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DC Hopes for Third Time Lucky in SJ

DC United, riding their first winning streak since 2009 thanks to Maicon Santos, will likely need some luck to stretch that streak into a third win in a row against the Earthquakes Tomorrow night in San Jose. SJ has always been barren in terms of points for DC, and this year’s Earthquakes are riding a five game unbeaten streak of their own having won four of their last five matches.

To make matters worse, DC will be without three of their top four central defenders as Emiliano Dudar became the latest casualty being forced out of the Houston win with a hamstring injury to join Dejan Jakovic (ankle) and Ethan White (knee surgery) on the trainer’s table. Which is bad in its own right, but facing SJ’s Chris Wondolowski and Steven Lenhart, who battered DC with a hat trick against them last year, will really have United’s backs against the wall.

It will also be interesting to see how DC coach Ben Olsen handles his starters considering this match will be the second of three in seven days. The first time he faced a similar stretch, Olsen made six changes to the starting lineup and nearly fumbled away all the points to Montreal. This time Olsen has to be thinking the team needs to keep the continuity going but the long flight to San Jose followed by a long flight back to their next match in Toronto followed by another long flight to Houston to be the sacrificial lamb in the Dynamo’s stadium opening game seems to indicate to need for managing minutes.

There’s no question Olsen will be juggling his defense, though. Almost certainly Olsen will be moving veteran right back, Robbie Russell into the center to replace Dudar alongside former San Jose defender, Brandon McDonald and left back Daniel Woolard, but how Olsen handles the vacant right back slot could be interesting. Second year player Chris Korb seems the natural replacement, but has been pretty woeful in his outings this season to date. So, another option might be to play Perry Kitchen in that right back slot and bring in Marcelo Saragosa to play Kitchen’s midfield slot. Unfortunately, Kitchen hasn’t been too convincing as a right back and Saragosa is nowhere near as good as Kitchen in cleaning up things in front of what will be a patchwork central defense for this match.

However, if Olsen seeks to avoid either of those two evils, an interesting option might be to play Danny Cruz or even Andy Najar at right back for this match. Cruz has played right back before and certainly has the tenacity for the position. Andy Najar is no slouch as a defender either, but the beauty of this idea is that it could turn a potential weakening of one or two positions on the field into an attacking strength that would force San Jose to deal with a lot more attacking play out United’s right side.

Olsen also has to decide which game to rest his attackers, Dwayne De Rosario, Maicon Santos, Chris Pontius, and rookie Nick DeLeon. He could easily drop them all from this match and replace them with his tarnished designated players, Hamdi Salihi and Branko Boskovic as well as Najar and Josh Wolff. But given the disaster large scale changes wrought in the Montreal match, that idea seems a bit suspect.

A better idea would be to rest two at a time. Give Santos and DeRo the night off in San Jose unless they are needed off the bench. That way DeLeon who seems to have a decent connection with Salihi gives him a familiar person to run off of while he gets to partner with Pontius who is equally as good at setting his partners up for shots as he is at creating his own. Boskovic too gets the benefit of a largely intact midfield to fit himself and he’s not going against a particularly stiff central midfield defense, especially if Sam Cronin as rested by SJ coach Frank Yallop.

Interestingly, San Jose will have similar fatigue issues to deal with as they are coming off a flight from Philly to get ready for this match and will be heading out to Vancouver right afterwards for a Saturday match against the ‘Caps. So while they will be sleeping in their own beds before this game, former DC assistant, Frank Yallop, might have to manage minutes with San Jose’s starters as well.

Obviously this is speculation, but I suspect Yallop will make some changes for this match as well, in order to be fresher for the more important match with Vancouver. With that in mind, I do not believe he will run 33 year old Colombian playmaker, Tressor Moreno, into the ground, especially as there’s no way he’s used to the long travel in this country, so I’d bet he sits this one out. Same with Simon Dawkins, who is younger, but ran like a dog all day in Philly. Yallop also likes to give guys like Brad Ring the odd start to keep them in tune, so I suspect Cronin gets rested too.

Unfortunately for United, there’s no chance Yallop rests either of his main scorers. Chris Wondolowski almost never sits out a game and Lenhart has only recently got back into the lineup, so he doesn’t need rest, not to mention sending him up against a makeshift central defense is like launching a rhino through a cornfield. Also, aside from captain Ramiro Corrales returning to the lineup from injury, the defense is likely to remain fairly intact as well. Corrales, Justin Morrow, Ike Opara, and Steven Beitashour going left to right in front of Jon Busch.

