Alvaro Saborio

Terrible start, Fantastic finish as D.C. United top Philadelphia at RFK

Washington, D.C., July 26, 2015 – The bad news – United has waited over a month to play a home game and they fell behind the Philadelphia Union 2-0 inside of four minutes. The good news – there were still eighty-six minutes to go and United used every one of them to their advantage in a stunning 3-2 come-from-behind win at sticky RFK Stadium this afternoon.

Alvaro Saborio, above (Phot0: Martin Fernandez), marked his debut with United with the opening goal of the comeback and Nick DeLeon ended it with his first goal in MLS in over a year as a season-high 19,125 fans were put through the emotional ringer once again. The victory for United (11-7-5, 38 points) pushed their lead in the Eastern Conference to seven points over second place Columbus. It was also the sixth time this season that the Black-and-Red had won after conceding the opening goal of the game. Even more mind blowing than that is that United has only led at halftime of 3 of 22 games this season.

While United will ultimately take a deep breath and enjoy the win, things started out in horrific fashion as defensive lapses led directly to both of the Union’s opening goals. In just the first ten seconds of the match, right back Chris Korb sent a lazy pass that was easily intercepted and eventually channeled to C.J. Sapong just inside the penalty area. Sapong easily brushed off Steve Birnbaum and surprisingly found himself at the penalty spot all alone and beat Andrew Dykstra to his right for a 1-0 lead.

With RFK still reeling from the early deficit, the Union doubled their lead to the disbelief of everyone on and off the field. Chaco Maidana sent a harmless ball to Sebastien Le Toux on United’s right flank. Korb gave the Frenchman a bit too much room as he centered a ball into the heart of the goalmouth. Somehow the ball managed to elude both Sapong and Birnbaum and sleepily tucked into the far post netting for an unthinkable 2-0 lead just four minutes into the game.

Although United were understandably rocked, they soon regained their composure enough to start threatening the Union goal. United got their best opportunity midway through the half when Saborio’s give-and-go with Davy Arnaud ended up with Arnaud being chopped down in the penalty area. Fabian Espindola stepped up to take the PK despite the fact that Chris Rolfe had converted his last two spot kicks. Almost predictably, Espindola sent his shot well over the crossbar to further deflate the crowd.

All was not lost however as Saborio cut the deficit in half in the 37th minute when his volleyed shot from a Korb cross beat Union goalkeeper Brian Slyvestre just inside the near post. Buoyed by that goal United took over the match after the break and it seemed like only a matter of time until they nabbed the equalizer. With the Union pinned down in their own end, United created a number of chances to equalize but were coming just a bit short.

That all changed in the 66th minute when a mountain-sized gorilla was finally lifted off the back of Nick DeLeon. It had been over a year since NDL scored on July 4th of last year and today’s goal couldn’t have come at a better time. Espindola, who had been wreaking havoc on the left flank all half long, made a rare foray into the center of the field and found himself on the ball outside the top of the penalty area. Espindola juked and jived his way into some space to unleash his patented left-footed blast. Slyvestre could only parry the ball away a few feet and that is all DeLeon needed as he slipped the rebound under Sylvestre to level the match at 2-2.

And as has been the case five times at RFK alone this season, United completed the comeback in the 79th minute when Espindola headed down a beautiful cross from Korb for the game-winner. Just seconds earlier, the Union were inches away from taking the lead when Sapong beat Dykstra to a loose ball in the box and his chipped attempt crashed down off the crossbar to set up the sequence that saw United to another head-scratching win.

After that emotional and physical roller coaster ride, United will welcome in Saborio’s old team Real Salt Lake into town next Saturday night at RFK Stadium.


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

Jairo Arrieta celebrates his first goal of the night against the visiting fire.

Missed opportunities sink United in Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Round of 16 loss to Philadelphia Union

Chester, Pennsylvania, June 30th, 2015 – D.C. United crashed out of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup tournament this evening after a 2-1 defeat to the Philadelphia Union at PPL Park. The win for the Union pushes them into a quarterfinal matchup against the winner of the New York Red Bull and New York Cosmos match tomorrow night at Red Bull Arena.

