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DC Heads to Montreal looking to tighten up their game

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.

DC host suddenly relevant Real Salt Lake

Some home cooking against Philly snapped DC back on track while a listless RSL suddenly looks a lot more relevant after a couple of solid wins at home over Houston and Kansas City.

To say this summer has been a bit under the weather for DC is perhaps an understatement considering their torrid start to the season. Recently reeling from last minute losses and baffling mistakes United has had to rely on the cushion they built up earlier to retain their handle on the East until a massive morale boosting comeback win over the Philadelphia Union after a shocking opening four minutes. RSL has had a much different journey so far, a desultory 2-2-5 start to the season has morphed into a 3-5-3 record since then until a couple big wins at home has suddenly shot them into respectability again. DC has relied on their tried and true 4-4-2 to help keep the ship above the waves while dealing with crucial injuries and suspensions, while RSL has revamped their vaunted 4-4-2 diamond into a much less reliable 4-3-3 which has only recently begun to gel.

Interesting to note that perhaps the biggest loser in RSL’s transition to three forwards has been Costa Rican target man Alvaro Saborio and deemed expendable he was shipped off to DC last week in return for the very talented but somewhat fragile Luis Silva. The two principles in this recent trade will face each other for the first time barely a week later. Well, they would if the oft injured Silva was healthy but he’s not. Adding another twist to this matchup is DC MVP Fabian Espindola being reunited with Saborio who was his strike partner in RSL for 3 years. To be sure, DC is a much different team than those RSL teams from 2010-2012, but both players should be well motivated for revenge on the team that deemed them expendable for guys like Joao Plata, Sebastian Jaime and Devin Sandoval.

Both teams are a bit banged up with RSL’s defense being hideously thin while DC is surviving on their fairly impressive depth. DC is without Eddie Johnson (essentially retired at this point), Chris Pontius (calf), Sean Franklin (achilles tendinitis), and Bill Hamid (hand and knee surgeries) while RSL’s offense has recently gotten healthier with the return of Joao Plata, but their defense still lacks former defender of the year, Jamison Olave (Quad), Chris Schuler (knee), dynamic left back Demar Philiips (groin), and perennially unrecognized goalkeeper of the year Nick Rimando (knee bruise). However, both teams are well rested and should be able to start the lineups that have seen them surge back into form recently.

For DC, I fully expect coach Ben Olsen to start the exact same XI from the Philly win, which means a repeat lineup for only the second time this season by the way. So Saborio and Espindola as forwards supported by Chris Rolfe, Davy Arnaud, Perry Kitchen, and Nick DeLeon in midfield. The backline will consist of Taylor Kemp, Steve Birnbaum, Bobby Boswell, and Chris Korb in front of the brewer Andrew Dykstra in goal. Now perhaps Kofi Opare gets the nod over the suddenly suspect Birnbaum or maybe there is a rare Markus Halsti sighting, but I doubt it. Olsen is pretty reliable with sticking with his guns particularly when they chalk up points.

RSL is a bit more tricky. No doubt RSL coach Jeff Cassar sticks to his 4-3-3 as he appears ready to sink or swim on that formation and the jury is still out on whether anyone tosses him a job preserver on that one yet. However, he has some options along all three lines as he really hasn’t hit on a great mix just yet. For sure, Devin Sandoval will be the center forward and Joao Plata starts as a wing forward, but whether it’s Sebastian Jaime or Olmes Garcia as the other wing is a coin flip. Same with midfield. No doubt Javier Morales and Kyle Beckerman are two of the three, but whether it’s Luis Gil, Luke Mulholland or John Stertzer is a bit up in the air. Gil is the more talented, but Mulholland or Stertzer provides MUCH better balance to that trio. Even as thin as they are on defense, Cassar has another devil if you do choice to make there. Tony Beltran and Abdoulie Mansally are the sure starters on the outside and Aaron Maund will play a central role, but his partner in central defense could either be Salvadoran Elias Vasquez or impressive rookie Justen Glad. Vasquez has the much bigger pedigree and obvious skills, but Glad has surprisingly been the more effective player. There’s no doubt Jeff Attinella plays in goal though as he is the unquestioned backup to St. Nick.

So, looking at the matchups and tactics this game will be interesting as DC’s 4-4-2 should be able to frustrate RSL’s 4-3-3 on paper alone. Indeed the 4-4-2 is designed to create numbers advantages up the middle to both thwart the “creative” player advantage as well as unbalance the opposing defense with wide play. So, if Barcelona’s 4-3-3 plays Chelsea’s 4-4-2, it’s a matter of attrition and key plays and much to the dismay of the world the stifling 4-4-2 seems to win out more often than not. However, DC does not have the difference makers Chelsea has and RSL certainly doesn’t have the attacking talent of Barca. DC tends to cede possession and rely on counter attacks, while RSL seeks to dictate the pace of the game and pressure high to keep the ball in the other team’s end looking for ball movement to create holes to exploit.

Looking at it that way, the matchups become a lot more crucial. DC needs to keep the pressure going wide down both sides to force RSL apart both to pry them open and to keep them from being close enough for their quick passing to shred DC’s somewhat slow and extremely reactive defense. If DC can keep Korb and Kemp upfield forcing Mulholland or Gil, and even Plata and Jaime or Garcia back, RSL will be reduced to hoping for the odd bit of brilliance from Morales or a DC mistake to even score anything at all. However, if RSL can keep Mulholland and Gil or Stertzer high up the field pinning Arnaud and Kitchen back as well as DC’s wide players, United will be in trouble. That said, Espindola and Rolfe are a couple of the most vicious counter attackers the league has ever seen and if Saborio occupies RSL’s weak central defenders enough to knock down balls to DC attackers coming from deep, or simply keeps them on the back foot allowing Espy and Rolfe the room to dissect them like frogs, DC could cede possession and still win 4-0. That’s if the game is played straight up, if Cassar gets tricky and adjusts back to their old diamond with Beckerman sitting in front of the back line, maybe they fare better, but no matter how you slice it DC has the tactical and matchup advantages in this one. (knock wood!)

On top of that, DC is undefeated against RSL in RFK. That’s right RSL has never won in DC and there’s been some cracking wins over the years too. Gallardo’s wicked inch perfect volley and DeRo’s first half hat trick come to mind right away, both 4-1 wins. DC is 5-0-3 outscoring RSL 17 to 5 in RFK since they entered the league in 2007. (That’s only fair as DC hasn’t won in Salt Lake since Freddy scored the winner in 2007 by the way.) Obviously, DC has been light’s out at home lately with an 8-1-3 record so far this year. The only loss since last June was to Giovinco although it’s important to note that DC also hasn’t shut out anyone at home since the Crew in early May and has given up 2 goals 2 of their last 3 in RFK (the Philly win and the TFC loss) still, DC has outscored visitors by a healthy 21-12 goal margin. RSL on the other hand is a horrific 2-6-2 on the road being outscored 16-6 which is made even worse when you consider they went 1-0-2 to start their road campaign. They’ve been 1-6-0 since outscored 11-3 since their last road win in Chicago in early May.

So there you have it. DC has every advantage on paper and should prevail as long as the soccer gods keep their noses out of it. We’ll see. RSL is the far more desperate team and that sometimes skews the results. DC leads the East comfortably by 7 points and shouldn’t be too ruffled by RSL’s visit especially considering their road record. RSL on the other hand is in a right dogfight in the West simply to remain relevant now that they have come within sight of the playoffs. A win would see them above the playoff line depending on other results, but a desperately needed 3 points to be sure. Still, you gotta go with the magic of a Ben Olsen led team in RFK. Seems like it takes more to beat DC in their house these past couple years.

