Coming off a couple ugly games amidst a mass of matches, DC adds a cross country trip to face a Portland side reeling from a couple road losses themselves.
After dropping five points in East in their last two matches by losing to bottom dwelling Philly and barely scratching out a draw against nine man New England, DC will look to regroup in the West despite a mass of players being out injured or resting. Of course the injured Fabian Espindola, Luis Silva, Nick DeLeon and Michael Farfan will not be making the cross country trip, but added to that United’s aging midfielder’s Chris Rolfe and Davy Arnaud won’t be making the trip either. With United on the second match of five in 15 days and Portland being 5,000 miles roundtrip, it makes sense to leave some guys home. Luckily, Portland is a little dinged up and not playing that well either with playmaker Diego Valeri out with a rolled ankle as well as coming off two road losses and only four points in their last five matches.
Given the guys left home (midfielders as opposed to aging defenders such as Boswell and/or Franklin) it seems likely DC coach Ben Olsen will go with his usual conservative road lineup and seek to play 10 guys behind the ball and hope to pitch the shut-out and maybe get lucky with a goal for the draw or even pinch an improbable win. And who’s to argue with him? That’s been the formula for success on the road this year. Orlando mauled DC in Florida, but DC pulled out the win with a last second FK. Vancouver out shot DC 16-8 but a red card helped DC to a 2-1 win, and in NE in a game that should have been 4-0 for NE, they inexplicably earned two red cards to gift DC a point. Granted, the Philly and NY road matches were big fat zeros, but there you go. With Valeri out and Portland among the weakest offensive teams in the league, it has all the makings of another impossible point for the current Supporter’s Shield leading DC United and might well end with Olsen giving the finger to all his detractors including me.
So, looking at the lineups, it’s being tweeted DC will likely start Olsen’s old favorite 4-4-2 with Conor Doyle and Jairo Arrieta at forward, Chris Pontius, Perry Kitchen, Markus Halsti and Miguel Aguilar in for Arnaud and Rolfe respectively across midfield, then the usual suspects Taylor Kemp, Kofi Opare, Bobby Boswell and Sean Franklin across the defense in front of Bill Hamid. Portland’s Caleb Porter will almost certainly start Fernando Adi as the lone forward in their hybrid 4-5-1. With former Darlington Nagby playing underneath and Rodney Wallace and Dairon Asprilla on the wings in front of two central teeth-rattlers in Jack Jewsbury and Diego Chara. Across the back, it will likely be Jorge Villafana, Liam Ridgewell, Nat Borchers, and Alvas Powell in front of Ghanaian goalkeeper Kwarasay.
If that’s the case, it will take a miracle for DC to score as Doyle being on the field already makes it 10 on 11 as he will bring nothing to this match even remotely threatening for the likes of Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell. Portland is near the bottom of the West, but not because of defense. They can’t score, but they can defend no problem. So maybe Arrieta, Pontius or even Aguilar surprises them, but more likely than not, DC’s counters will get snuffed out like candle in the wind. I hesitate to point out also that Kemp is perhaps not the man to contain Dairon Asprilla either. I’ve been taking some heat for my bashing of Kemp’s defense, but the little train is scary going at good defenders and Kemp isn’t one of those no matter what anyone thinks, although he is getting better all the time to be fair.
No, if it was me, I’d turn a weakness into a strength. I’d play Chris Korb at left back specifically to kick Asprilla’s shins and then start Kemp at left midfield to get deep down that left hand side and force Asprilla to defend as well keep Powell back on his heels too. That would mean Pontius might have to sit, but so be it. He cuts inside too much to no effect and isn’t dangerous often enough or really good enough defensively consistently to allow DC to have any shot at controlling that left side.
Now starting Kemp in midfield might make it palatable to have Doyle in the match as presumably he’s good in the air and might well finish a Kemp cross. However, I have seen no evidence of him having such skills, nor really much evidence of him being able to get behind anyone or lose his marker at all, so simply having Kemp up there crossing to Borchers and Ridgewell seems a waste. No, starting Pontius at forward, or even another crafty guy like Facundo Coria up top looks like a much better option. Pontius (or Coria) have shown he will make deep runs and go at defenders which Portland’s tall trees won’t like and although he hasn’t really shown much chemistry with Arrieta, considering who’s out, he’s just a far better option than Doyle. Bring Doyle in to pound on those guys when the game is all but over, don’t start him unless there’s a shortage of molasses out there.
So, offensively DC could rule the left side and maybe even the right. Wallace and Villafana are not all that scary. I’d love to see Aguilar going right at Villafana and maybe going by him, but if nothing else it will cause Ridgewell to maybe cheat over opening room for Arrieta and Pontius to find joy in the middle. Aguilar being aggressive should also drag Franklin forward too and frankly he needs the practice in the offensive end of the field as his crosses have been terrible and he’s a better player than that. I’ve gone lightly on him this year as he has often had the most dangerous guy to defend and the toughest defender/winger to go forward against in many games this year, but he really should be a lot better than what we’ve seen so far.
Defensively, if DC contains Asprilla and especially Nagby, then I doubt Portland scores more than one if that. The have been shut out in 3 of their 5 home matches and 6 of 12 matches overall. Adi has been very pedestrian in front of goal and shouldn’t fluster Boswell or Opare, who’s been arguably DC’s best defender of late, at all. In fact, it shocks me Boswell even made this trip. Birnbaum and Opare should be fine handling the big Nigerian forward. Granted that would have meant no veteran leader if Boswell and Arnaud out, but what does that say about Pontius btw? Anyway, Wallace shouldn’t trouble Franklin at all and I think Halsti and Kitchen, who was Nagby’s team-mate at Akron will keep him under wraps for the most part. I love the glimpses of brilliance Nagby gives from time to time, but he still has yet to really show the prodigious talent he has and hopefully he doesn’t find the gumption in this game either.
All the makings of a 0-0 draw for sure and that would be a good result, but if Olsen goes a little unconventional, DC might well pull off more than that. If Halsti shows more of that eye toward quickly springing guys going forward, if Kemp gets enough crosses off to at least two runners in the box often enough, if DC plays relatively mistake free defense and Hamid only has to clean up a few mistakes, DC could win this one easily. If they go out with the lineups and the mentality they have had the last two on the road, it will be a 0-0 slog at best. More likely a 1-0 loss. Of course if they get their requisite beneficial red card or Portland shoots as badly as Orlando did, well then give the soccer gods their due. All hail their friendly nudges to the side of all that is good and pure in the world, long may it continue.
As for the intangibles, they are not too bad for DC considering the game being on the road. DC has lost the last two matches to Portland, but are 1-2-2 against them all time and have actually beaten the Timbers in Portland, something they have never done in RFK. Of course after that 3-2 win in 2011, DC is 0-2-1 in Portland since, but are coming off a draw there last time they visited. Obviously current form favors DC even with the dismal results lately as Portland has been reeling even worse, but it would be good to note that Portland has played 7 of their 12 matches so far this year on the road while DC has played 7 of their 12 at home. Portland is also tough to beat in the Rose City even this year at 1-1-3 on the year, but DC has been decent on the road at 2-2-1 even with criminally wasting points the last couple trips outside RFK.
So, everything points to a 0-0 draw, but I’d like to see some gumption shown by Olsen and DC to give themselves a shot at some unlikely points. Olsen begrudges the rest of the league not giving DC what he feels they are due. Well, now would be a good time to show some imagination and take some points instead of seemingly getting them handed to you. In Vancouver, DC showed a glimpse of what they can do when they are aggressive on the road. So what if all your best offensive players are out, unleash the hounds and see what happens. Might just find out the kids can play if you let them.