United had to once again shuffle their lineup due to so many matches in so little time and this time it did not pay off as it did last week in Chicago. Philadelphia on the other hand, with no league match this weekend, sent out their best available starting X1 to go against a mainly reserve side for United. However, it was the Black-and-Red who missed on two golden opportunities to take the lead.

In the 18th minute, Miguel Aguilar worked a perfect give-and-go with Jairo Arrieta that saw Aguilar one-on-one with Union goalkeeper John McCarthy. The rookie midfielder sent his shot high and just slightly over the crossbar from an angle when a side-footed shot to the far post would have sufficed. Three minutes later McCarthy would deny United a second bite of the apple when he reached back to tip a goal-bound header from Steve Birnbaum off the post and back into his grateful arms. Facundo Coria’s free kick service met Birnbaum perfectly but United was even on the scoreboard at 0-0.

The match changed in the 25th minute when Union forward C.J. Sapong was given  a straight red for his elbow-leading foul on Kofi Opare. Replays showed while he lead with the elbow, a straight red was a bit of a harsh decision by referee Fatis Bazakos. United took advantage of the shortage and scored just three minutes later thanks to some very nice build up play. Jared Jeffrey touched a ball out to the wing to Aguilar who returned the favor to Jeffrey who streaked into the penalty area. Jeffrey deftly back heeled the ball right into the path of Arrieta who made no mistake in blasting it past McCarthy for a 1-0 lead.

However, even with the man advantage for over 60 more minutes, United failed to take advantage and allowed the Union back into the match. Philadelphia tied it up when United, again with a man advantage, somehow allowed the Union’s left back Sheanon Williams to fly past United right back Jalen Robinson who easily centered the ball to a wide-open left sided midfielder Erik Ayuk who had the entire open goal to score and leveled the match at 1-1.

Not to be outdone, the Union set Robinson up once again and worked a perfect triangle around the second-year player that allowed Fabinho to ghost in on goal and unleash an angled left-footed blast over Andrew Dysktra for the game-winning goal.

While head coach Ben Olsen is no doubt upset about losing a game being up a man for over an hour, it was United’s second team against the Union’s top choices, but that doesn’t take any anything away from the admittedly poor performance from United.

United now will hop on a plane and head to Seattle to face an extremely short-handed Sounders squad on Friday night. The Sounders will be missing both of their top players in Clint Dempsey (with the US Gold Cup squad in their match on Friday against Guatemala in Nashville, TN) and Obefemi Martins (abductor strain) as well as Guatemalan midfielder and noted United-killer Marco Pappa as well as possibly their third DP in midfielder Oswaldo Alonso who is still nursing an injury. No better time to take a result from one of the league’s most difficult places to play.

The only good news coming out of tonight’s result is that Olsen got to rest a lot of his normal starters and the schedule after United’s match in Seattle starts to settle down, thanks mostly to being eliminated from the Open Cup tonight, and Olsen can start planning for week-long practices and shaping his best X1 heading into the last third of the MLS season.

DC United's Chris Rolfe (18) keeps the ball away from Philadelphia's Vincent Nogueira during the second half of their team's match at RFK Stadium in Washington D.C. United defeated the Union 2-1 with a Penalty Kick goal from Chris Rolfe. Photo Martin Fernandez.

Rolfe’s late PK is game-winner in 2-1 victory over the Philadelphia Union

Washington, D.C, May 30, 2015 – Chris Rolfe’s 85th minute penalty kick conversion pushed D.C. United to a 2-1 come-from-behind victory over the Philadelphia Union in front of 16,284 sweaty fans tonight at RFK Stadium.

After giving up a 5th minute goal for the second game running, it was looking like D.C. United was heading for a fourth consecutive match without a victory. However, Chris Pontius’ stoppage-time goal in the first half leveled the match and Rolfe’s spot kick conversion turned the match around for the Black-and-Red.

Sebastian Le Toux’s goal just five minutes into the match gave the visitors the shock lead. United defender Steve Birnbaum was a bit casual in clearing a ball deep in the penalty area and he coughed the ball up to Andrew Wenger. Wenger quickly slipped the ball to his right where a wide-open Le Toux hammered his shot past an onrushing Bill Hamid for the 1-0 lead.