So looking at the matchups is a bit of a crapshoot, but let’s give it a go. Obviously the big concern is Lenhart and Wondolowski, and interestingly enough DC does have some good reasons for hope there if Benny leaves Kitchen in the middle. Lenhart is a handful for sure, but so is Brandon McDonald. The Chicken Hawk is well aware of what Lenhart tries to do and is easily just as physical, so if McDonald plays smart, Lenhart could largely be neutralized and maybe even frustrated into making mistakes the way he frustrates others. Wondo is a lot more tricky as he is sneakier and loves to find seams to take open shots from. Well, Russell is nearly as mobile and has good experience to not let Wondo wander too far, but also Kitchen is very smart and can help out at the top of the D as well.

In the midfield, Khari Stephenson is a load to control and has a bomb of a shot, but I like Kitchen on him a lot better than Saragosa. Assuming Marvin Chavez plays the right side with Beitashour behind him, I have no problem with DeLeon and Woolard keeping that side in check, and quite possibly getting the better of them in the attack. Same with Najar and Cruz keeping Rafael Baca and Ramiro Corrales contained fairly well, while almost certainly causing them huge problems when United is attacking.

Which leaves Boskovic, Salihi and Pontius going at Cronin (or Ring), Morrow and Opara and that is frankly a tossup. I’m a big fan of Salihi and think he will break his duck sooner rather than later. Pontius too is playing with so much confidence right now, that he could catch Opara too far upfield and punish that mistake. Even better if the game stays tight as I suspect, you’ve got Santos or DeRo coming off the bench for some late minutes to go for the win.

Also, while SJ is leading the West, their record is a bit suspect. Their only quality win was in catching Seattle on a down swing and stealing a 1-0 win there. Other than that, they’ve beaten poor teams like Philly, NE, TFC, and Vancouver, needed stoppage time heroics to not drop two points versus 9 man RSL, tied a dreadful defensive team in NY, and lost to Houston at home early on. So, they haven’t really hit the hard part of their schedule to say the least.

Of course, the soccer gods have never been kind to DC in San Jose, starting right from that loss in the Inaugural MLS match back in 1996. Since then United has a grand total of 3 wins in SJ, but they have tied 6 more to go with their 7 losses. Of course two of those wins in SJ came in ’97 and ’98, so that means United has only one win there since the Golden Age of DC soccer, but that lone win in the past 13 years was last season, a 2-0 victory courtesy of DeRo, so maybe the worm has turned.

It’s a case of the two longest unbeaten streaks in MLS meeting in a midweek matchup that likely will see a good sprinkling of bench players starting on both sides, so who knows how it will turn out, but DC does have some reason for hope that they come out of this with a tie at least.

However, a few good bounces and a little luck and maybe United has a three game win streak for the first time since that glorious June in 2008 when another disappointing DC DP, Marcelo Gallardo was at the height of his success with DC, leading United up from the bottom of the table with four wins in a row. Interestingly, United’s second win in that streak was a 4-1 drubbing of NY and the third win was a comfortable 3-1 cruise over SJ. Perhaps this is a time for Boskovic and Salihi to shine like Gallardo and Emilio did during that run.

Battle of Unbeatens as Earthquakes Visit RFK

Two teams that haven’t lost in over a month will face each other tomorrow night as DC United host the San Jose Earthquakes, who have been a bit of a tough out for United the past few years as the ‘Quakes are on a two year winning streak in RFK, and haven’t lost to DC anywhere since 2008.

DC, unbeaten against the Western Conference in their last 5 matches which has moved the team into third place in the East, takes on a San Jose team that has been just as dominant over the Eastern Conference over the same 5 game span. However, both teams have a few injuries and Gold Cup absences to deal with.

United has perhaps the lesser troubles as the loss of Dejan Jakovic, who pulled a hamstring preparing for the Gold Cup, has been ably replaced by the rock solid play of United’s kiddie corp of rookie defenders. Also, Dax MacCarty (groin, caused him to miss last two matches) and Charlie Davies (hamstring, came in as a sub in last match) have both recovered to the point where they could start, but almost certainly will play a role off the bench at the very least.

San Jose, on the other hand will be missing the defending golden boot winner, Chris Wondolowski and the rugged Ryan Johnson, who was just starting to really spark SJ’s offense after being moved back into midfield, as both are gone for the Gold Cup. But they got a bit of good news themselves recently as Simon Dawkins, who was signed away from Tottenham earlier this year, is back healthy and scored in their last match a convincing 2-0 win over Houston.

With all that in mind, it seems likely United coach Ben Olsen returns Charlie Davies and Dax McCarty to their starting roles against SJ. It’s true rookie Blake Brettschneider and Fred played very well in replacing United’s two biggest off- season acquisitions, but perhaps weren’t quite influential enough to warrant staying out there once United’s captain and leading scorer return to health.

