you consider the history. As mentioned DC hasn’t won in Toyota Park since 2009 and is a pretty woeful 6-10-8 all time in Chicago, but lost in all that is DC is 3-3-6 since Toyota Park was built and has 4 draws in their last 6 there. Still, DC has also been pretty awful on the road of late at 2-4-1 with only 4 goals scored and having given up 7 goals in those 7 games, plus being shut out in 3 of their last 4 on the road. However, the Fire has been equally unimpressive at home having lost 2 of their last 3 and are only 4-3-0 overall having given up 5 goals in their last 3 at home. The Fire are also 1-5-2 in their last 8 games having been outscored 15-11 in those matches so they are averaging almost 2 goals a game given up in the last two months.
So there you have it, DC should manage at least a draw given everything, but might well pull out another somewhat surprising win if they play their cards right. DC is already 7 points up on the NE in the East and could put the East on ice for almost a month with a win given the dearth of games coming up due to the Gold Cup. Always a bad idea to look ahead, but getting something in this one takes a lot of pressure off the more difficult games coming up in Toronto and Seattle.