The Union should have doubled their lead midway through the first half but Wenger’s left-footed drive from 15 yards beat Hamid but crashed off the crossbar before being cleared out by United’s scrambling defense.

The Union were made to pay for that miss in stoppage time when Taylor Kemp’s pinpoint cross met Chris Pontius who’s powerful header snapped past Union goalkeeper Brian Sylvestre to level the match. For Kemp it was his team-leading 4th assist of the season but he would limp off with a suspected groin injury late in the match. Pontius’ goal was his second of the season.

After the break, both teams traded patches of possession with neither team really coming close to scoring until the final fifteen minutes of the match.

Just a minute before Rolfe was sent to the penalty spot, Nick DeLeon hit a thunderbolt that was ticketed for the near side upper netting that was well saved by Silvestre to keep the teams at 1-1. This was DeLeon’s first appearance since injuring his hamstring against Columbus at the begging of May.

Chris Korb, on for the injured Kemp, sent a diagonal ball to the far side of the penalty area when Philadelphia substitute Zach Pfeffer seemed to inadvertently handle the cross. The linesman immediately signaled the infraction and Rolfe stepped up and sent his penalty kick to the right of Sylvestre and send United to their first win since a 2-1 win over Orlando City SC on May 13th.

From there United easily kept the visitors at bay save for a close call when C.J. Sapong’s header in the 90th minute looped just over the crossbar.

With United in the midst of a 5 game in 14 day stretch of games, head coach Ben Olsen once again moved his lineup around.

Rolfe, Pontius, Davy Arnaud and Sean Franklin were all left in D.C. this past week as the team took a lighter roster out for their eventual 1-0 loss in Portland on Wednesday night.

With another match on Wednesday at home against the Chicago Fire and another match next Saturday night against Toronto FC, Olsen did confirm that more roster rotation will happen to help alleviate the crush of matches.

Wednesday night’s match will be televised live on CSN at 7pm.

DC seek revenge against Union

East leading DC’s current three game winless streak began with an embarrassing loss in Philly to the lowly Union, and Philly’s current two game win streak began in that match as well. Both teams will have something to prove in RFK tomorrow night.

DC hold on the East has been steadily undermined by a horrid three game road streak that saw the Black and Red inexplicably lose in Philly, then barely scrape a draw against 9 man New England, and then simply gift Portland with a win despite a valiant effort by a makeshift lineup. The Union on the other hand was 1-7-3 and on their way to another disaster season until DC gifted them all the points with a pitiful effort in Philly. That win helped spur a subsequent win in New York and that has propelled the perennial cellar dwellers to the verge of a playoff position in the East. DC may well rue the gift they gave Philly a couple weeks ago.

At least Ben Olsen is likely to trot out his best XI as opposed to the mix and match travesties he has done lately that has certainly been part of the reason for DC’s swoon in the last couple weeks. Still out are forwards Fabian Espindola and Luis Silva, DC’s co- leading scorers last year, but Chris Rolfe and Chris Pontius, as well as midfielder Davy Arnaud should be back in the fold after not even making the trip to Portland. Rested defenders Sean Franklin and Bobby Boswell should be available as well as former starter Steve Birnbaum who played in Portland, but is having a tough time wresting his job back from Kofi Opare.

Meanwhile Philly’s defense is absolutely reeling with injuries, but have their gotten back the majority of their offensive weapons. Their big defensive signing, Steven Vitoria is still out with a hamstring problem, Conor Casey with a quad strain, and Raymond Gaddis with a rolled ankle. But Cristian Maidana, two assists in NY win, and Vincent Nogueira, a goal in NY win are back in form and Philly’s offense is starting to look good again. Plus, the shaky defense in front of the also comical goalkeeping situation in Philly has solidified with two straight shutouts of Eastern conference opponents by the newly signed Brian Sylvestre in the nets.

