Coming off a hideous ten days, DC comes dragging home for a welcome three matches in a row in RFK. Unfortunately, first up is the Seattle Sounders who are coming off thumping Toronto to go to six games unbeaten, and have never failed to beat DC in RFK to boot.
It is gut check time for DC United. A pretty nice start to the season has degraded recently into a horrific three game stretch that saw United lose handily in MLS play to two conference rivals, NY and Houston, by at least three goals each becoming the worst defense statistically in MLS in the process, and get bounced from the Open Cup by a New England reserve squad. Up next is Seattle that hasn’t lost since March and is coming off a resounding 3-0 win over TFC.
Obviously, the first thing a clearly angry United coach Ben Olsen has to do is stop the bleeding and tighten up United’s suddenly shocking defense, and the only way to do that is to find, or encourage strongly, some players to actually compete at an MLS level. DC’s defense is young, and the team overall is new and still finding its way, but Olsen said it best after the Houston debacle, basically, that you may be inexperienced or whatever, but you can at least show up and work hard, you know try to make it difficult for other teams to score.
Now, you could argue that United started the season keeping things pretty tight in the back, and even snagged a shutout earlier this year on the way to 7 points in their first 5 games. But I would counter with the notion DC did indeed shutout Toronto, who barely threatened DC’s goal at all. They did whup the Crew, who played horrible and it was DC’s home opener too. Then United luck-boxed into a point against LA, who scored early and didn’t bother to attack again the rest of the match.
Against actual teams who have played in anger, and with the hardness expected of an MLS team fighting to get above mediocrity, DC has been overwhelmed and humiliated. Seattle, they are on a mission for an MLS Cup this year or they know Sigi will break up that team if they don’t at least come close, so expecting them to come in here and lay an egg is a long shot. And that’s not even including the fond feelings Seattle must have for RFK having beaten United all three times they have visited including snatching away an Open Cup.
Now, the question becomes what is the best lineup to staunch the gaping wound that is United’s defense. Now, to begin with all of DC’s defenders have made absolutely painful mistakes at some point this year, so it’s not so simple as to say play the “best” defenders on the team. But, on balance and considering Jed Zayner is out vacationing his hamstring again, DC’s best defense is Chris Korb, Dejan Jakovic, Perry Kitchen and Marc Burch. Although I’d be sorely tempted to see if Ethan White could play left back instead of Burch, who should be setting pins in a bowling alley. But, the spirited Burch does compete at least, even if it is ineffectively done too often for his experience level.
However, that is only half the battle. DC’s defensive problems are just bad, if not worse, in the midfield. Clyde Simms has been atrocious, simple as that. He needs to be way more of a physical presence or he should be shown to the bench. Dax McCarty hasn’t really been much better, but he has maybe done enough to keep his job, especially now that Branko Boskovic is now going to be out essentially for the rest of the season (hey, he didn’t come into camp in shape twice when he had two healthy knees, now after ACL surgery? Please).
As for the outside positions in midfield, considering Chris Pontius and Andy Najar or Fred or even Santino Quaranta, none has shown much in the way of helpfulness defending on the wing, but Fred and Santino have at least tried. Najar is certainly capable, but his personal life funk couldn’t possibly have come at a worse time, so he’s perhaps a bit of a hope to recover in time to bail DC out again after doing it most of last year. There’s precious little on the bench, either. Brandon Barklage is an option, but he has only seen Open Cup play and that in the defense, where he hasn’t looked that good.
In this game, Olsen has to be sure to have midfielders who will work very hard on the defensive side of the ball, even to the expense of the offense. For me that means McCarty, Fred, Najar (fingers crossed), and Morsink (I never thought I’d ever write that!). And even then, I’d have Barklage and Santino ready to go as soon as it’s obvious a starter is not doing enough. But, no matter what, midfield defense must get a lot better or this defense will continue to bleed like a leaky paint bucket.
Interestingly, the forwards have not been a problem defensively. Josh Wolff, Charlie Davies, Blake Brettschneider, even Joseph Ngwenya for the most part have been pretty active defensively, so any of them is a good bet. But, obviously, if DC is going to pack it in and counter, then balls over the top to Davies or worked quickly up field to the savvy Wolff would likely be more effective.