DC Hosts Surging Union

DC United clings to the top of MLS despite recent slump and hopes to keep the suddenly respectable Philadelphia Union at bay.

An early season surge with a glut of home games and good results against the fairly weak East has vaulted DC United to the top of the league despite crucial injuries and suspensions, but DC appears to be coming back to earth while dregs of the East seem to be dragging themselves back into contention.

OK, it’s been almost a month since Conor Doyle’s wonderstrike stunned Chicago and delivered DC a road win that cemented their place at the top of the East 10 points clear of anyone, but since then DC has failed to score in Toronto and Seattle and only scraped one own goal in a three game winless streak with two losses on the trot. Philly on the other hand has gone from one win in their first eleven games to five wins in their last ten games plus ousting DC from the US Open Cup with only ten men a couple weeks ago.

With their attack withering on the vine and leading scorer Fabian Espindola failing to stay on the field enough to keep DC’s anemic attack afloat, United dealt away a key scorer from last season in Luis Silva the talented but oft injured striker, for the aging sniper and perennial scorer Costa Rican Alvaro Saborio from RSL and he should be available for DC for this match. The acquisition of Saborio reunites the strike partnership of Real Salt Lake that saw them dominate the West for 4 years, but both players are well removed from those times to say the least.

After a dreadful start to the season, Philly has also made a key trade this week by moving right back Sheanon Williams, who had lost his spot to Raymond Gaddis, to Houston essentially for cash in order to upgrade their roster, but that trade has yet to play out. DC might well catch another break as Philly will head into this match woefully thin on defense with the loss of a dynamic right back in Williams for the roster and salary cap room to bring in a difference maker such as Swiss winger Tranquillo Barnetta who has yet to sign with the team and won’t be available this weekend even if he does sign after this article is posted.

MLS has a new rule involving acquiring new players by paying down salaries on existing players which in effect allows a fourth DP player for teams willing to splash out money such as LA, NYFC, etc. However, it will is having a knock on effect for lower budget teams being able to get premium players for bargains from teams who have their eye on bigger fish. No chance RSL cuts loose Saborio or Philly jettisons Williams unless they have their eye on a much bigger prize with the new “targeted allocation money” which is the newest MLS Calvinball mechanism for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer. But that is a rant for another day.

OK, time for nuts and bolts. DC is reeling lately with no rhyme or reason to their offense and while they have a ridiculously stiff defense, you simply can’t put up zeros every weekend in today’s MLS. Espindola has been making United respectable for going on two years and Olsen has been doing it with smoke and mirrors this year while Fabi has been suspended/hurt/susupended again. However, Fabi is back and he will be able to take a different role now that a true “number 9” striker has been acquired in Saborio. Fabi himself has stated since the trade that he relishes the chance to play more on the fringes of the offense now that Sabo is here to occupy the central defenders, something Olsen required of Espindola this past couple years and something he is not really suited to do albeit he did it effectively.

So, the question is how will this trade change DC United’s anemic attack and yet not disrupt its lights out defense, and how will this play out against Philly?

First of all, DC plays a defense first counter-attacking style which seeks to frustrate an opponent and pounce on any mistakes looking for goals on counters or set plays. Saborio obviously helps on set plays, but he may well help in forcing mistakes too. He’s no where near as nimble as younger guys like Silva or Rolfe or Arrieta as a forward, but then again, he will play higher up forcing those guys to play quicker and allowing guys like Espindola and Rolfe to snag mistakes and/or have a guy to finish their plays. Espindola and Rolfe both are excellent whipping dangerous balls into the box, but unfortunately unless they are the ones on the end of those balls, they are often wasted. But Saborio changes all that. He is a finisher. Granted a couple years past his prime, but he is a dagger in the box the likes of which DC hasn’t seen since Luciano Emilio and that’s not a far-fetched comparison to a former MLS MVP. Saborio has the same skill set. If he gets the chances, he will convert. The question is will he get the chances. DC does not exactly light up the league in chances.

So let’s break it down. DC will most likely start Saborio and Espindola as forwards, and I fully expect Rolfe, Davy Arnaud, Perry Kitchen, and Nick DeLeon to play midfield going from left to right. Then Taylor Kemp, Steve Birnbaum, Bobby Boswell, and Chris Korb to play defense from left to right in front of Andrew Dykstra in for the ailing Bill Hamid. Philly almost certainly goes with CJ Sapong as the lone forward in front of Andrew Wenger, Cristian Maidana, Vincent Noguiera, Brian Carroll, and Sebastian LeToux in midfield as that is their unquestioned strongest attacking combination, although Venzuelan banger Fernando Aristoguieta and speedy Cameroon midfielder Eric Ayuk could sneak in there as well. In defense, Carroll sweeps up in front of Fabinho, Maurice Edu, Ethan White, and Gaddis, but White and Edu both picked up knocks in their Open Cup win over NY in midweek. Both could play, but Steven Vitoria is creeping back to fitness and the big Portugese Canadian is a force. No doubt former NASL keeper Brian Sylvestre starts in goal however despite fourteen high dollar keepers on Philly’s roster.

So, looking at the matchups and likely tactics, this looks like a bruiser of a game with likely a last man standing more so than a team running away with a win. DC will seek to cede possession but shut down Philly while looking to counter against their relatively weak defense. This will be a good test of what Saborio will bring to DC as he and Espindola could easily find joy against Edu and whoever in central defense assuming they get some type of service. And that is the question as Philly’s midfield looks too strong for DC to handle. Rolfe will hold his own of course against Gaddis, but is almost certainly going to need to help out Kemp contain LeToux or Ayuk so his help in the attack could be negated. DeLeon and Korb against Wenger and Fabinho is more promising, but those are the two most inconsistent and weakest attackers DC has. Perhaps Kitchen and Arnaud outplay Maidana, Noguiera and Carroll, but I doubt it.

DC has a strong defense though which will frustrate Philly. I don’t see Sapong or Aristoguieta unsettling Boswell and Birnbaum that much. LeToux and/or Ayuk’s speed could panic Korb or Kemp depending on what side he plays but unless he scores himself which he did against DC earlier this year, he still has to set up a guy to beat Boswell which hasn’t happened all that often this year.

Bottom line is that Philly’s slightly better offense has to beat DC’s much better defense more often than DC’s slightly weaker offense has to beat a philly defense that has been shown to cave under pressure much more often. Philly has barely scored more than DC at 26 goals to 24, but DC is the second best defense in the league, 20 goals against in 22 games, while Philly is the absolute worst defense in the league with 34 goals against in 20 games.

Good that the current season metrics favor DC as the intangibles and current trends certainly don’t. DC lost to 10 man Philly in the Open Cup a couple weeks ago as well as lost to them in Philly on a last minute goal two months ago to start their current swoon of six losses in twelve games. That win also helped Philly from only one win on the season to their current surge of five wins in their last ten games. DC did eek out a sketchy win in RFK a couple weeks later, but the less said about that the better. DC has owned Philly at home 3-1-3 in RFK against their closest rival to the north, but it hasn’t been quite convincing of late with the PK controversy last time Philly visited and the 1-0 win in 2014 and the 2-3 loss in 2013.

Bottom line, DC should be able to shutout Philly. The only question is will DC score to win it. This would be a good time for Saborio to step up and show why it is they got him.

Kitchen Juggles

Kitchen Juggles

DC travels to Toronto for tricky tilt

Red hot TFC hosts recently resurgent DC United with both teams coming off big wins over Eastern conference rivals in the mid-week.

