Dread for DC Down the Stretch

Given the stretch runs in United’s recent past, DC fans can justifiably be seriously concerned as the Black and Red host Redbull New York tomorrow night in RFK before an ominous game in Salt Lake on the weekend.

The remarkable thing about United missing the playoffs the last four years running is that aside from the abysmal 2010 season where DC was out of the hunt in August, United had very real possibilities to actually get into the playoffs if not for their brutally poor performances down the stretch at crunch time.

Last year, after a rousing late season win over high flying RSL, United needed a mere 5 points out of their last 6 games, the last 3 of which were at home against mostly less than stellar opponents, and DC squeaked out a bare 1 point in losing 5 of the 6.

2010 was an abomination best left unspoken about, but 2009 DC was well into the hunt down the stretch, but CCL commitments as well as lineup troubles sent DC to 3 straight home losses late in the season which meant they absolutely needed to win their last two matches. They got an undeserved win over the Crew in RFK, but after Julius James scored a late goal in KC, United were stunned in stoppage time with a bolt of bad luck and the tie left them down and out of the payoffs again, but truth be told neither performance was good enough to deserve all the points.

Ironically, in 2008 United was in first place in early summer after a string of wins and with their designated player (Marcelo Gallardo) in fine form (Ahem! Like Branko’s burst early this summer before his current invisibility) and yet DC was a shambles by late August. Finishing up September on an 0-4-3 stretch before winning the final meaningless match, and finding out that a mere 3 points more would have seen them make the playoffs.

And truth be told DC down the stretch in the Supporter’s Shield winning sides in 2006 (lost 4 of last 5 matches) and 07 (1 win in last 5 games) weren’t all that impressive down the stretch either, partly due to CCL and other scheduling issues, and were drummed out of the playoffs rather meekly both times. Even further, anyone familiar with the rueful Rongen or hapless Hudson years will know those late season trials and tribulations as well. Fact is DC has finished strong exactly one time since the turn of the century and that time they won it all.

In all of those seasons where United actually failed down the stretch though, the common themes were lack of consistent starting lineup, lack of any decent road form late in the season, a severe slippage of succession the final matches at RFK, and admittedly some ridiculously bad luck and heinous scheduling problems. And another symptom was the plethora of excuses trotted out for poor performances by coaches and the brain staff.

Looking at the way this season has unfolded, well stop me if you’ve heard this before. United lacks a consistent starting XI, road form shows an eerily similar lack of heart and commitment, RFK success is ominously hanging in the balance despite the longest unbeaten streak since 1999, has had a ridiculously uneven schedule to contend with, and luck hasn’t favored DC since Tommy Two Tone Soehn won a couple trophies here. And there’s no question after listening to Olsen and Payne recently that the United excuse train is chugging along with its usual huffing and puffing.

So, forgive me if this sounds like a broken record, but DC seems to falling into a very consistent pattern of late season collapses that has been revolving on replay since 2000, the Cup winning team in 2004 being the exception. And that team peaked late. They were mediocre 6-6-6 (!) until August when Christian Gomez showed up and carried the team down the stretch.

In my mind the importance of this NY match is monumental. Olsen showed he could rally the troops and elate the fans with an improbable win over the high flying Fire, but then the team went right back into the toilet with a pitiful performance in Montreal. United has not lost recently at RFK, but hasn’t really played well here either outside of that Chicago win with the ugly draw to Philly and the lackluster 1-0 win over the Crew preceding it.

NY comes to town second in the East and clearly with an MLS Cup or bust mentality, at least in the front office, but with a scary talented offense and an increasingly efficient if hardly daunting defense. Should DC lose and with the almost certain loss at RSL looming, United will be in dire straits even though they face 4-5 cupcakes in their last 7 matches.

Sure, NE, Philly, Chivas, Portland, and TFC are pretty much already out of the hunt, but NE is always tough in RFK, we’ve never won in Philly, Chivas has a stifling defense (unless you’re Seattle) and TFC rarely loses or scores less than 3 goals when they visit here. So only Portland is perhaps a confident 3 points, except Portland got a crucial 1-1 draw here late last year that pretty much sealed United’s playoff fate in 2011.

And before you discount those rationalizations, think about this. Aside from DC gaining enough points, they need Columbus and/or someone above them to not gain too many more as well. The Crew has a game in hand and plays Montreal, Chivas, Philly, and finishes up with TFC all at home, as well as a road game in NE sandwiched around tough matches in Chicago, KC and possibly in RFK. Hmmmm. Not so promising now that you think about it, especially given the way the Crew and the other Higuain are playing right now. And thinking the Fire or Houston will drop back is wishful thinking at best as they have some cupcakes on their schedule as well as MLS has scheduled mostly division games down the stretch.

With the book on NY being dynamic offense and weak defense being pretty similar to the book on DC, especially as either team can light it up at any time and seemingly pitch improbable defensive gems from time to time too, this match is almost impossible to handicap as form of the day will carry the match for certain.

Still, watching NY Sunday night when they tied in KC 1-1 and had a golden chance to win late, it seems likely NY will go with a similar lineup in DC tomorrow night. The only possible changes would be if former DC midfielder Brandon Barklage (who scored two goals in NY’s win in Red Bull Arena earlier this season) and Thierry Henry (who missed the KC match attending the birth of his first son) enter the lineup. Maybe NY Guru Hans Backe starts Joel Lindpere or rests Cahill in favor of Mehdi Ballouchy, but I doubt it.

