Granted, DC United has enormous questions to answer after that appallingly bad display last week, but the Revs have almost as many questions and a much more banged up roster. Their laundry list of injuries and absences includes virtually an entire starting lineup of players including Taylor Twellman, Shalrie Joseph, Matt Reis, Edgar Jankauskas, maybe Cory Gibbs, and the guy who should have been last year’s rookie of the year Darrius Barnes. Plus, the departures of team leader Steve Ralston, Jeff Larentowicz, Chris Albright, and Jay Heaps, as well as Honduran Mauricio Castro, who starts the year with a two game suspension, make this almost a reserve match for NE.
Of course the man in charge, Buffalo Head Nicol will have his Revs well organized, ready to fight and be competitive despite the absences, just like they did in LA when they kept a fearsome Galaxy attack in check for most of their home opener and eventually losing by a respectable one goal. He’s been juggling injuries and the cheapest owner in league history successfully for years.
Which makes this a crucial match for DC United because there are few teams in this league this year that DC might actually have the talent edge against, and the Revs are one of them. Unfortunately, the teams with less talent also seem to have the coaches who demand overachievement and often get it. So DC can’t afford to squander a golden opportunity, as well as home field advantage, too often this year. Plus, Onalfo has to show he can get a team to fight and work for results which has been the knock against him since he started patrolling the sidelines in MLS.
However, in addition to the rabid support of the RFK faithful, DC United should get a huge boost from the addition of famed Bolivian defender Juan Manuel Pena, who is old as the hills, but who clearly has the chops and flat out class to make this fragile DC defense a much better unit as he emphatically showed in the pre-season. His presence alone should help everyone along the backline play better overall, especially against Revs forwards who are not too scary relative to the rest of MLS.
Interestingly, judging by the quotes out of United this week, probably not much else will change however. “I don’t see too many drastic changes, even though we didn’t get the result we wanted,” said assistant coach Kris Kelderman this week on dcunited .com. “We felt we were very strong the three, four games previous to that in preseason. So I don’t think it’s a situation where we panic and we need to change things. We just need a better performance from the people that are on the field.”
However, it will be interesting to see if Onalfo doesn’t make some obvious moves such as taking Morsinck out behind the woodshed and putting him out of our misery, as well as bringing Najar off the bench, and maybe playing Pontius in midfield or finding another way to start Aussie forward Danny Allsopp. We’ll see.
Looking at the matchups, NE almost certainly stays with the very same lineup they played against LA except for the addition of the newly re-signed Khano Smith knocking Tierney into left back instead of left midfield. But, no matter who Nicol trots out there, DC has some pretty clear advantages if they choose to bring their lunch pails and actually work at least as hard as NE most certainly will for a victory.
So, very likely DC United will be facing a central defense of Phelan in midfield, who is Larentowicz lite, the Ghanaian Osei, and the gimpy Gibbs, whose calf injury doesn’t seem likely to keep him out (if it does, NE is really in dire shape defensively). Anyway, that surely is a group that any combination of Moreno, Pontius or Allsopp, and Quaranta should find some success against. At least for one goal which might be enough in this likely low scoring slugfest.
Then on DC’s left Castillo and Wallace have a pretty good edge as they are likely to face Alston and Nyassi which are good matchups for DC. Castillo against Alston will be interesting as DC’s Salvadoran winger will have about 10,000 of his countrymen in RFK cheering him on specifically and he has had success here before with the Salvadoran Nats. But Alston is a very good young defender who is athletic enough to stay with him, but maybe not quite as savvy, especially as Castillo has really started to develop a very nice relationship with Quaranta in the attack. But, even better than that is that Nyassi stinks, speed and whining for calls from the referee are his only hope, but Wallace is easily athletic enough to stay with him without resorting to fouls, and more importantly, Nyassi’s complete lack of any defensive skills should let Wallace get forward often enough to cause real trouble for NE’s defense.
On DC’s right it is a bit more dicey. Facing Khano Smith and probably Tierney, Onalfo really needs to be smart about this matchup, but he has some difficult choices. Najar might get the nod so Onalfo can restore some confidence in the kid, but then again, Barklage and Boyzzz are older and wiser and split time there quite a bit this pre-season to some pretty decent success. Onalfo could also tap Pontius to play more of a wing position since that allows adding more firepower with Allsopp as a forward. Anyway, Khano Smith stinks too, but it would be a bad idea to put Najar up against the giraffe, and Boyzz too, might struggle against his physicality. Either Barklage, but especially Pontius would be much better.
So overall offensively, DC has some decent advantages, but defensively they should be miles better than a depleted NE side. Dube and Shilawski could barely hit the broad side of a barn against LA despite getting into some great positions and working hard as all Nicol players do, and Nioury was pretty scattered as a central midfield general. He had some very nice plays, but spent a lot more time imitating the invisible man. Obviously if Pena and Jakovic play to their capability, they will have no trouble making up for Morsinck’s inevitable mistakes, but if they are still under the influence of the dither bug and Morsinck adds to their woes, it could be trouble, but then again Dube might well continue peppering the crowd instead of the nets, so it’s still good. However, it would be nice if Barklage, or even a reasonably consistent folding chair, played for the injured Simms, but that seems too much to ask for.
Which leaves Onalfo’s one final decision, who plays the right side of defense. James seems an obvious choice, but Talley might be the better bet for this particular game. NE wing players are the worst in the league so getting forward from that right back spot is huge and Talley is the far better player overall and a much better passer even if he doesn’t have quite the legs he used to have. His passing could be an enormous help to an offense that is struggling.
Then even the intangibles favor DC by a wide margin. DC is 16-6-4 in RFK against the Revs lifetime and NE hasn’t won here since 2006. Their last match here, Olsen scored his final MLS goal (and Jaime his 100th MLS assist) to steal a point at the death. Plus, DC is a 4-1-4 in home openers since the LA debacle in 2000.
So, there it is. DC will have very few games they have outright advantages over their opponent and especially a home opening crowd on a rare perfect weather day for DC is something that can’t be wasted. This could be just what the doctor ordered if DC is able to pull themselves together. If not, the Eagles and Barra go on suicide watch.