League leading DC United extended their lead in the Supporter’s Shield race when they topped the abysmal Chicago Fire 1-0 on the road mid-week playing pretty much their B side, but DC will be looking for their A team to keep the ball rolling in Toronto. However, TFC might well be the most feared team in the league right now coming off a big time 3-1 rout of Montreal at home for their fourth win in their last five matches. A game in which Sebastion Giovinco furthered his argument for MLS MVP and which saw all three of their designated players score a goal for the first time in MLS history.

In the third of a wicked stretch of 5 matches in 12 days the last 4 of which are on the road, United coach Ben Olsen took the chance to rest a ton of his starters when facing the last place Fire in Chicago. The gamble paid off when the Fire played like a last place team allowing reserve Conor Doyle to strike a venomous volley to win it late in the match. Regular starters Fabian Espindola, Chris Rolfe, Nick DeLeon, Davy Arnaud, Perry Kitchen, Taylor Kemp, and Chris Korb all were rested or played very little in Chicago which means those A players should all be available to start in Toronto. It appears Olsen will be without Sean Franklin and Chris Pontius again however.

Toronto coach Greg Vanney has had little of the same schedule congestion since they are long since bounced from the Canadian Championship (Canada’s version of the Open Cup), and having already endured a long stretch on the road while BMO field was revamped earlier this year. So while TFC is indeed at the end of 3 games in 8 days, it’s their first such stretch for them all season and all of those games have been at home to boot. Considering TFC is set to lose Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Jonathan Osorio, and Ashtone Morgan for the Gold Cup, I have no doubt all of those guys play this last home game before they leave, especially as Vanney’s defense remains dinged up with projected starters Steven Caldwell and Mark Bloom still out as they have been most of the year.

With all that in mind, I think it very likely Olsen starts Espindola at forward and continues to tinker a little bit with a true 4-5-1 lineup that he has been using out of necessity lately, but might very well be a key to shutting down the explosive TFC as well as taking advantage of their relatively weak central defense. The makeup of that five man midfield should be interesting however. No question Chris Rolfe and Nick DeLeon start at the wide positions and it is equally certain that Perry Kitchen and Davy Arnaud will play centrally, but that third attacking midfielder/second forward slot is up in the air a bit. Team second leading scorer Jairo Arrieta has been starting quite a bit lately and should probably be considered an A player at this point, but he has to be gassed considering the minutes he’s played the past two weeks. As for Luis Silva, the only thing he has shown coming back from injury lately is his inability to play midfield at all, or even be very effective as a second forward, so I doubt he starts either. I think Olsen pulled Facundo Coria first from the Fire match with the idea he starts underneath Espindola in this match as the point man of that central midfield trio.

Starting in DC’s defense will almost certainly be Kemp and Korb bookending Kofi Opare and either Bobby Boswell or Steve Birnbaum. I think Birnbaum gets the nod both to keep the aging Boswell from playing on that turf and giving him some rare time off, but also to give a boost in confidence to Birnbaum who has been taking one for the team lately playing out of position as right or left back. Birnbaum is a competent defender no doubt about it, but he has not looked comfortable playing a wide role and he deserves a vote of confidence by playing him in his natural role in the center. Opare almost has to start given the speed and physicality of Altidore, and Luke Moore as well should he play. Birnbaum is a good complement to him especially in the air to combat the long balls and crosses TFC like to put into the box. Boswell could do it too of course, but Birnbaum has that bit of still youthful athleticism over Boswell’s smarts. Of course none of that matters if Bill Hamid in goal keeps dismissively slapping away shots like a water buffalo twitching away flies on the Serengeti.

TFC will use a 4-4-1-1 similar to the formation they used to break DC’s long home unbeaten streak three weeks ago, but this time Bradley will be available and Altidore will be healthy. Altidore almost certainly starts at forward with Giovinco in that second forward role. Osorio, Benoit Cheyrou, Bradley, and likely Warren Crevalle should start left to right across midfield for the Reds. Possibly Vanney uses Jackson instead of Crevalle to be more dynamic in the attack, or even Collen Warner to be more defensive, but I think those options will be used off the bench depending on the situation. Morgan, Eriq Zavaleta, Damien Perquis, and Justin Morrow should be the defense going left to right in front of goalkeeper Chris Konopka.

So. Looking at the matchups and styles, DC has their work cut out for them even if their A players bring their A game. DC’s five man midfield should go a long way toward shutting down Giovinco who killed them in that loss earlier this year as well as providing some cover for DC’s wing backs Korb and Kemp who can get caught out from time to time. In particular Rolfe has shown the endline to endline effectiveness Olsen demands from his wide players and he should be matched up with Osorio both to negate the Canadian’s attacks, but also to force him to defend which he doesn’t really want to do. DeLeon has been the second best wide midfielder for DC this year. Not as dynamic or precise in the attack as Rolfe, nor as timely or consistent in defense either, but he is active on both sides of the ball and will pop up in the attack from time to time, as well as get in the way defensively if nothing else. Certainly enough to outplay Crevalle and hold his own against Jackson or the teeth rattler Warner.

But this game will be decided right down the center of the field. Opare and Birnbaum or Boswell can certainly handle Altidore at least as well as anyone in the league can handle the best forward America has right now, especially if Arnaud, Kitchen, and Coria can maintain some sort of control over Giovinco, Cheyrou and Bradley. Admittedly that’s a tall task, but DC has shown they can be stingy so it’s possible. Still, no matter what, you gotta figure those guys get one at minimum and two goals more likely, so DC has to figure to score at least two to pinch a draw.

Which is where Espindola, Rolfe and the clever Coria come in going against TFC’s suspect defense. Perquis and Zavaleta scare no attacker in the league and Espy is easily wily enough to force a mistake or punish a missed assignment from either of them all by himself. But if Rolfe and Coria can combine with him often enough to keep Bradley way back defending, it helps DC’s defense as well as maybe turns possession in DC’s favor which will allow Kemp and DeLeon to pressure Morrow and Morgan respectively, DC might well get those two goals they will need. Cheyrou bossed the midfield and didn’t allow that from DC last time, but Coria could be the wild card in this one. Definitely a tough task and maybe even unlikely to boot, but certainly possible.

Which is good because the intangibles don’t favor DC at all unless you consider ancient history or hope the soccer gods get involved. As mentioned, TFC is hot coming off their fourth win in the last five matches, but they have also won three of their last four at home, two out of the last three by 3-1 scorelines. TFC is a respectable 3-2-0 at home having outscored visitors 8-6 altogether in those 5 matches and only being shut out once. TFC did lose 0-2 to NYCFC at home recently, but an early PK in that game, a lack of Altidore for most of the match, and a mighty performance by Josh Saunders in the nets for NYC had a lot to do with that. Also, while DC did eek out that win in Chicago, they remain 3-4-1 on the road having only scored 5 goals and given up 7 in those 8 matches. DC is 12-7-3 all-time versus TFC and 7-4-0 in BMO field, but most of that came in the early bad old days of TFC. DC has lost to TFC 1-2 earlier this year, and lost 1-2 last time they visited BMO field as well. The last visit before that in 2013, a C team got crushed 1-4 in Toronto three days before DC won the US Open Cup title in Salt Lake.