Those also give DC its best matchups against a pretty deep Seattle squad that lost Steve Zakuani horrifically and O’Brien White unexpectedly to surgery this past week. Seattle is facing three games in eight days (DC has three too, but an extra day of rest having played Friday instead of Saturday), so Sigi might change things up. Heck, it would be understandable if he took the DC game lightly considering the way they’ve owned DC here and in order to focus on the likely tougher away match in Columbus on the weekend. But, I think he goes with his best for most of this match to secure the more sure points, and adjusts for the Crew match which he shouldn’t expect too much from anyway.
That said, I expect Seattle to field Fredy Montero and Mauro Rosales at forward. Maybe Nate Jaqua instead, but he and Montero have not really ever played well together, well except in RFK so maybe that should be qualified, but seriously I think he saves Jaqua a bit to batter the bigger, meaner Crew defense.
In midfield, it’ll most likely be Erik Friberg, Brad Evans, Osvaldo Alsonso, and Alvaro Fernandez going right to left across midfield. Perhaps Evans stays on the right where he lit up TFC, but I think Sigi likes him pushing up the middle, and he’s a better two way player in there than either of the two imports. The defense almost certainly will be Tyson Wahl, who’s taken Leo Gonzalez’s job on the left, Patrick Ianni, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, and James Riley going across the backline. Perhaps Mr. Irrelevant Jeff Parke gets in there, but I doubt Sigi breaks up a defense that pitched their first home shutout of the year. And they have had plenty of rest to date anyway as Sigi has played a number of combinations back there so far this year.
So looking at the matchups, it’s tough for sure, but maybe doable for DC. Montero has not really broken out yet this year and Rosales is a wild card so far, so Kitchen and Jakovic could keep them to one goal or less, if they cut out the obvious mistakes of course, if they don’t it’s blood bath anyway so it doesn’t matter who they face.
In midfield, McCarty and Morsink or maybe an inspired Simms are a decent match with Evans and Alonso, Seattle has a slight edge of course, but not huge and easily negated if DC plays with some heart and intensity. I like the idea of Najar going against the aging Uruguayan Fernandez. Fernandez is crafty and has two huge goals for Seattle this year, but if Najar is back to himself, he is way feistier and will run the World Cup veteran’s legs off, likely keeping Wahl in check too. Fred against Friberg is also pretty decent for DC. Both are offense first players, but Fred is the more experienced in MLS and I think good enough to cause the Swede trouble and keep Riley pinned back too. Friberg is also the only player to Fred a ball over the net worse than Fred ever did too. So he’s got that going for DC too.
Going the other way, obviously DC will need some luck, but Davies can outrun anyone they put in central defense up to and including El Presidente, Hurtado, if DC has the presence to send him as often as possible. I also like the crafty Wolff against Ianni or Parke, especially in RFK. If Fred or Najar, or Santino or Pontius, or McCarty, whoever, can win their midfield battle too and add more to the attack, then that’s even better. McCarty’s freekicks will be huge too.
Obviously, the trends do not favor DC. Seattle is 2-0 here in MLS play outscoring United by 2 goals, 3-1, which is ironic since they’ve never beaten DC at Qwest field, and so are 2-1-1 lifetime versus DC, but even that win took two monumental gaffes by Kasey Keller, thinking that will happen again is even more remote than Seattle just laying an egg. Possible, but unlikely.
Also, Seattle is tough on the road even this year when they didn’t start out so hot. But after losing to NY in the Red Bulls home opener by a lone goal, they have gone 1-0-2 on the road since then outscoring opponents 4-3 having tied SJ and Philly, and beaten Colorado 1-0 their last time out of Seattle. United on the other hand is a shaky 1-1-1 at home after that rousing start against the Crew, but that 3-1 win was negated brutally by NY’s 4-0 thrashing the last time in RFK, so DC has now been outscored 4 to 6, with two PKs one of them pretty lucky Abby was calling the game.
All signs point to a loss for DC, so now’s the time for the soccer gods to intervene on the side of all that’s right in the universe. Now’s also the time for DC to put in the work and compete hard enough to give the soccer gods reason to smile on them too. We can moan and groan all we want about teams like NE or Houston stealing points, but until we work as hard and as disciplined as those teams do, we will continue to be robbed like blind beggar.
Time to see some heart from DC. I doubt they win, but at least a tie is imperative. Another multi-goal loss and this season could be heading into the crapper at warp speed.