Depleted DC United Hosts Humbled Hondurans

Los Emeraldas were the talk of the region last year and this year right up until a thumping losses in Mexico and another at home have put a hitch in their giddyup recently. Still, DC has their own problems to worry about as their weakened defense absorbs yet another loss, and their best player is suspended as well.

DC United is essentially without their entire starting defense now that right back Bryan Namoff has been ruled out due to a concussion suffered from a cheap shot by Jack Jewsbury of KC a few weeks ago. He had started the vast majority of games this season, but now he joins Canadian center back Dejan Jakovic and left back Marc Burch on the injured list as those two recover from surgery.

Normally that would be appalling news right before hosting a Marathon side that steamrolled the entire group last year with the most dynamic attack seen anywhere outside of Mexico. But, despite some convincing early score-lines in this year’s group stage, Marathon’s spell may have been broken as Toluca massacred them 7-0 last week, and they were dropped in their home league 2-0 over the weekend as well.

Adding to Marathon’s problems is the suspension of their best forward Jerry Palacios who was tossed for two yellows in that 7-0 loss in Mexico. He was the only player for the Green Monster to actually score against DC through his own skill in Marathon’s 3-1 win in the first match between these two clubs down in Honduras. The other two other goals were outright gifts by United’s fumbling defense, so his loss should hamper their attack quite nicely.

Unfortunately, DC’s attack will be a bit hampered too as their best player, especially in international matches, Christian Gomez is also suspended for this one due to his unbelievable card for time wasting in the 17th minute in the win in Trinidad giving him two for the tournament. However, DC has had over 10 days off to figure out what to do about his loss, and to get some solid practice time to alleviate the offensive malaise that has blanketed the team recently. DC has looked like a team that met in the parking lot just before kickoff instead of a team approaching its 39th game of the season. That has to change or this team is doomed.

While they were at it, hopefully Soehn sharpened up the focus of a mistake prone defense too. Surely this break was a godsend that will help the team play a lot more coordinated and cover for each other better. Maybe even Soehn got a chance to coach up a few guys so that everybody will be playing their natural position too. No more Simms at centerback or Szetela playing wide for example. But, beyond that everybody simply has to concentrate better for the full ninety. The scandalous snafus that have put the team behind the eight ball right off the bat have to stop or its an even more painful version of doom than simply the lack of offensive imagination outlined above.

However in a way, the loss of so many starters might be a very good thing as none of them have been playing that well anyway, and the youngsters and newbies looked pretty decent in Trinidad. The defense made a few errors for sure, but were not punished as they recovered well and covered for each other adequately. The midfield was a bit pedestrian, and the attack even less threatening, but overall they got the job done. They get downright frisky in the end as they began to get room when Jabloteh finally came out of its shell.

DC will need every bit of that improvement too as even a shellacked and staggering Marathon are still more dangerous than DC has been unless they are absolutely at the top of their game. Marathon won’t have Palacios, but they will have two guys DC hoped to sign this year in Carlos Wil Mejia back from suspension and Walter Martinez, as well as Scott and Mitchell Brown, all of whom have the tools to run circles around DC unless they’ve got their house in order.

Same with Marathon’s defense too. Toluca made them look stupid, but the Red Devils are dominating the Mexican league right now and make a lot of teams look stupid. That could have been just a bad night for Los Emeraldas. Granted, Norales has looked terrible this year, but the Mario brothers, Berrios and Beata as well as Sabillon certainly had no problem containing DC or Jabloteh in the earlier rounds and they were rested over the weekend if my spies in Honduras are feeding me the facts properly.

So considering everything including United’s two matches coming up in the next five days, I’m thinking Soehn goes for broke in this one, because it will set the tone for the upcoming matches as well. DC will get back Gomez and at least two of his defenders for the Sunday SJ match and then hangs on with whatever’s left in the tank against Jabloteh next Tuesday.