So, looking at the matchups, I see no reason why Olsen should not go full bore with his best available even though DC faces another three games in eight days, all of them are at home against the weaker teams in the East and he has some intriguing pieces to play with now. I fully expect Jairo Arrieta and Chris Rolfe to start at forward as they give the best shot at actually scoring a goal. You would think it wouldn’t have escaped Olsen’s notice that the 3 game winless streak coincided with 3 games in which DC seriously threatened the opponent’s goal exactly 3 times and scored only once. I also expect Pontius, Perry Kitchen, Arnaud, and Nick DeLeon to play midfield (if Deleon isn’t 100% back, then flip Pontius to the right and start Facundo Coria instead); and Taylor Kemp, Boswell and Franklin to play in defense in front of Bill Hamid. But whether it is Opare or Birnbaum partnering Boswell might be down to a coin flip. I’d go with Opare as he’s in top form and is perhaps the better physical matchup on CJ Sapong who will likely start for Casey, but if it is Fernando Aristeguieta, who was left off Venezuela’s Copa roster and is back with the Union starting, I’d go with Birnbaum who is more experienced overall and Aristeguieta is cagey as well as physical. I would take a hard look at not starting Kemp too, but more on that later.

Which brings us to Philly. It’s really tough luck for Union coach Jim Curtin that Casey went down as it was really his re-emergence that kind of got Philly back to basics and being a consistent threat on offense. Sapong is similar true, but nowhere near as strong, cagey or effective. Aristoguieta is all of those things and will be a problem for DC, but it is unclear whether he will play having just recently made his way back to the States. Still, it remains their wildly attacking oriented midfield that is their strength. They’ll play a form of 4-5-1 with Sapong as the forward and Maidana and Nogueira underneath to support and Andrew Wenger and Sebatian LeToux on the wings. Former DC defensive midfielder Brian Carroll has been a rock too of late and filled in for suspended Maurice Edu in the New York win. Edu is the starter though and unless Curtin wants to play him in defense, Carroll might be back on the bench. In the defense, Sheanon Williams and Fabinho will almost certainly be on the outsides, but if Edu isn’t one of the central spots, it might be former DC defender Ethan White partnered with Richie Marquez the central pairing that shutout NY and White had a hand in DC’s shutout.

So, looking at the matchups and style of play, DC has some advantages, but only if DC’s midfield plays right up to its maximum, too many turnovers or loose defending and Philly will roll over DC mark my words. Philly will pound the ball into Sapong (or Ariteguieta) and look to knock it back to their surging midfield attackers Noguiera and Maidana; or they will seek to get DC unbalanced by getting LeToux and Wenger behind the outside backs. DC has faced many a 4-5-1, but most have been with two holding type players, Philly flips that and plays with one in more of a 4-1-4-1 which will put a lot of pressure on Arnaud and Kitchen to protect the back four and limit Franklin and Kemp getting forward as much. Which is why I’d start Korb instead. LeToux could torch Kemp and if Kemp can’t get forward enough to do what he’s best at, then play Korb to give you a better shot at keeping the lanky Frenchman from causing a lot of problems and accept the loss of offense as the price of doing business.

Offensively, DeLeon and Pontius (or Coria) as well as either Rolfe will be key. Those guys will have to supply the offense and have to get deep enough to allow Franklin and Korb or Kemp to get forward. Pontius and Deleon both love to cut inside and this is a good team to do that on as White and Marquez don’t like to get rushed and forced back on their heels. Edu back there might clean a lot of that up, but then again maybe not as he’s had good games on the backline and some not so good games there. Rolfe plays a role here too if those guys can take advantage of Edu (or Carroll) being caught to one side, then a quick switch and a cut inside creates a 3 on 2 in the middle and crafty guys like Rolfe and Arrieta can punish those situations. LeToux and Wenger don’t like to defend either, so force them back and that’s to DC’s advantage as well.

However, all of that happens because DC plays the ball quickly and has their heads up looking for runs off the ball. Something they haven’t done lately, but Rolfe, Arnaud, and even Arrieta (or Coria and maybe Halsti and Aguilar) have shown they will move the ball quickly and make those runs. However; if goes back to head down dribbling or not moving quickly to create angles, DC will struggle to attack and eventually the defense will make a mistake. Then it’s down to Hamid and hope he pitches a shutout. I would have Pontius and Deleon on a short leash in this one as they tend to dribble right into trouble when open passes are there to be made. Coria was in Philly’s camp and didn’t make the team but he knows them and he has shown some interesting attacking flair and decision making. Also, Miguel Aguilar was not good in Portland, but he has shown the gumption to force the action and it might be nice to see what he can do with some actual starters around him. And play him on the right for goodness sake. He’s used to going around people to the right with no one outside of him, so having him cut inside from the left is encouraging him to dribble into trouble, a habit we don’t want him to learn from DeLeon and Pontius. He’ll grow into that role eventually, use him now playing in a familiar role for goodness sake.