So, there you have it. Toronto should be favored for sure, but DC has shown they are a tough out and can grind out points in tough spots, especially if Hamid puts on his cape, so maybe a draw is within reach in this one. DC’s has seen red cards in Vancouver and NE boost them to four unlikely points on the road. They have seen stunning goals from out of the blue in Orlando and Chicago scrape out wins in games against weaker opponents. But they have also squandered points in Orlando, Portland, Philly, and got thumped in NY. All those games they kept tight however, and at least once a year DC drops a 0-3 clanger somewhere on the road and I can’t help thinking this will be it. Usually, the clanger comes in Seattle, LA, RSL or someplace else in the West, a 2-5 loss in SJ comes to mind as well. But every once in a while it comes in the East. Chicago, Columbus, even Houston when they were in the East have all dropped big ones on DC. United has yet to really lay an egg on the road this year and despite the A team, I think this might well be it.

Still, with a four point cushion on Seattle and Vancouver, even a loss keeps DC in the league lead until at least next week (but the Sounders and ‘Caps both have two games in hand), and DC holds an even tighter grip on the East with a 10 point lead on NE (who have one game in hand). However, every team in the East holds games in hand on DC, who have played more games than anyone in the league. Toronto holds a whopping five games in hand and Montreal a mind boggling six games for example.

DC’s long road trip starts in Chicago

DC just snapped a two game losing streak with a home win over NE, but now head out for four straight on the road starting with the Fire who have lost three straight in MLS.

United is fresh off a rousing 2-1 come from behind win over hated rivals New England that saw DC leap to the top of MLS two points clear of the Cascadia combo of Seattle and Vancouver. But having played eleven of their first eighteen matches at home, United’s long summer of travel starts in Chicago where DC hasn’t won since 2009 when Bryan Namoff scored the winner two weeks before a concussion that would end his career, and where United has only won three times since Toyota Park opened in 2006. The Fire, on the other hand, are reeling through a difficult season that currently sees them at the bottom of the league having lost five of their last eight games including a 3-1 loss to DC a few week ago in RFK.

So while this is a top versus bottom clash that you would normally think favors the top team, given the situation, it may not play out that way. Starting with DC’s ridiculous schedule and travel along with still some key injuries and a suspension, United coach Ben Olsen will have some tough choices to make for his starting lineup in Chicago. DC will be without regulars Chris Pontius (calf), Sean Franklin (ankle) as well as Davy Arnaud (yellow card accumulation) and they are in the midst of a 6 games in 16 days stretch that started June 16 in Pittsburgh with a 120 minute win, then the NE win, now in Chicago, in Toronto on the weekend, at Philly for the Open Cup next mid-week and ending up July 3rd in Seattle.

The Fire have some key injuries to David Accam and Shaun Maloney, and a suspension to Matt Polster too; however their schedule is much easier to deal with having last weekend off and facing the least daunting Open Cup opponent in the next round which will be at home for them too. For comparison; since June 15 when Chicago beat Louisville City at home to advance in the Open Cup the day before DC, they had last weekend off and incredibly will have next weekend off as well before hosting the USL Charlotte Independence before traveling to Houston for their July 3rd match. DC has 6 games in 16 days, 5 of 6 on the road; the Fire, 4 games in 17 days 3 of them at home. Nice going MLS.

Still be that as it may, that’s the task set before DC and most pundits are fond of pointing out how United is the deepest team in the league so let’s take a stab at how Olsen sets up the team for Chicago which is arguably the more winnable game than either Toronto or Seattle, much less the bottom of the bench team that will be sent to Philly. Replacing Arnaud is easy as the Finn, Markus Halsti can slot in there easily enough and indeed will make quite a few folks happy to see him play some true first team minutes with the first team. Franklin too can be replaced easily with Chris Korb, but Pontius is a much tougher loss as DC is very thin on the wings. Rolfe obviously can play there, but he’s played a lot lately and might be better off the bench against his old team in his old stomping ground, but more on that later. Which pretty much leaves Conor Doyle or Miguel Aguilar as Olsen’s options as the winger opposite Nick DeLeon, and if DeLeon is rested, there are both your starters.

So, looking into my crystal ball, I think Olsen tries to get one more match out of Fabian Espindola before resting him and starts Jairo Arrieta along with him at forward, but will be getting Luis Silva into this match early. I think going with Espindola gives DC the best chance to score early and maybe make the last place team in the league hang their heads, then he can replace him with Silva to hopefully hang on to the win. Silva has been getting only garbage time lately and not playing well at all, so I doubt he starts, but he will have to take a big chunk of minutes in the next couple weeks so he has to start getting bigger minutes now to build up to more down the road.

In midfield, I suspect Doyle and Aguilar will start both to rest DeLeon and because Chicago’s wing play won’t be as dynamic as last time with Accam and Maloney out which likely moves Harry Shipp inside to Maloney’s playmaking position. I think it very likely Perry Kitchen plays alongside Halsti in midfield, but Perry has been playing quite a bit lately too, so part of me thinks Olsen might pair Halsti with Jared Jeffrey for a couple reasons. One being that it’s likely Jeffrey and Halsi play quite a bit together in practice and they did start together in Portland, also Jeffrey has been pretty poor in his limited time, but that was with a complete bottom of the roster team in Portland. Might be a good idea to see what he can do with a lot more regulars around him against a team that doesn’t have a good midfield in general, as well as give Kitchen some rest. Which only leaves the backline which should be pretty stable and interchangeable weathering this glut of games and injuries as they were last time. Taylor Kemp, Steve Birnbaum (or Kofi Opare), Bobby Boswell and Chris Korb will be fine until Franklin gets back, especially with reigning goalkeeper of the year Bill Hamid seemingly back to health and starting.

The Fire’s Frank Yallop will have a much easier time putting his lineup together without future games to worry about. Quincy Amarikwa started against DC at forward in RFK, but hasn’t played much since and still hasn’t scored in MLS although he did get the game winner in the 1-0 Open Cup win for the Fire. Still, Guly Do Prado or more likely Kennedy Igboananike have displaced him at forward. But whether Yallop tinkers with his tactics will be interesting. They have played mostly a 4-2-3-1 as most MLS teams are doing this year, but last time out he played a straight up 4-4-2 against NE that lost 2-0, but then again looked a lot more solid than that score would indicate, especially as it took two world class goals to give NE the win, Diego Fagundez’ cracking goal of the week side volley and a ridiculous reaction header from Charlie Davies on a shot heading out for a throw-in. The 4-4-2 would actually line up better against DC but we’ll see.

Anyway, the last time the Fire had a good run of results two draws and a win about a month ago, they played the 4-2-3-1 with Igboananike up top. With Maloney out, Shipp will almost certainly move underneath him which isn’t good for DC as Maloney has been terrible and Shipp orchestrated the Fire’s lone goal in the 3-1 loss to DC a few weeks ago. Also with Accam out, Yallop will likely go with Jason Johnson as the speed element on that wing, or maybe he goes safe and plays Lovel Palmer to shut down DC, but I don’t think so unless DC starts Rolfe. The rest of midfield will be Michael Stephens on the right, Razvan Cocis and Matt Watson for the suspended Polster holding in front of the backline. The backline should be Joevin Jones, Adailton, Jeff Larentowicz, and Eric Gehrig going left to right, although maybe Palmer plays the right sending Gehrig into the middle and sitting Adailton, he of the two own goals in one game. Could be either Jon Busch or Sean Johnson in the nets although if Yallop has been paying attention to how much of a United killer Busch has been over the years, that would be a no brainer. Johnson has been the starter, but was benched and may well have played his way back in there, so we’ll see.

So, looking at the tactics and matchups, DC has some legitimate advantages as long as Espindola starts and will be even more favored if Rolfe does too. Chicago plays a lot like NE does only with less success and less talent overall obviously. They have lacked a finisher which they hope Igboananike (or Do Prado) will become but they can counter with speed, especially through Shipp and with Johnson slashing in behind Korb or Kemp Chicago can be trouble, not as much trouble as with Accam, but trouble nonetheless. Shipp and Larentowicz hits some wicked deadballs too, but that’s about it. Chicago might get one, but not more than that if DC plays their normal tight road game. It should be noted Chicago’s Mike Magee should be back in the 18, but with such a long layoff, hopefully he doesn’t find his form until DC is long gone.