So, given Backe’s preference for a hybrid 4-3-3 and the fact they are much better with Henry on the field, I’d say he goes with Henry, Kenny Cooper, and Sebatien LeToux as the three forwards (frankly, if he was smart, he’d sit the underwhelming Cooper (lately) and play the two Frenchmen up top, thereby being able to add in Lindpere to the midfield, but he has been loath to do that for some reason).

With those three up top, he is almost certain to go with Tim Cahill and former DC midfielder Dax McCarty behind them, as well as either Lindpere or Teemu Tainio. I’d say Tainio as his bite really makes NY’s midfield work whereas McCarty is wasted in that role.

Then in defense, he has pretty much no choice but to go with Wilman Conde at left back as Roy Miller is probably not ready to start yet. Then Markus Holgersson and Heath Pearce have formed a semblance of a decent partnership in central defense despite neither of them being very good, and I think Jan Gunnar Solli returns to right back as that’s his most effective position and since Barklage isn’t likely anywhere near ready for 90 min yet. All in front of Bill Gaudette who has dramatically improved NY’s goalkeeping situation.

Ben Olsen has his usual decisions to make; what to do with Chris Pontius and Dwayne De Rosario and Branko Boskovic and Andy Najar and Dejan Jakovic. Nearing September with 5 of 11 starting positions unsettled seems a bit reckless to me, but Olsen seems to like it so I’ll leave that dead horse unflogged for today.

Given that Olsen has basically said he doesn’t trust Boskovic in a starting role and he seems completely unwilling to sit Brandon McDonald, I think it’s likely he starts Pontius (5 of his 10 goals this year have come against NY in two games) and Lionard Pajoy in the 2 forward slots as DeRo will likely be once again ill used in midfield. I expect Nick DeLeon and Perry Kitchen to play the left side and defensive midfield roles again. I also would hope its Najar playing right midfield, but Olsen’s eerie quotes about his future being as a right back are a bit unsettling.

(As an aside, for those of you old enough, Hudson experimented extensively with former rookie of the year, Ben Olsen himself, as a hybrid right back and the outcry was cruel despite the fact that it actually worked very well for the brief period it was allowed to happen. Olsen was obviously unenthused at the switch despite the arguable success of the move, yet he is essentially doing the same thing to Andy. More to it than that snippet of course, but eerily similar and interesting when you think about it.)

In the defense, it’s anyone’s guess. Seems likely Mike Chabala, McDonald, Emiliano Dudar, and Chris Korb going from left to right across the backline in front of Bill Hamid, but if Olsen slots Najar back there, then Korb would switch to left, or possibly Jakovic starts on the right or instead of Dudar. Hard to say, but it is unsettling that the Canadian International is not a lock as a starter in this particular team. But there you go.

So, looking at the matchups, DC is in real trouble defensively. Henry and LeToux could shred the ball watching McDonald and the suddenly error prone Dudar. Jakovic would probably be more solid instead, but he’s played sparingly lately and the two Frenchies are a tough welcome back into the starting lineup.

Obviously, Korb and Chabala will have to help inside which means if McCarty or Solli get up field, DeLeon and Najar better be ready to run all day both ways if DC is to find any success at all. Even the normally reliable Kitchen is not a lock for the good as Cahill has been startlingly good lately for NY and he has McCarty with an axe to grind to help him. When NY floods forward or gets LeToux or Henry over the top (which has happened to DC far too often this year), United is in serious trouble.

DC has clear advantages in the center as Pontius and Pajoy, or god willing DeRo, should be able to flummox the glacial Holgersson and the pitiful Pearce. But if NY holds the ball as well as they did against SKC, United’s forwards will get starved of the ball and need to make the absolute most of their chances. That means Pontius has to be on fire as Pajoy isn’t sharp enough nor has DeRo been precise either especially on those days he drains himself running in midfield. Nor will DeLeon or Najar help much as both Solli and Conde are the kind of tough savvy defenders that don’t give up much.

At least the trends favor DC. United got a hat trick from Pontius earlier this year in a 4-1 romp over NY, and United is a stellar 9-0-3 outscoring teams 29-11 at RFK since losing the opener in stoppage time to SKC, while NY hasn’t won on the road since May going 0-4-3 being outscored 4-10 since beating Montreal May19. However it is worth noting, before this year’s romp it was two years of misery as NY trotted in here winning with shutouts 4-0 in 2011 and 2-0 in 2010. Still overall, NY is a paltry 9-18-3 in RFK lifetime and not much better with a 20-31-7 record in one of the longest and most played rivalries in MLS history.

With both NY and United near the top of MLS in offense, NY 1st in the East and 3rd overall with 44 goals and United 3rd and 5th respectively with 41, as well as both teams near the bottom in defense, DC tied for 5th in East and 10th overall with 35 goals against and NY 8th and 14th respectively giving up 37, plus the fact the two teams have combined some of the wildest games and absolute monster goal fests in league history, expect some fireworks in this one as well.

Still, despite past dominance and current trends, DC looks past NY at its own peril. Whether expecting to win like they almost always have here in RFK, or simply not worrying about a loss since some patsies are waiting in the wings, either way of thinking could put United deep into must win twitchy bum territory where they have not fared well in the past down the stretch.

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