That means Emilio and Pontius at forward, but with Emilio on a short leash as Shipalane showed more effort and determination in three minutes in Trinidad than United’s designated player did all match, and pressuring Norales has to be the game plan as he’s about as weak a link as they have in that very good backline. Emilio has really suffered the most as United’s offense has gone south because he requires so much help from others in order for his finishing skills to shine. Pontius has clearly been the best partner for him all year, and with nearly everyone else healthy DC’s rookie of the year hopeful should be able to play forward for this one.

Now, how Soehn handles the midfield will be a crapshoot I’m sure. Logic would dictate replacing Gomez with the newly healthy Quaranta (splitting 45s with the newly healthy Fred in the second half no doubt) and playing Simms behind him, then Wallace and McTavish on the outsides. Wallace needs to play on the left to slow down Rodriguez and especially their wicked right back Sabillon who dominated that side of the field in the first meeting with DC. McTavish should play the right because he is a solid two way player who will stay wide and do his job adequately on both sides of the ball. He even had a diving header saved that would have changed the match down there had not Marathon’s Obelar made a spectacular save.

However, Tommy rarely uses logic and he gets stuck in a rut maybe a little too much when something works, no matter how miraculously it worked. Case in point, Szetela played a fine match on the right in the Jabloteh win, and classic Soehn dictates Szetela play there again despite the fact Szetela is not really a wing player. Still, maybe Tommy is satisfied that he forced his recalcitrant young prodigy into “embracing the position” as it were, and moves him back inside now that he’s proved who’s the boss, but you never know.

Same with playing Wallace in the middle and Simms on the backline. It has worked to some extent, more so with Wallace than Simms, but Marathon is not KC or Dallas or even a lethargic Jabloteh. The Green Monster will rampage in RFK if given openings because of simple mistakes by players playing out of position. Plus, creating positive matchups all over the field has to be of more importance than merely filling in positions with the best available player. So, we’ll see if the stubborn Soehn has learned this lesson or not.

Now, replacing the entire defense is actually pretty easy since most of them have been out anyway and Namoff has been playing terrible, so it could even be considered a boon. Normally, McTavish would be the first choice to replace Namoff, but he’s needed in midfield (unless of course Soehn starts Moreno and moves Pontius back, but that is not advised as Moreno has been playing terrible and simply has not found any decent rhythm with Emilio). However, David Habarugira has looked pretty promising and is back from suspension, so he deserves another look playing at home in a tournament he’s already gotten his feet wet in.

As for the rest of the backline, it’s time to see if Vaughn is any good. He’s played center back oodles of times for Chivas and if he can’t help out now, then what was the point of signing him? Anyway, he should line up next to Calamity James who is having a rough time of late, but is persevering nicely. For all his warts, James does bring some bite and a great deal of tenacity to what has been a dewy soft defense for DC. Also, most importantly they are the two most athletic defenders DC has and Marathon’s forwards are nothing if not dynamic. Since outplaying them might be a stretch, you at least have to be able to catch them from time to time.

Bottom line is that United has been playing musical chairs in the defense while the new guys they brought in got up to speed. Well, they’ve had ten days to get up to speed, and while there might not be a Usain Bolt in the bunch, they at least deserve to be in the race in their natural positions to see if they have what it takes. They were signed for desperate times, and your entire starting defense being out is pretty much the times that try men’s souls. Definitely going to be some fingers crossed tomorrow night, but it’s probably DC’s best chance to pull off a shutout.

DC better hope the team is clicking on all cylinders though, because they need a multigoal win or their hope of advancing is dead. One goal won’t do it as apparently CONCACAF tiebreaking rules put more weight on head to head than group goal differential, so DC needs to win by two at least to negate Marathon’s goal advantage head to head. Of course CONCACAF has to be different and value head to head matchups instead of total group results, despite the fact it is a “group” stage, but there you go. That’s an argument for another day.

But, it is helpful that Marathon seems to be going through a rough patch right at the moment. Not just the losses, either. The political unrest in Honduras has to be a concern in and of itself for players and their families, but now the airports have been closed and the team had to bus to Guatemala in order to even fly here for the match. They probably won’t even have time for a true practice here before the match, adding yet another layer to their troubles.