Offensively, Aguilar or DeLeon is feisty enough to give fits to Jones, Doyle likely won’t do much against Gehrig or Palmer, but he’ll help keep Stephens from causing too much trouble. However, if Rolfe starts, DC owns this side. Interestingly enough, Rolfe has never played against the Fire as he missed both matches last year as well as the first match this year. However, as much as I’d love him to start, it’s probably smarter to bring him off the bench in this one. Still, the real advantage offensively is Espy and Arrieta (and later Silva or maybe DeLeon) going against Larentowicz and Gehrig or Adailton. DC’s forwards are easily crafty and quick enough to torture Chicago’s central defense, especially with Halsti in there as he can hit some dagger balls behind them which Espy and Arrieta will eat up. So, assuming the soccer gods sit this one out, while DC will give up one goal, they should score two and get their first win in Chicago in six years.

Bold statement when you consider the history. As mentioned DC hasn’t won in Toyota Park since 2009 and is a pretty woeful 6-10-8 all time in Chicago, but lost in all that is DC is 3-3-6 since Toyota Park was built and has 4 draws in their last 6 there. Still, DC has also been pretty awful on the road of late at 2-4-1 with only 4 goals scored and having given up 7 goals in those 7 games, plus being shut out in 3 of their last 4 on the road. However, the Fire has been equally unimpressive at home having lost 2 of their last 3 and are only 4-3-0 overall having given up 5 goals in their last 3 at home. The Fire are also 1-5-2 in their last 8 games having been outscored 15-11 in those matches so they are averaging almost 2 goals a game given up in the last two months.

So there you have it, DC should manage at least a draw given everything, but might well pull out another somewhat surprising win if they play their cards right. DC is already 7 points up on the NE in the East and could put the East on ice for almost a month with a win given the dearth of games coming up due to the Gold Cup. Always a bad idea to look ahead, but getting something in this one takes a lot of pressure off the more difficult games coming up in Toronto and Seattle.

DC takes on best in west in Vancouver

DC is off to their best start since the Supporter’s Shield winning side of 2006 and shares the lead in the East, but the Whitecaps are off to the best start in their history and lead the West for the first time this deep into any season.

Unfortunately, after two straight disappointing draws at home, DC would have to get back to their winning ways in a place they have never won against an opponent they haven’t beaten since 2011 if they hope to keep pace with the elite in the league. DC won ugly early on, and has improved since, but that hasn’t yet translated into wins after giving up a 90th goal to NY and a soft goal to Houston to drop 4 points in their last two matches. United will be looking to last year’s talisman, forward Fabian Espindola finally back from his six match ban to start the season to bring the scoring touch that saw him lead the team in goals last year and be the team MVP.

Vancouver on the other hand has been nothing if not efficient having won 5 of their last 7, with 4 of their 5 wins by shutout, and they have shutout DC the last two times they have hosted United. They have ridden Uruguayan newcomer, Octavio Rivero, who leads MLS in scoring this year with 5 goals in 8 matches, 2 of them game winners. But the ‘Caps are led by league MVP runner up last year, Chilean playmaker Pedro Morales who has added three assists in the last four matches he’s played this year after a slow start to the season.

Once again this is another matchup of the new wave of MLS playing a version of the 4-5-1 against Olsen’s tried and true 4-4-2. So far it has been mixed success for DC, with United beating a listless Montreal and scraping by a depleted LA and Orlando scoring winners against each in the 90th minute. But DC were crushed by NY, and while they took leads on NY and Houston respectively both adjusted their formations for the second half. DC couldn’t hold either of them off and had to settle for the draw in both matches.

Vancouver’s version is very much an attack minded 4-2-3-1 much like NY, Orlando, and the way LA played us when they were missing the key components of their usual 4-4-2. Vancouver sits Mathias Laba and Russell Teibert (or sometimes Gerson Koffie) behind playmaker Morales. While Darren Mattocks and Nicolas Mezquida (or Kekutah Manneh) patrol the wings outside central striker Rivero. For Vancouver, Mattocks has emerged as the free roamer who can combine up top with Rivero much the way Lloyd Sam has that role with NY, Kevin Molino for Orlando, and Villareal played that role with LA. Of note is that in all of those cases, DC did not do much to contain those threats and mostly survived those matchups because Orlando and LA either missed the broad side of the barn or despaired when Bill Hamid put on his cape.

Vancouver’s attack can strike in many ways, 10 goals in 8 games and only shut out once in the feisty loss to San Jose that saw Morales tossed. Rivero and Mattocks lately have shown they can put away crosses clinically and Vancouver has the wingers capable of launching those crosses consistently. The ‘Caps may well have the best counter attack in the league with Morales as Magic Johnson running showtime; as well as hitting pin point freekicks, and they have Mattocks to overload an area pulling defenses out of shape to be exploited if opponent’s midfielders are not wicked sharp following midfield runners. DC has been guilty of letting in goals in all those ways lately. Everyone except Boswell are vulnerable on crosses and set pieces, DC’s transition defense is appalling for the most part, and as mentioned they have survived the overloads mostly through Hamid and poor shooting. The other times, it was late runners like Sam and Ricardo Clarke, or almost all the soccer playing males of Alajuela, who punished them.

The ‘Caps have given up goals too though, 7 of them, but have spaced them out with only 4 goals given up in the 7 games since Toronto hung 3 on them in their opener, and two of those in the Columbus tie two weeks ago. Most of their goals come from one on one defensive mistakes. Poor clearances by defenders or even keeper David Ousted, or poor marking or poor concentration mistakes usually made by their relatively weak central defenders, Pah Modou Kah and the big Jamoke, Kendall Waston.

With their tactics and weaknesses in mind, Olsen has some decisions to make. Obviously, what to do with Espindola is the most important, but being on the road and facing some daunting attackers is another. Olsen will of course think defense first, but in this case I agree with him. I hate the pack it in tactics for the road, but in this specific case it can work and surprise Vancouver if DC plays it right.

So, thinking defensively first, Olsen should obviously pray that Hamid’s thigh bruise has healed. Hamid hides a multitude of defensive sins for sure. Dykstra is capable, but obviously not Hamid and enough said on that. Also, Olsen really should consider starting Chris Korb over Taylor Kemp. Kemp is getting better as a defender, but especially with Birnbaum still out and Opare beginning to show cracks, Korb would go a long way to tightening up that side of the field where Mezquida and Morales will surely look to expose. Olsen also should again start Michael Farfan over Nick DeLeon. As Farfan showed against Houston, he’s not flashy, but he’s a far better defender and doesn’t turn the ball over anywhere near as much either. Of course you lose offense with DeLeon and Kemp, but keeping a lid on this game is a lot better than hoping to outscore Vancouver.

On the flip side, I think Olsen should roll the dice and start both Espindola and Luis Silva. Their chemistry last year carried the team down the stretch and the quicker they regain it the better for DC. They scored the majority of their goals by pouncing on mistakes anyway, so DC going defensive from the start shouldn’t be too much trouble. Just start them to harass Vancouver’s possibly shaky central defense into mistakes, or make sure you also start the cagey two way vets, Chris Rolfe and Davy Arnaud (and to a lesser extent Farfan) to keep things tight but more importantly look up and spring Silva and Espy downfield as often as possible. Frustrate the ‘Caps physically and tactically and look to pounce on a mistakes is how SJ and the Crew both surprised Vancouver. Play tight, hope for a lead, then bring off Silva for Pontius and hope hatred of humanity carries Espindola to the final whistle.

