It’s been a wild and wacky two games for league leading DC United as their normally tight defense has been leaking like a sieve, but incredibly their moribund offense emerged from the stone age to make up for it.
DC is riding a two game win streak despite falling behind early and giving up six goals total in those games because they have suddenly found their offense to the tune of nine goals scored to make up for those uncharacteristic defensive lapses. To put their last two games in perspective, DC had scored only 24 goals in 22 games, but spent the better part of the season leading the East because they only gave up 20 goals heading into the last two weeks. Apparently the trade for Alvaro Saborio put that strategy on its ear because as soon as Sabo took the field, DC began spilling goals like a leaky paint bucket, but scoring them like a Pakistani Cricket team. From scoring barely a goal a game, DC scored an average of 4.5 goals a game in the last two games. DC had only allowed 2 goals against 3 times (NY twice, TFC) in 21 games until allowing Philly 2 and RSL 4 the past two weeks, and giving up 2 goals in Dallas the week before that.
However, there is no doubt United coach Ben Olsen will be looking to ratchet down the bolts on the defense particularly early in games, while hoping for continued offense albeit perhaps not averaging the unlikely 4.5 goals a game they have scored the last two games.
Fixing the defense should be both easy and likely. It’s not like DC has forgotten how to play defense after being arguably the best defensive team in the league the past two years with pretty much the same players. No. DC has simply gotten away from their normally aggressive style of defense. By no means the most physically imposing group, the defense has made its bones by being aggressive as well as positioning themselves intelligently. If you look at the goals scored lately, almost all are scored on defenders who are in position for the most part, but they are laying off players too much or simply getting out muscled. It’s not a case of DC defenders getting caught upfield, there’s plenty of guys back defending, they just aren’t making the plays they need to make and have made all year. DC has to stop giving so much room to players on the ball in the offensive third of the field and they have to be in there scrapping with elbows and teeth while they’re at it. Starting from the opening whistle to boot. They are not good enough to make up for playing any other way. Smart and scrappy is their mantra and they need to get back to it.
Oddly enough I think keeping the offense rolling might be the more difficult task. DC has caught two teams pretty unprepared for the change that Saborio brought to DC’s offense and I think that is likely to change as teams adjust now that they have some startling game film to catch their attention. Saborio is a pure number 9 and he occupies the center backs which allows room for Fabian Espindola to play off him on the fringes of the attack as well as provides room for Chris Rolfe and Nick DeLeon to operate without so many players collapsing on them. Both Philly and RSL play with one defensive minded player in midfield and that got exposed badly so look for teams to clean up those areas when playing DC. Perhaps by intentionally playing one back on Saborio and pushing the other up, or by shifting another midfielder into the channels or whatever fits their style, but I expect teams to adjust.
That said, DC should still score goals and very likely go back to stopping them too, just not at the ridiculous levels we’ve seen lately.
So, looking at the likely lineups, DC does catch their usual huge break as Montreal will be missing their star central defender, Laurent Ciman due to suspension as well as very likely dodging the Didier Drogba bullet as the newly signed legendary former Chelsea sniper isn’t likely to play much if at all. Montreal is also dealing with a glut of games lately too. The DC match will be their third of four games in eleven days albeit all but the first one is at home. So, with all that in mind I expect Montreal coach Frank Klopas to go with his usual 4-2-3-1 with Dominic Oduro as the lone forward with Argentine Playmaker Ignaccio Piatti playing underneath him with Dilly Duka and Andres Romero on the left and right wings respectively. Italian hard man Marco Donandel is back from suspension to partner with Scottish teeth rattler Calum Mallace in the defensive roles in front of Montreal’s back four. The defense should be homegrown Donny Toia on the left, Cameroonian Ambroise Oyongo and likely Wandrille Lefevre replacing Ciman in the center, and Victor Cabrera on the right in front of goalkeeper Evan Bush.