So, that’s it. Given the way the group has played out, this match is for most of the marbles, and DC has most of the advantages despite a depleted roster given Marathon’s even greater problems. Now, it’s up to United to wriggle their way up the lifeline they’ve been thrown, because if they don’t, they’ll slip right back into the ooze of teams that can’t cut it at the international level anymore. Which would be a huge blow for an organization that used to pride itself on being a regional power.

It’s right there for them, though, if they can translate all their good fortune lately, as well as much needed rest and some timely returning players into a big win. If they do that and give themselves some real hope to advance, then DC will be able to hold its head up in the region again. Plus, a big win will almost certainly translate into some real momentum heading into a crucial set of MLS matches.

But even at the very least, DC needs to get a win of any kind to restore at least some of their self-respect that’s been lost over this cruelly twisted roller coaster season. However, if they can’t pull something out of the hat tomorrow night, then chalk this up as another trophy we did not win, and more likely than not MLS success down the stretch will prove to just as elusive.

United Facing Familiar Foe in CONCACAF Champions League

Heading into the most difficult and important stretch of games of the season, United certainly stumbled out of the gate last week with a disturbing loss in Toronto, and things just get tougher from here on out in international play as United faces the Honduran champions, Marathon who swept DC on their way to winning the group last year.

Well, it’s not Real Madrid on the other side of the field, but it might well be a team just as fearsome as Marathon rolled over United last season like jeep over a jellyfish. DC lost down there in Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano 2-0, and dropped the return match in RFK 4-2, neither match was even close.

The scores could have been much worse too. Marathon was easily the fastest and most dynamic team in the group as well as being by far the classiest to boot. Saprissa and Cruz Azul both pulled every cheap trick in the book to get their points, but Los Emeraldas simply outplayed everyone they faced up to and including the Puerto Rico Islanders, who bunkered and busted them out in the quarterfinals despite Marathon being clearly the better team.

Marathon appears to be picking up right were they left off too as they are the early leaders in the Honduran league at 4-1-1, although they did pick up their first loss just this past weekend against Real Espana. But, they’ve only given up five goals in six games, three of them to Real Espana’s Carlos Pavon (formerly of the Galax), and are cruising along averaging almost two goals a game scored.

Lots of familiar faces to DC United are still in their squad too. Although it appears someone has finally stuck a stake in Tyson Nunez as he has finally retired and his partner in crime Saul Martinez is also not on any roster I could find either. Which is good news as those two ripped DC for 3 goals and 3 assists last season. However, there’s still a lot of good attacking talent floating around their roster as DC United can attest having tried to sign attackers like Carlos Wil Mejia and Walter Martinez in the last two years.

Their midfield appears to be pretty much intact as well and in particular the central midfield of Mario Beata and Mariano Acevedo are very adept at launching counter-attacks, and right wing Marvin Chavez is a decidedly tricky player that DC needs to contain. Chavez has been linked to FC Dallas recently, but sadly nothing signed yet, so no doubt he will be out there to punish United if they are not careful.

Defensively, Marathon still have two or three Honduran National team defenders in Erick Norales, Mario Berrios, and Mauricio Sabillon, so no breaks there either. Bottom line, Marathon is good and they have reason to feel pretty confident about DC United coming to visit again, especially as they weathered the group stages at home last year without even giving up a goal, including shutting out Cruz Azul convincingly.

United on the other hand is a lot different team than the injured and anemic wreck the Green Monster faced last year. The roster is a lot more balanced and almost everyone is healthy. Namoff and Pontius are out with slight injuries and Fred is suspended, but the current state of United is a lot deeper than last year and Soehn has plenty of players to overcome those absences.

Unfortunately, what United does not have is very good road form, and the loss in Toronto certainly didn’t do anything to make anyone think United is able to find success outside of RFK. Even worse is that Jakovic and Emilio both played about as bad as they ever have in that futile match. Now Jakovic has been a revelation and rock solid most of the year and he simply cannot play that bad again especially with Namoff out and facing a Marathon side that attacks in waves. Emilio, too must be a legitimate threat to score or United could easily struggle to mount credible attacks against a very good defensive team that makes Toronto look like a seive.