Even if the lead doesn’t come, 0-0 is the result DC has left Vancouver with the past two years and that’s not bad at all considering the circumstances. In fact, there has only been one goal scored between both teams the last three years. Vancouver scored a 1-0 victory here last around those two scoreless draws there. Then again, if the soccer gods forbid and DC does fall behind, you still have DeLeon, Pontius, and maybe even the feisty Miguel Aguilar off the bench to provide a spark for the attack instead of the usual Conor Doyle to provide nails for the coffin.

Looking at the intangibles is grim, but has to be done I suppose. DC hasn’t beaten Vancouver since a 4-0 win in RFK in Vancouver’s expansion season and hasn’t even scored against the ‘Caps since the return leg 1-2 loss later that season. Current form isn’t much help either, as mentioned both are compiling points fairly well right now although DC with draws and Vancouver with wins sandwiched around the SJ loss. DC is 1-1 on the road outscored 2-1 losing to NY then beating Orlando; while Vancouver has won 3 straight at home since losing to TFC scoring 2 goals a game in beating LA and Portland and tying the Crew the last time playing in BC Place.

I think it interesting to note that in 2014, DC had a fairly shaky start but crept back in with some solid draws and big win in their sixth match 4-1 over Dallas. Their seventh match was in Portland and DC came back twice after falling behind and fully deserved a valiant point only lose horrifically in the 94th minute. However, DC barely looked back after that. Hardly a bobble along the way as they marched through the rest of the season right to an Eastern Conference title. In 2006, the last time DC ever started this good and their second best start ever, DC lost their 6th game, but then rattled off a 14 game unbeaten streak before grinding their way to a Supporter’s Shield. Interestingly, both teams were bounced in the first round mostly because they lacked depth and refused to adjust their tactics when circumstances arise.

This match has 0-0 written all over it, but I can’t shake the premonition of a 2-1 loss tomorrow. Still, more importantly I will be looking to see if Olsen will begin to show the ability or even the inclination to adapt to the way the league is changing. I believe it has to happen sometime if DC is ever to find the promised land again.

Reality Bites DC in RFK

After the fantasy win Tuesday night in Salt Lake to win the US Open Cup, United came back to earth as their dismal league season continued with a painful 3-0 loss to the visiting Chicago Fire, United’s 22nd loss of the 2013 campaign which ties a league record for futility in a single season.
With a mixed lineup and perhaps carrying a glimmer of the enthusiasm from their improbable 3rd US Open Cup win, DC started the match quite brightly and barely missed a couple of excellent chances in the opening 20 minutes of the game.
DC would come to rue those early missed opportunities as the Fire stole the lead against the run of play in the 24th minute when Fire forward Juan Luis Anangono ghosted past DC defenders James Riley and Daniel Woolard like they were cones and slipped the ball in to Fire midfielder Jeff Larentowicz storming deep into the box on a late run that wasn’t picked up. The Fire hard man cooly slid past DC keeper Joe Willis and snuck in a wicked shot from a very tight angle to score the winner for the Fire.
The Fire essentially sealed the win with their second goal two minutes later after a Fire freekick fooled Joe Willis and fell to Fire defender Bakary Soumare to blast into the empty net to give the Fire a 2-0 lead and cast a pall over the RFK faithful.
United rallied to create ever more chances with some very lively attacking efforts rarely seen this season, but the Fire keeper Sean Johnson was up to the challenge with a few spectacular saves. Johnson denied DC forward Conor Doyle with a diving save and later sprawled to stop a blast from DC midfielder Nick DeLeon who had burst into the box to shoot from close range.
In the second half, Johnson made his best saves of the match on a wild effort in the 60th minute. Diving out to deflect a cross through the box from United forward Dwanye De Rosario, the ball fell right to DeLeon who saw his snap shot incredibly deflected by the quick recovering Johnson. DeLeon was denied again spectacularly in the 76th minute when Johnson again dove to stop a clever shot from the United midfielder.
Drained and defeated by the end, United gave up a final goal to second half substitute, Quincy Amarikwa who scored a lovely diving header from a precise cross from Dilly Duka in the 89th minute to fish off the Fire’s 3-0 win.
Already a team record 22 losses on the season, United has now tied the 2001 Tampa Bay Mutiny for the most loses in a season in league history. The Mutiny’s epically bad season ended with a record of 4-22-4. United has 3 more matches to try and elevate themselves above being the worst team in MLS history.
DC also saw its current winless streak stretch to 9 games. DC is 0-7-2 over that span. The loss also guarantees United will finish dead last in the league as Toronto and Chivas sit 11 points ahead of United with 3 games left in the season.
United hosts the Philadelphia Union next Saturday night October 12 at 7PM.

DC Scrapes by Richmond Kickers to Advance in the US Open Cup

A dreadful DC performance was rewarded with a 4-2 victory on penalty kicks after a scoreless match when goalkeeper Joe Willis saved the first two Kickers penalty kicks while DC made all four of their attempts to allow them to advance to the next round in the US Open Cup.

Playing a majority of their starters, DC United struggled mightily to mount any kind of threat on the Richmond goal while their lower division affiliate played with much more control and precision only to be denied in the final third from some stellar play by backup keeper Joe Willis.

In the 17th minute, Richmond midfielder Stanley Nyazamba deftly split DC’s defense sending in former DC Academy player Michael Seaton who is on loan to Richmond in on goal and only a fantastic smother by Willis coming off his line saved United from giving up yet another early goal.

A few minutes later another well-orchestrated Richmond attack was thwarted as Nyazamba and Joseph Ngwenya worked the ball far post to midfielder Nate Robinson for an open look at goal only to see him scuff his shot slightly allowing for Willis to recover and block the shot.

Finally, DC showed some spark in the attack and a couple of lovely corner kicks featured in the United threats on goal. Historically inept at corner kicks in the modern era of soccer, DC United managed to hit the woodwork twice and barely miss another attempt wide in the late stages of the first half.

First in the 31st minute, it was Kyle Porter with a CK right on Lionard Pajoy’s head that he managed to clang off the top of the crossbar, then a few minutes later in the 35th minute, United defender Chris Korb struck a lovely cross to a wide open Dwayne De Rosario at the far post in front of an open goal, but United’s captain hashed up the header off the far post and the ball fell right to Richmond keeper Andrew Dykstra.

Just before halftime, DeRo stripped a Richmond defender and appeared to in on goal only to be muscled off the ball. However, the recovering defender was forced to pass the ball back toward the Richmond goal and only a late scramble by Dykstra to clear it off the line saved an own goal. On the ensuing corner kick, DC again found an open man in defender Conor Shanosky, who had a stellar match in central defense, but his diving header flashed past the near post just wide.

DC’s attack withered in the second half and it was pretty much all Richmond the rest of the way, but Willis was to be the man of the match keeping the Kickers scoreless despite relentless pressure.

In the 50th minute, Willis came out to snare a deadly cross away from Richmond defender William Yomby. In the 55th minute, Richmond again pinged the ball around DC’s defense pulling them apart expertly to allow Nyazamba to burst up through the middle in on goal only for Willis to snuff out the attack coming off his line perfectly.

Again late in the match, Willis came up big as Nyazamba, who was a thorn in DC’s side all night kept an attack alive cleverly and slid a ball to defender Jason Yeisley storming into the DC box, but his point blank shot was well covered by Willis.

