For the first time since 2006, DC United gets to open the season in RFK stadium, where they will be facing long time Eastern Conference rival, the Columbus Crew.
Looking to erase the worst season in team history, DC United begins the Ben Olsen era, in a rare season opener in the friendly confines of RFK stadium against the Columbus Crew, with a rebuilt roster full of new faces.
With at best only four starters from last year’s disastrous season opener in KC likely to start this weekend against the Crew, United’s almost complete transformation will be readily apparent starting with central midfielder Dax McCarty replacing the legendary Jaime Moreno as captain of the team, pretty much completely severing any ties to United’s glory years.
It seems pretty likely that from last year’s opening day roster, only young phenom, Andy Najar and midfield iron man Clyde Simms are guaranteed a starting spots for the new look DC United against the Crew. Maybe forward/midfielder Chris Pontius and center back Dejan Jakovic find the starting lineup as well, but each has stiff competition to beat out if they expect to make any starting job their own.
Based on the pre-season and news to date, it seems pretty likely United will start new forwards Josh Wolff and Joseph Ngwenya, both of whom had very effective pre-seasons, as it seems likely Olsen will choose to bring on the dynamic Charlie Davies off the bench in his first match in United colors as he works his way back to full fitness from his horrific crash late in 2009. Perhaps Pontius gets the nod over Wolff, but considering he’s played mostly midfield in the pre-season, that seems unlikely.
In the midfield, possibly Pontius starts on the left, but considering the financial commitment United has made to designated player Branko Boskovic, it seems more likely the Montenegran midfielder will claim that left side position. In the center will be Captain McCarty and Clyde Simms almost certainly, and it seems equally likely Najar claims the right side as well, all of which leaves long time United player Santino Quaranta on the outside looking in.
In defense, Olsen does have some interesting choices, Marc Burch is apparently healthy and clearly has some hold over the powers that be in United land as they see something that I don’t and he seems likely to start left back. Perhaps former Fire back, Daniel Woolard pips Burch at the post, and in my opinion, he’s the better overall player, but there you go.
In the center, third pick in the draft, Perry Kitchen is all but a lock to start having impressed everyone this pre-season. Next to him seems likely to be Jakovic, but possibly DC’s off season pickup, Uruguyan defender Rodrigo Bresesco edges out Jakovic although that seems unlikely. Or perhaps Bresesco snags the right back slot away from Jed Zayner, but that too seems unlikely since he’s played pretty much in the center all pre-season.
Finally in goal, United will have emergency signing, player coach Pat Onstad, in the nets. What will be interesting is to see who will be his backup. If it’s rookie Joe Willis, then Hamid is nowhere near fit enough yet coming back from his shoulder surgery. However, if Hamid is indeed the emergency keeper, then United’s impressive young keeper might be closer to re-acquiring his starting job sooner rather than later.
As for the Crew, it seems likely they will play their standard 4-4-2 with Emilio Renteria and Peruvian designated player, Andres Mendoza at forward. Perhaps the second leading scorer in MLS history, Jeff Cunningham takes over for Renteria, if the Venezuelan is not fully recovered from a knock, but Cunningham coming off the bench seems far more likely.
In midfield, gone is former MVP, Guillermo Barros Schelotto, but Robbie Rogers, Nigerian Olympian, Emmanuel Ekpo, and Eddie Gaven return going left to right across the formation. With Danny O’Rourke out and having just signed 31 year old Serb, Dejan Rusmir out of the Romanian first division, it seems likely he starts at defensive midfield.
United will welcome a familiar face starting in the defense, as Julius James is slated to start in central defense place of Andy Iro, who is coming off a groin injury. Rookie Rich Balchan is expected to start at left back, Chad Marshall in the center next to James, and 30 year old Sebastion Miranda from Chili will be starting on the right. In goal, Hesmer appears healthy coming back from shoulder problems, but if not quite ready former Dallas keeper, Ray Burse will be filling in as he has to date.
So, looking at the matchups, Andy Najar has the best chance going up against a rookie from Indiana on that side of the field. Ngwenya and Wolff, and certainly Davies, all have the speed and savvy to trouble Julius “red card” James, and even Chad Marshall can be troubled by speed as well if United is able to send their forwards repeatedly behind the defense as this team seems created to do. Even solid, effective pros, McCarty and Simms should have an advantage over the mercurial Ekpo and the new to MLS, Rusmir.
On the other side of the ball, the bull, Renteria and the brutally effective Mendoza could seriously trouble the casual Jakovic and certainly steamroll the rookie Kitchen, so that is a concern. As is the wily Gaven going against Burch or Woolard, and Robbie Rogers is a handful too, but then again, Zayner has played against him as often as anyone having spent two years in Columbus before coming to DC. Still, Columbus has had trouble finding the back of the net this pre-season, and perhaps that continues.
Looking at the trends, DC has certainly not done well against the Crew in RFK lately, having been swept by them to the tune of 3 losses last year including being knocked from the Open Cup semis. In fact, DC has lost 4 of the last 5 league matches against the Crew here in RFK since 2006, having only beaten them by an Emilio miracle late in 2009. However, the main architect of those recent losses, Schelotto, is gone, and historically DC has owned the Crew in RFK going 15-6-3 since 1996, and outscored them 49-33 even including their recent poor run.
Even better, for merely the 4th time in 15 years, DC United is hosting their season opening game and United hasn’t lost a home season opener since the debacle in 2000 against LA going 2-0-1 since then most recently tying NY in 2006 after beating SJ and KC in ‘04 and ‘01 respectively. In addition, United has lost only 4 home openers total since the loss to the Galaxy in the first ever United match in RFK. Prior to last year’s home opening loss to NE, DC was 6-2-5 in home openers since 1996.
So there you have it. Home openers are huge in MLS, and RFK is a tough place to find a victory under normal circumstances (excluding last year from the mind completely), and this team seems poised to reverse their fortune from last year too, and there’s no question the RFK faithful will explode with delight if United shows they have put last year behind them. Both teams seem likely to score, but United has to be a one goal favorite. Fingers crossed.