So, considering all the options, I’m thinking Soehn has to go with as many veterans as possible. No way is this a good time to toss some fresh meat to the wolves like the newly signed defenders Habarugira or James or Ely Allen, or even the likes of Szetela, DiRaimondo or Jacobson, none of whom have all that much international experience, and there’s no way Firpo can be compared to the Green Monster of Honduras. You can always sub in some youth once you’ve established yourself, but bringing in experience off the bench having punted the first half is not too promising.

So, veterans like Emilio, Moreno, and Gomez especially are the best bet to establish some type of offensive scheme as they have the longest tenure together and have shown flashes of their 2007 form when they’ve taken the field together which really hasn’t happened often enough in my opinion. Youth and speed is nice, but guile and savvy might be a lot more valuable against a team that is already younger and faster than you are anyway.

Then Olsen must start in central midfield too, for his leadership and organization. No chance he physically runs down anyone on their roster, but not many younger United players are as fast as the Hondurans either. So, keeping organized and playing smart will be crucial. Simms, too is another calming and confident influence with first hand experience in Honduras that could be the difference between a hard fought close match, and a rout that United must avoid at all costs.

Quaranta playing the right side will be a crucial role as well, since Wallace playing the left will be lucky to just contain Chavez, much less get into the attack. So, it’s up to Santino to avenge his silly red card against Marathon last year after barely 45 minutes in the very last match of the group. He needs a good game both sides of the ball for DC to really have a chance.

Defensively, I think Soehn should use McTavish (or even James) to cover for Namoff leaving Jakovic in the center and Janicki on the bench. But seeing as how he’s used Jakovic on the right and started Janicki in the center against the likes of Real Madrid, I think it’s probably a forgone conclusion he goes with that again. But, which Janicki will show up? The one who blanked Real Madrid for much of the match, or the one who fumbled away a goal to Firpo? He won’t have good memories of playing Marathon last year either. But, Burch played pretty well against them, or Soehn can send out John to hack them to pieces. Either way.

Wicks too, must reassert himself. I never really discuss goalkeeping that much as that position is rarely the reason for wins and losses, but Wicks has gotten a bit of the yips lately and is a bit of a concern again. He’s been pretty shaky of late despite some highlight reel saves. Those are nice, but the blunders have cost points and for sure Marathon will punish mistakes.

So there you have it. DC could pull it off if they play their A game. I especially like DC’s five in midfield against Marathon’s four, that should slow them down right nicely and help prevent some man on man disadvantages for DC. But, whatever happens they must somehow manage to tighten up their hideous road defense. In particular, they must avoid their patented 15 minute meltdowns that let in multiple goals in a short span. Because United absolutely must keep this match close. Losing a close one would not be the end of the world, but a multigoal loss could be fatal.

DC-Marathon is likely to be the swing matchup of the group. Jabloteh is easily the worst team in the group and just happy to have made it his far. They will be the whipping boy of the group, so DC and Marathon will be slugging it out for right to advance along with group favorite Toluca.

Plus, the way the games play out, DC could be playing from way down the table as they have two of their toughest games first, hosting Toluca next week after this match in Honduras. While both Toluca and Marathon face Jabloteh in one of their first two matches. So, obviously winning or tying would be best, but avoiding a multigoal loss is imperative.

DC United got this far by being the first MLS team to actually win a qualifying round, and it took a supreme effort down in El Salvador. Now, they need a performance just as good, well certainly a result just as good anyway, if they are to give themselves a chance to advance into the quarter-finals.

For certain, they should expect to improve on last year’s debacle in CCL, but going from last to third in your group hardly makes that effort in El Salvador to even get this far seem worth it. Now, sticking it to a Marathon side that toyed with you last year and becoming only the second MLS team to make the knockout rounds along the way would be the right way to go about expunging some painful memories.