For DC, I fully expect the same starting XI for the third game in a row, although I wouldn’t be surprised if one change is made, but more on that later. Olsen will certainly play his usual 4-4-1-1 with Sabo up top and Espindola roaming freely. In midfield, I expect Rolfe, Davy Arnaud, Perry Kitchen, and Nick DeLeon playing left to right and in defense it will surely be Taylor Kemp, Bobby Boswell and Chris Korb as Sean Franklin remains out with Achilles tendonitis. However, while I think Olsen will stay with Steve Birnbaum in the center of defense with Boswell, it wouldn’t surprise me if Kofi Opare gets a start over Birnbaum either. Birnbaum has been the prime offender in playing soft and loose lately and that can’t happen given Oduro’s speed and the scrappiness of Duka and Romero. Olsen is loyal longer than one would expect, but Opare is a better option if Birnbaum needs some time on the pine to get his head right. We’ll see.
So, looking at the matchups and likely tactics this game is going to be very close and could go either way. Both teams like to cede possession and seek to counter-attack. Offensively, Saborio and Espindola are strong and crafty enough to cause problems for Oyongo and Lefevre who was less than impressive earlier this year as the starter before losing his job to Oyongo. However, Donadel and Mallace are very good at clogging up the middle and forcing turnovers, something DC doesn’t need any help doing on their own, so DC will need to be efficient on the chances they do get. The key may well be who controls the wings better and keeps their opposite number playing defense more than they’d like. If so, Romero could cause big problems for Kemp requiring Rolfe to help which will keep Rolfe from exploiting Cabrera, Montreal’s weakest defender, as much as he should. Same thing with DeLeon and Korb. Duka has been very dynamic this year and will pin Korb back, so DeLeon will have to pick and choose his spots to attack Toia who is a solid player.
Defensively, obviously Piatti is the key to their attack. He pulls the strings in midfield and is another reason why Opare might be the better option. Opare’s physicality and range pushing up from the backline would be more effective than sticking Kitchen on Piatti and keeping him buried back in front of the backline. That also leaves Arnaud pretty much alone keeping tabs on Donadel and Mallace scooting forward which is perhaps not such a good tactic either. It’s OK if Arnaud and Kitchen get pinned back as long as Rolfe and DeLeon can get forward, but that could turn on a dime against DC too, especially as Montreal has real speed in their counter-attacking and DC does not. Also, if Drogba comes in he could be a nightmare for Boswell should Montreal need a goal late. He is brutally precise in forcing mistakes and could be the kind of physical force not seen in MLS since Mamadou Diallo.
At least DC has some success up there in Montreal lately. DC tied the last time they visited, and trounced the Impact 4-1 the visit before that behind a Silva hat trick and Nick DeLeon scoring the winner. DC also squeaked by Montreal in the first game of this season here at RFK. Overall, DC is 3-2-2 against the Impact, but 3-1-2 since losing the very first game against them in Montreal back in 2012. Which is good because DC is an abysmal 3-6-2 on the road considering their position leading the league in points, an even worse 1-5-2 since beating Vancouver back in April with only a 1-0 win in Chicago in the last 3.5 months. Montreal on the other hand is 6-2-1 at home so far this year and 6-1-0 since Portland snuck out of Montreal with all the points in early May. NYCFC three weeks ago is the only team to beat Montreal at home in the past 3 months, and Montreal has shut out 3 of their 4 four opponents at home as well, while DC has been shut out 6 of their last 9 road games.
So there you have it, DC can certainly surprise Montreal in their house, but while I think Sabo and Espy will combine to score one, I see Montreal getting one of their own most likely from Piatti getting loose in the defense as he’s bound to do at least once or twice. And that’s assuming DC tightens up the ship on defense of course. If they continue to lay off players and let themselves get beat physically, then they will have to hope to keep outscoring teams, and while that is possible against Montreal with Ciman conveniently being out of the lineup, it is certainly not the recipe for success Olsen is looking for.