Late in the match, a clearly tired DC gave up a few hideous fouls around the box that allowed Richmond some potentially deadly free kicks, but fortunately for United Richmond couldn’t manage a single threat on goal from any of them. So, for the second year in a row, DC headed to overtime in Richmond in the opening round of the Open Cup.

Overtime was much of the same as DC couldn’t control the ball at all, while Richmond continually probed United’s increasingly tired defense. The pressure ended up being too much for United’s Chris Korb as he yanked down a Richmond attacker after getting caught on the wrong side and he was tossed for his second yellow leaving United with ten min for the final twelve minutes.

It got worse two minutes from full time as substitute Carlos Ruiz was also sent off for a reckless challenge from behind. Down to nine men, DC just held on for the penalty kicks after the 30 minute overtime period.

United’s fortunes shifted dramatically in the penalty kicks as Keeper Joe Willis dove to his left to stop the first two spot kicks from Sascha Gorres and Ngwenya sandwiched around a DeRo finish to put United up 1-0. Perry Kitchen made it 2-0 easily, and even though Richmond answered with a goal from Luke Vercollone, Nick DeLeon thundered a shot into the upper 90 that left the Kickers dangling by a thread. Nate Robinson kept them alive with a savvy shot down the middle, but James Riley sent DC into the next round with a cool finish to give DC an insurmountable 4-2 PK victory.

United will host the Philadelphia Union June 12 at 7 PM in Germantown at the socccerplex in the next round of the Open Cup.

Lineups:
Kickers: GK Andrew Dykstra, Henry Kalungi, Shane Johnson (Matthew Delicate – 69’), William Yomby, Luke Vercollone, Michael Seaton (Juan Arbelaez – 60’), Mike Callahan, Stanley Nyazamba (Sascha Gorres – 60’), Nate Robinson, Jason Yeisley, Joseph Ngwenya
D.C. United: GK Joe Willis, Daniel Woolard, James Riley, Chris Korb, Raphael Augusto (Chris Pontius – 58’), Perry Kitchen, Conor Shanosky, Nick De Leon, Kyle Porter (Sainey Nyassi – 91’), Dwayne De Rosario, Lionard Pajoy (Carlos Ruiz – 80’)

DC Might Have a Problem with Houston

Currently bottom of the table and mired in a five game losing streak with seeming nothing but misery in sight, DC United will have to find something special as they face one of their toughest conference foes in the high flying Houston Dynamo who are off to their best start ever and tied for the top of the East.

OK folks, Chris is out of town this week, so I will be setting up the crime scene in RFK and then conducting the autopsy tomorrow night, so buckle up! If you’re looking for a ray of sunshine or some lipstick on this pig and think I’m the guy that will give it to you, well guess what, you might actually be right about that for once.

No, I have not taken leave of my senses. I am well aware that these two teams have been heading in vastly different directions since meeting in the Eastern Conference Championship last fall. In fact, they have been going in different directions since the end of 2007 when Houston became a perennial threat for the MLS Cup and DC became pretty much an embarrassing afterthought around the league.

To make matters worse, Houston just beat LA in the Toolbox and is unbeaten in their last four games, while DC has been lucky their losing streak isn’t a bit longer than the five it stands at now. However, I have seen signs of life in DC lately and Houston does have a habit of playing down to its opponents on the road, especially in RFK where they haven’t won since 2010 (and let’s just not discuss that season any further).

To start off with DC really didn’t deserve the shellacking they got in Columbus. It was a 3-0 loss, but nowhere near that bad in reality. Arguably DC outplayed the Crew for the majority of the match. DC’s moribund offense so far this season finally created plenty of chances and took six shots on goal as well as two off the woodwork, the problem was none of them went in. The Crew created few chances and just happened to score on all three of their shots on goal. That’s the cruelty of soccer sometimes.

It really is unfortunate that Ben Olsen was absolutely punished for making some changes that actually helped the team pay a much better game overall than they have for most of this season. The defense played a howler for sure, but they play their normal defensive game and DC walks out of there with a point at least.

Yes, and if frogs had wings they wouldn’t bump their tails when they jump I can hear you saying. Look, I’m just saying for one of the rare games in the last calendar year DC got a lot less than it deserved instead of a lot more than it deserved which has happened quite a bit more often, especially towards the end of last year. But this year isn’t much better with that point in NY being an absolute felony and DC has turned one goal into all four of its points this year. Hardly inspiring, I admit.

So try this on for size. Houston beat LA for their first road win of the season, but they have largely been inept on the road and have been for the past couple seasons. The pitiful tie in Toronto and loss in Portland are usually what Houston produces on the road. Even better Houston loses quite regularly in RFK as well going 2-4-1 in the regular season since their creation in 2006.

DC is well rested and getting healthier while Houston had a game Sunday and a cross country flight in the past few days. Heck, the law of averages says DC will get at least three or four more wins this season just by dumb luck if 2010 is any indication and this team is better than that one for sure.

So, let’s break it down. Given the incomprehensible post-game quotes and evidence to date, coach Ben Olsen will continue his man love for Lionard Pajoy and start him alongside Dwayne De Rosario as forwards most likely. I would love to see Rafael Teixiera playing alongside DeRo, or even Carlos Ruiz for that matter, but I doubt Ben sits Pajoy or DeRo to make that happen, and if he moves DeRo to midfield to make it happen, then DC is doomed.

In midfield, Pontius and DeLeon are creeping closer to fitness, but won’t start or play is my guess. So, midfield will likely be Marcos Sanchez, Perry Kitchen and Kyle Porter almost certainly. Kitchen’s partner is a bit of a crapshoot as Ben loves Marcelo Saragosa in there to muddy up the game, but Raphael Augusto actually gives DC a chance to win, so it being a home game, my fingers are crossed Ben plays the talented Brazilian next to Kitchen. If it was me, I’d play their draftee out of UMD, Taylor Kemp instead of Sanchez on that left hand side too. Houston will play Oscar Boniek-Garcia on that side and he’s a handful for anyone, much less the tiny Panamanian, but I don’t see Ben taking the plunge on that one either.

In defense, it’s virtually a lock that Olsen plays Daniel Woolard, Brandon McDonald, Dejan Jakovic, and Chris Korb. I personally would go with James Riley on the left and move Korb to the left and Woolard to the bench as DC really needs more out of their outside backs and Riley brings it more than Woolard, but I don’t see that happening either. Hamid will be in goal of course and another game like he had in NY would certainly go a long way to helping DC get some joy against Houston in this one.

As for Houston, given the travel and spate of games they’ve had, coach Dominic Kinnear could certainly make some changes, but he usually keeps a pretty rock solid starting XI together pretty consistently all through the first part of the season, something I wish Olsen would learn to do btw, so other than inserting Brad back into the lineup coming back from suspension, I expect him to start a pretty similar team to the one that beat LA, and it really doesn’t matter too much anyway as whoever he puts in there fits into his system and plays pretty similar to the guy he’s replacing, another thing Olsen should be taking notes on.

So, my money is on Giles Barnes and it’s a stone cold lock he’s partnering United Killer Will Bruin, whose goal scoring prowess against us is just too depressing to elaborate on, at forward. Midfield will be the Scotsman Andrew Driver, whose goal beat LA, Ricardo Clark, Brad Davis, and Boniek-Garcia. Maybe Kinnear keeps Moffat in there, sits Barnes, and plays Davis as the other forward, but I don’t think so as he likes to keep his guys in spots where they will play regularly rather than move them all over the field (ahem, another lesson Olsen could take note of). Defense will be Kofi Sarkodie, former DC defender Bobby Boswell, Jamaican Jermaine Taylor, and Corey Ashe from right to left in front of Talley Hall.