It should be Davies and Josh Wolff starting at forward, then Chris Pontius, McCarty, Clyde Simms, and Andy Najar starting left to right across the midfield. Now, an interesting possibility, which would work against SJ especially, is for Olsen to reward Fred by keeping him out there, but replacing the shaky Simms with McCarty instead.

SJ’s central midfield is not so frightening that Simms has to be out there defensively, plus this allows Fred’s creative aggression to stay on the field to spark United’s attack instead of putting the pressure on McCarty, who clearly has had trouble living up to those expectations. This is a good game to experiment with a different role for McCarty to see if that frees him up to be more himself instead of putting pressure on him to be something he is not. And his steadiness and savvy play may well calm Fred’s natural instincts towards excessive turnovers. It would be interesting to see those possibilities, but I suspect Olsen goes with the more predictable route and banishes Fred’s creativity and carelessness back to being a second half spark off the bench.

In defense, there’s simply no doubt who will be out there. Rookies Chris Korb, Perry Kitchen, and Ethan White, along with journeyman Daniel Woolard have been simply fantastic recently, and are perhaps the biggest reason for United’s unbeaten streak since that horrid stretch when gave up 4 goals 3 times in April.

SJ coach Frank Yallop has also had a bit of time to adjust to the loss of his leading scorers of the past few years. Steven Lenhart coming back to form after a long injury layoff, as well as the return of Dawkins and the commitment of Khari Stephenson to refuse a Gold Cup call up give the former DC assistant coach quite a few weapons on offense. And interestingly, he has swapped the roles of former DC midfielder Bobby Convey and long time Quake defender Ramiro Corrales and struck on a good formula with Convey playing left back and Corrales in midfield.

Anyway, almost certainly Yallop will play Lenhart and Stephenson at forward (perhaps Dawkins starts at forward and Stephenson in his more natural attacking midfielder role, but I think not as Dawkins is still just getting fitness back after a bit of a long layoff himself). Then in midfield, Corrales, Brad Ring, Sam Cronin, and either second pick in the draft Anthony Ampaipatakwan or Joey Gjertsen going from left to right across midfield (if Dawkins starts, Stephenson replaces Ring in midfield). And Yallop’s defense will most likely be Steven Beitashour, Jason Hernandez, Bobby Burling (or Brandon McDonald), and Convey going from right to left across the back.

So, looking at the matchups, DC has some very tantalizing matchups on offense they could easily take advantage of. Obviously the Wolff and Davies that carved up Seattle could easily dance around or blow by Hernandez and either Burling or the beast McDonald, if they have managed to regain the chemistry they were building before some niggling injuries separated them for a stretch. Najar against SuperBobby is obviously a tantalizing matchup of former DC prodigy with current DC prodigy, and if Pontius continues to play with confidence and dagger efficiency, then Beitashour is in trouble.

Even if McCarty and Simms or Fred are negated by Cronin and Ring, DC should be able to find a way to score, and will win if they can keep the damage that Lenhart will wreak on their defense to a minimum, because outside of Jewfro, SJ’s offense is not terribly dynamic or effective without their sniper Wondolowski.

Corrales is steady, but won’t dazzle and shouldn’t be too much trouble for Korb to handle, especially if he’s dropping back too much to help Convey with Najar. Same with Gjertsen or Ampaipatakwan, they won’t trouble the unflappable and rock solid Woolard too much, especially if they are pre-occupied with helping Beitashour with the wily Pontius. Nor will Ring and Cronin outplay McCarty and Simms. So, as long as Lenhart is contained without fouling him too much and giving SJ too many dangerous freekicks, DC will be in fine shape.

Which is good, because the trends don’t really favor DC. As mentioned, SJ has won the last two on the trot in RFK and has only lost to DC once since being reformed in 2008. Historically, DC hasn’t fared much better either. DC is 10-14-6 against SJ since the inaugural MLS match loss in 1996, one of their worst records ever against a league opponent. In RFK, that is slightly better as DC is 8-7-0 but the bulk of those wins came a long time ago.

SJ also has the slightly better form recently too. They are 3-0-2 in their last five matches with convincing wins over Columbus, NE, and most recently Houston, while DC is 2-0-3 with a road win, but perhaps less convincing home draws to Dallas and Colorado.

On the bright side, DC is 2-1-3 at home albeit outscored 7-8 due to that hideous performance against NY, but they have only given up two goals at home since that match, and shut out the league leading Galaxy in the HDC their last time out. SJ, on the other hand doesn’t travel so well. They did beat Dallas early on, but haven’t won on the road since going 1-2-2 overall with the ties being unimpressive draws in Chicago and Vancouver.

Bottom line, DC should be able to score one more than SJ might score if DC really has turned a corner on their season. Some consistency from here on out will do a world of good for this very young team. They aren’t world beaters yet, but even average MLS teams get wins at home consistently. That should be the new benchmark.