After a horrific 2013 season, DC United made sweeping changes to their starting lineup and likely seven new starters will be on display for their 2014 season opener at RFK against the Columbus Crew.
DC United set records for futility last season with an inept offense and suffered from atrocious defending all of which combined to garner a paltry three wins last season. To address those specific defects, United’s brainstaff used this off-season to completely change the starting forward and defensive lines as well as bolster the midfield and bench with some fresh new faces.
Likely the key to United’s offensive turnaround, if there is one, will be the performance of US International forward Eddie Johnson. DC traded for the disgruntled former Seattle marksman and yesterday fulfilled their pledge to upgrade his contract to designated player status. When at his best, Eddie Johnson is as dangerous a forward as their is in MLS. With Seattle the past two years he scored 23 goals in 56 matches for the perennial Western power. Along with former RSL and NY forward Argentine forward, Fabian Espindola, those two will be expected to score in buckets for a team that didn’t have a single player score more than three goals for the entire season last year.
United also shipped out or released its entire defensive corps and brought in former MLS defender of the year Bobby Boswell as the likely captain of the team. He will lead a revamped defense alongside veteran central defenderJeff Parke and Spanish defender Christian Fernandez will man the left side of United’s defense while former Los Angeles Galaxy defender Sean Franklin will patrol the right flank.
United’s midfield remains largely intact even to the point of Chris Pontius being not quite ready to return from off season surgery. However, the addition of former KC and Montreal midfielder Davy Arnaud should help steady a still very young United midfield corps made up of stalwart Perry Kitchen and young American attackers Luis Silva and Nick DeLeon.
The injection of EJ and Espindola add speed and some precision in front of goal that United has lacked for years which should lead to a much more precise counterattacking style of play as well as some deadly accuracy on set pieces. Both are also well respected for their hard work in harassing defenders which will help DC from being caught out on turnovers or long balls over the top as well.
The addition of Fernandez and Franklin as wing defenders sends a clear message that DC expects their wing backs to get up into the attack regularly, something which United hasn’t done since Andy Najar left, and hasn’t done on both sides of the field since The Bruce was the coach. With United lacking clear wing players for the most part this should lend itself toward United allowing their outside midfield players to play more narrow (which most of them would rather do anyway) and putting teams on their heels defensively.
To protect behind these guys bombing up the wings DC head coach Ben Olsen appears to have settled on sitting Perry Kitchen right in front of Boswell and Parke to force opponents to attack wide and send crosses in that will be eaten up by Boswell and Parke who are both exemplary in the air. But a key for this style to work is a commitment to track back and help by midfielders as well as quick transitions out of the back to exploit opponents tempted too far forward.
The Columbus Crew also made some startling changes heading into this season. Most notably by trading away their longest serving and almost iconic defender Chad Marshall as well as their big money defender Glauber in addition to the rather surprising retirement of longtime midfielder Eddie Gaven . In their place new Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter has brought in former MLS defender of the year Michael Parkhurst and Costa Rican central defender Giancarlo Gonzalez, as well as added a slick young midfielder from LA in Hector Jimenez who has lit it up late in the pre-season for the Crew.
The Crew also brought in some new elements in their team by signing former US youth International Steve Clark from the Norwegian first division in goal and picking up journeyman midfielder Daniel Paladini as well as defender Tyson Wahl.
Outside of the loss of Gaven and to a lesser extent, Dilly Duka, their attack remains the same orchestra conducted by Gonazalo Higuain with the solos provided by Costa Rican Jairo Arrieta and the speedy but erratic Dominic Oduro at forward. Oduro, who has tortured United during his spotty career, is suspended for the opener having received a red card in the last match of the season last year.
Obviously both teams will be a bit disjointed with so many new faces in their starting XI, but perhaps each are further along than expected as both teams won their respective preseason tournaments just before tomorrow’s season opener. DC captured the Charleston Challenge Cup over Houston and Seattle, while the Crew shocked the defending MLS Cup champions Sporting KC with a victory in the Disney Pro Soccer Classic with both sides going undefeated in their respective tournaments.
Looking at the likely matchups is obviously dicey this early in the season, but United’s system and personnel are a very good matchup against the Crew. Columbus has always tried to work through Higuain and up to Arrieta slashing in on goal, but United’s central defensive triangle of Kitchen, Boswell and Parke should thwart that plan well enough on balance. Should the Crew attack wide, Jimenez and Bernardo Anor are less of a threat than Higuain as Columbus have no true aerial threats to trouble the likes of Boswell, Parke or Hamid coming off his line even should they get to the endline.
Going the other way Eddie Johnson will be a handful as a welcome back to MLS for Parkhurst as will the feisty Espindola in welcoming Gonzalez to MLS. In addition, while Paladini in not the guy you want to meet in a dark alley, he is also settling into a new team while having to deal with essentially three attacking midfielders in DeLeon, Silva, and Arnaud all slashing inside from time to time. If Arnor and Jimenez don’t help out, Paladini could be easily overrun, giving DC the advantage.
It’s also a rare season opener at home for DC United and in MLS the winning percentage for season openers at home has to be in the 70% range. Granted that is not completely true for United as they have won only one home season opener since 2001, but then again it was the Crew they beat 3-1 in the 2011 home opener and they have had very few home season openers over the years. Although this is the third season opener at home in the last four years, DC United has only hosted a season opener seven times total in their now nineteen year history. However, DC is a mere 3-2-1 in previous home season openers and a paltry 5-4-4 in home openers overall since the turn of the century.
Historically, the Crew have not fared well in RFK either. They did win here last season (who didn’t?) but they are a woeful 7-18-3 all time in RFK and even with their stellar record in Ohio, still remain a dismal 23-25-8 against United all time.
It’s really tough to say this coming off the horrific season DC had last year, but they addressed their major deficiencies in the off season and the team does look to have the makings of a team that will be very hard to score on as well as having a decent chance to score from EJ stretching the defense or from turnovers created by the tenacious Espindola or from a multitude of options coming through midfield or off of set plays.
Barring horrific bad luck or hideous underperformance, DC should see a victory that will go a long way to putting the horror of 2013 behind them.
Note: Unable to come to contract terms with Professional Soccer Referees Organization (PSRO, the Professional Referees Organization (PRO) that provides referees for MLS matches will use replacement referees for the opening games of the MLS season. The DC United match will be refereed by Andres Pfefferkorn an experienced NASL referee.