Next step for DC United is a win

United grabbed their first goals and point of the season last week in a draw with the Fire, but if they want to prove they are really starting to come together as a team, then the next step has to be a win against the lowly New England Revolution who also got their first goals of the season but made them count more with a win in San Jose.

After a season opening horror show, DC showed a glimmer of hope with a somewhat lucky, but decent one goal loss in Toronto and a truly remarkable improvement with a solid, if not completely satisfying performance against the Fire last week. However, if that is to truly be a harbinger of a promising future, then DC simply has to continue that trend upward into a win over the Revs at home tomorrow night. Not to put the whammy on United, but last year’s epically bad side already had 4 points 3 games into the season then rapidly slid into infamy and didn’t earn another point for two months. If this year is to be better, the trends have to keep going up as the schedule doesn’t get any easier going forward.

Unfortunately, DC had some bad news this week with Luis Silva banished for 2-3- weeks with a ankle injury and worse, Chris Pontius ruled out indefinitely with his surgically repaired hamstring going on the fritz again and requiring more surgery. To help ease the loss of those players, United continued their time honored tradition of getting a player from a team they just played when they acquired Chris Rolfe from the Fire. Rolfe is a solid MLS pro who can play multiple attacking positions and it would be shocking if he doesn’t start tomorrow against NE.

It will be interesting to see how Olsen decides to use him however. His best days in MLS were as a lesser Wondolowski type forward who was ruthless and deadly in the box and relatively anonymous otherwise. Yet, with EJ desperately needing to get off the shneid with his first goal as well as Espindola being rewarded for actually notching his first of the season last week, Rolfe is a virtual lock to play midfield. However, to replace Silva who plays centrally, a role Rolfe has been pretty suspect in filling in the past for the Fire is not likely to be a recipe for success. A better fit would be to move DeLeon inside and play Rolfe on the outside, but DeLeon has been a bit invisible thus far this season as well.

Looking strategically at what the Revs are likely to do might perhaps lend itself to an answer. Playing an attack minded 4-5-1 or hybrid 4-3-3, the Revs are built to score a lot goals (even though they haven’t yet until the 2 last week), but are likely give up a lot of goals too with a very weak midfield defense and a pretty thin defender corps outside of Jose Goncalves and Andrew Farrell. They attack in waves with 5-6 players committed to the attack most times, but if they don’t score regularly which they didn’t early on this season, they are prone to break down and fall behind and have a tough time getting back into the match. NE coach Jay Heaps solved some of his midfield defense issues by playing former Vancouver Whitecap, Daigo Kobayashi in midfield with Andy Dorman, and while that tightened them up quite a bit, it also took away from their attack somewhat.

Similarly, DC who previously had pretty much only defended with the backline and Perry Kitchen, last week found success with keeping Lewis Neal and later Jared Jeffery home to help him out. That should continue, but if Olsen wants to stay with a narrow diamond midfield, then Arnaud, Rolfe or DeLeon has to play the point and all of them are have serious flaws in that role and /or are past their sell by date to make it work in today’s MLS. Arnaud is no longer mobile or threatening enough offensively, DeLeon too undisciplined and completely lacking in even fleeting defensive capabilities, and Rolfe is a combination of both of them. Not as good offensively as DeLeon is capable of being, but more aware of defensive responsibilities. He’s better than Arnaud offensively, but not as integrated into the team having just shown up this week.

As horrifying as this might sound, Olsen should go back to the roots of his only previous run of success when he was tactically outgunned and undermanned, he simply gummed up the works and looked for a winner. Just like in that improbable playoff run in 2012, he should go back to the dreaded empty bucket for this game and pair Kitchen and Neal or Jeffery in front of the back four and play Rolfe and DeLeon ahead of them. That should staunch what NE wants to do as well as put Rolfe and DeLeon in roles that benefit them, less defense, more attacking further upfield.
Looking at the matchups, NE almost certainly will go with Bunbury at forward with Diego Fagundez and Saer Sene running wide of him. In midfield, Dorman, Lee Nguyen, and Kobayashi again if Kelyn Rowe isn’t back from injury quite yet. Then the defense will be Farrell, Goncalves, AJ Soares, and Chris Tierney in front of Bobby Shuttleworth going right to left. So, assuming Olsen trots out his preferred best XI that means DC does have some very favorable areas of the field to attack as well some concerns defensively, but overall the good outweighs the bad.

Going forward, EJ and Espy have to be considered a threat over Soares no matter how good the disgruntled Goncalves is. Especially if DC right back Sean Franklin and Rolfe on the right can get deep on Tierney as well as keep Dorman and Kobayashi in their half of the field. DeLeon and DC left back Christian Fernandez will have a much tougher row to hoe on their side of the farm with the powerful Farrell not only being tough to beat, but very tough to defend as well. But, all in all if DC plays their cards right, EJ or Espy will get isolated on Soares enough times to score a brace and that’s enough as long as DC keeps a tight ship defensively.

Granted, there are some concerns defensively. Bunbury is quite a handful of speed and power and if DC central defenders allow him to get into a footrace, they’re toast. But they can match his power with intelligence as well as keep the dynamic Sene and the slippery Fagundez and the crafty Nguyen at bay with their superior experience and positioning, with the help of Kitchen and Jeffery, as well as Franklin or Fernandez pinching in from time to time, then it’s game over. They do that and DC wins this by a goal. They defend like they did against Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Patrick Nyarko from the Fire, and DC is in trouble again.

Historically one of the oldest rivalries in MLS history, there has been any number of dramatic games between these two sides in RFK over the years. Typically, when DC was up in any particular season or run of seasons, NE was down or vice versa. But like the incredible 4-3 penalty kick playoff win in 2004 and the heartbreak of 2006, there have been some memorable results on those rare occasions when both were up or down at the same time. Usually, DC prevailed through the magic of Jaime Moreno, who was just a hair more successful than the Revs’ Taylor Twellman both 100 goal legends of the game, but there were of course the odd dumbfounding individual performances from unusual places like Francis Doe with an extremely unlikely brace for DC to beat them in last match of 2008, or the imperious Hristo Stoitchkov with a majestic goal in 2003 to snatch a point from defeat, etc.

No matter how you slice it, this is a toss up in predicting a winner. Both teams started the season in an underwhelming fashion, both managed their first goals and points of the season last week by tightening up their central midfield. Both have dynamic attackers prone to invisibility and stalwart defenders prone to mistakes.

Unfortunately, this is as easy as it gets for DC. United hosts New York next week, plays in Columbus the week after, then Dallas at home and Portland away. Three points against NE and DC has a chance to stymie an out of sorts NY and perhaps give the Crew a run for their money in their house. Then rebound against a schizophrenic Dallas and head into the inevitable Portland loss with a head of steam and perhaps some decent points.

On the flip side, a loss against NE and then NY and the Crew are that much more daunting. By the time Dallas gets here, the long knives on the season hopes could already be out. That’s what happens when you remake the team after the worst season in MLS history. You have to put up or expect the boobirds to come out. It does no good to plead for patience for your “new” team to gel if fans are looking at others in the league doing much better with as big a roster turnover. And the goodwill earned by doing the right things in the off season is emphatically negated if you’re virtually out of the playoffs by July. This team has to start winning now.

It starts tomorrow. (Fingers crossed)

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