So, looking at the matchups, DC is obviously in some trouble if Houston plays their A game and DC bunkers into their turtle shell defense. If that happens, it’s a brutal 3-0 loss, so not even worth mentioning things like matchups. No, DC has to play like they did against Columbus, but without the howling mistakes in defense and Houston has to be a little off, which they have shown in playing down to their opponents on the road.

Normally, I like to think about the matchups going forward first, but since this is a Ben Olsen team, let’s start with the defensive side. In the run of play, it will be the wings where DC is in the biggest trouble. Boniek-Garcia will be a handful for Woolard or Korb, which is why I would rather see Kemp on that side, but maybe Sanchez will get in the way enough to be helpful. Driver is a solid unflashy type that will trouble Korb or James too, but I like Porter’s ability to help out so I think he’s the lesser problem. However, either of them peppering balls into the area to Bruin or over the top to Barnes could be disaster.

Kitchen and Saragosa or Augusto will also have their hands full against Davis in the run of play, and if DC gives up too many fouls, Davis will crucify them with freekicks. Rico making late runs will be troubling too, but he does much less of that on the road than usual, although he will have fond memories of his last visit to RFK.

However, I think it likely BMac comes back with a wicked strong game to make up for his Columbus debacle and shuts down Bruin. Barnes is a bit flighty and might just take himself out of the game as he’s a wanderer who hurts Bruin’s game as well with his disappearing act. Now, his speed alone is trouble, but Jakovic impressed me in Columbus running down Dominic Oduro from behind, so he’s the lesser concern for me as well.

Houston will win midfield almost certainly, but if DC stays compact and keeps Bruin locked up tight, they can keep Houston in check for the most part. Houston has scored in every match here since 2009, so I expect them to score again, but if the defense keeps it close, DC has a chance.

So, where will the goals come from? Obviously, I think they will come from Gladiator or Ruiz who have shown a propensity to actually shoot at the goal when they get the ball, but Olsen still has hope that Pajoy will set up DeRo and company storming out of the midfield on late runs and that actually happened a few times in Columbus. DeRo had a point blank shot foot saved after a set up by Pajoy late in that one. The Colombian also sent Sanchez in on goal late too. Pajoy himself actually cracked a first time shot ON GOAL and at the death smacked the crossbar as I sat in disbelief. I figured he must have been aiming at the corner flag and missed, but hey if that’s what Olsen is seeing in practice, then maybe he sets something up in this one.

More likely I see Pajoy battering and being battered by Boswell and Taylor, hopefully getting one or both of them sent off with his antics. It’s not pretty, but it would be helpful. With luck maybe he’s sent off too and Ben would be forced to play someone else, and bonus, start someone else against Dallas. Oh, be still my beating heart!

Obviously, on paper this is a bloodbath but as mentioned, historically DC has found a way past Houston in RFK in the regular season and soccer gods willing, will catch Houston looking past the league’s cellar dwellers or surprise a tired team coming off a rousing win in LA. DC deserved a lot better in their last outing, another solid performance and surely the gods right the scales in their favor.

DC will win again in RFK. Tomorrow in front of those few hundreds, who will brave the weather and the early kickoff on a weeknight and not be watching the Caps or going to the Nats game across the river, in order to see the worst team in MLS, who has lost their last three on the trot in what was known of formerly as fortress RFK, play against one of the best teams in the league is as good a time as any.

Those valiant hundreds deserve to see DC pull off the improbable.

DC Out of Miracles in Houston Loss

Just when it looked like DC’s run of improbable results was going to continue after snatching the first goal in the first match of the Eastern Conference Finals in Houston, United collapsed in the second half allowing Houston to roar back and win the match by a devastating 3-1 score-line leaving DC with a mountain to climb in the second leg in RFK next Sunday.

DC United was behind the eight ball right from the start of the match as captain Chris Pontius suffered a groin injury and was forced to come out in the 12th minute. Already without defending MVP Dwayne De Rosario, former rookie of the year, Andy Najar as well as starting keeper Bill Hamid both out through suspension, losing Pontius seemed to be the death knell for United.

However, as they have been doing for months, United rose above such adversity again and grabbed what should have been a crucial goal to take the lead in this away leg of the championship series.

In the 27th minute, DC’s rookie winger, Nick DeLeon collected a bad give-away by Houston and quickly released forward Lionard Pajoy deep down the left side behind Houston’s defense. Angling in toward goal, Pajoy cracked a shot past Dynamo keeper Tally Hall that struck the far post and rebounded directly to DeLeon following up the play. The rookie’s first time shot might have been slightly wide of goal, but it deflected off Houston center back Andrew Hainault and into the back of net to give United the lead.

DC continued to dominate the chances created in an exciting match and should have extended the lead just before halftime if not for an incredibly bad call by referee Ricardo Salazar that literally changed the course of the match.

United’s Raphael Augusto in his MLS debut after coming on for the injured Marcelo Saragosa minutes earlier, flipped a clever ball over Hainault and bolted in on goal. Hainault recovered well, but clearly hauled down Augusto to prevent a goal scoring opportunity. Salazar refused to even call a foul, much less make the obvious call to send Hainault to the showers.

If Houston heads into the locker-room at the half down a goal and down a man, it’s extremely unlikely they come back to score three in the second to take control of the series. Especially galling is Hainault scored the tying goal for Houston right after halftime and the writing was on the wall for another collapse in Houston, a place where they have never won since the Dynamo entered the league in 2006.

In the 51st minute, DC’s Brandon McDonald gifted Houston a free kick that they took quickly and caught United’s defense inexcusably unprepared, especially since it was the second time Houston had taken a quick free kick. This time it was a pass down the left side of the box to a wide open Oscar Boniek Garcia and the Honduran winger slid the ball across the face of the goal through traffic for Hainault to stuff into the open net and tie the match at 1 all.

DC had a chance to take the lead again in the 66th when DeLeon picked out Robbie Russell own the right side and he cleverly rounded Houston’s Mac Kandji and set up Pajoy for a clear shot on goal that was headed off the goal line by Bobby Boswell.

With that miss, United’s miracle run of results came to a resounding end as Houston roared back right away with the game winning goal in the 68th minute. Houston sub Giles Barnes rounded Dejan Jackovic along the end-line and whipped a low cross that DC keeper Joe Willis slapped away at the near post, but the ball unfortunately fell right to United killer Will Bruin who scuffed it into the net for a 2-1 lead for Houston.

After Willis had made a brilliant save on Houston right back Koffie Sarkodie in the 77th, Houston continued to pressure and United’s defense cracked again. A ruefully poor clear by United’s Augusto fell to Houston’s Luiz Camargo and he sent Sarkodie through again on goal. This time Willis had no chance as Sarkodie buried it far post to seal United’s fate.

United now needs to overcome a two goal deficit in the second leg at RFK to have a chance to win the Eastern Conference Championship and moving on to the MLS Cup. However, should they win by enough and manage to oust the defending Conference Champion Dynamo they will host the MLS Cup as they are the highest seed left in the playoffs.

An appearance by DeRo in the second leg seems to be a distinct possibility and United has been dynamic at home this season, unbeaten in 16 games since the season opener including 7 two or more goal victories and a 3-2 win over Houston as well.

United’s goalkeeper coach Pat Onstad was ejected at halftime presumably for verbal abuse of Salazar and will miss the second match. United was forced into three injury subs in the match and it is unclear whether Pontius, Marcelo Saragosa, or McDonald will be available for the second leg. Andy Najar will remain out serving the last game of his suspension, but Bill Hamid will be available.