The intangibles favor DC though. Obviously not current form as mentioned, but in RFK that’s a different story. DC is currently on an 18 game unbeaten run in RFK and 19 would tie a team record should DC win or draw. United stands at 4-0-3 in RFK this year and Philly was a woeful 0-4-2 on the road until that win in NY last week. Philly has also only won once in RFK too. DC holds a 2-1-3 edge over their closest rival in RFK, with that lone Philly win back in 2013 and former DC forward Lionard Pajoy got a goal in that match which is all that needs to be mentioned about that game and indeed that season.

So, there you have it. This will be a close one unless DC’s midfield really plays their best soccer of the year. I think the defense can shut down Philly well enough that Hamid can pitch the shut out, but not if DC turns the ball over constantly and is always under siege. DC has some things they can exploit in the Philly defense if they play their cards right. I won’t tempt the soccer gods by saying DC should win given what happened last time I wrote a preview for a Philly match so we’ll just leave it at that.

DC Travels to Philly to take on the Union

DC heads to Philly looking to extend its eight game unbeaten streak against a Philadelphia side that is reeling through a five game winless streak.

This match sees two teams charging in opposite directions as DC took over sole possession of the Eastern Conference lead with their midweek comeback win over Orlando while the Union are plummeting down the table having lost seven of their last nine matches and are coming off a thorough dismantling in Vancouver last week. The team’s rosters are going in different directions as well as DC is nearing full strength with a number of players returning from injury while Philly is getting rocked with key injuries.

A full roster is a good problem for DC’s Ben Olsen to have as he now has some choices to make in his starting XI and with United playing the second of eight games in four weeks, being able to rest some of his aging players might be crucial as the MLS season drags into the heat of the summer. Of course designated player Eddie Johnson is not available as his career appears to be over and team MVP Fabian Espindola has a knock to his quad that kept him out against Orlando, but that’s about it for the players likely out for this match. Last year’s rookie sensation, Steve Birnbaum, and this year’s biggest off-season acquisition, midfielder/defender Markus Halsti, should be available for selection for the first time in weeks. Philadelphia on the other hand will be dealing with the loss of the key defensive leader Steve Vitoria who was their big defensive signing this winter and have been reeling with a goalkeeper carousel of injuries and poor form.

So given the situation, it is a bit of a crapshoot to figure out the lineups, but I do think Olsen tipped is hand a bit in the midweek game as he rested Chris Rolfe for most of the game only bringing him on to score the game-winner late in the match and given the way some players performed in roles maybe not suited for them. Chris Pontius Started at forward and was largely ineffective until he dropped back into midfield later in the match, same with Michael Farfan who got his first start as a wide midfielder and was pretty underwhelming in that role. Olsen brought on Jairo Arrieta and Rolfe to play those positions and they teamed up for the game winning goal. Farfan has been effective in the middle, but lacks the speed to cover enough ground as a wide player, especially in transition which is crucial to DC’s counter attack and their defensive posture after a turnover. Pontius has just simply failed to regain his form as a forward, but is still a very effective midfielder.

So, I suspect Olsen rewards Arrieta with a start at forward with Luis Silva playing underneath him in a kind of hybrid 4-5-1. In midfield, Rolfe should be good to go and Olsen has favored Nick Deleon on the opposite side, but with DeLeon being a bit erratic as well as having picked up a slight hamstring twinge, I think Pontius gets the other wing midfield role with Perry Kitchen and Davy Arnaud in the middle. In defense, Olsen has been juggling Chris Korb and Taylor Kemp on the left but I think with Philly having a crowded midfield and relatively weak wing players having Kemp out there for his wide play on offense gives him the edge over Korb for this match. Kofi Opare scored the tying goal against Orlando and has been an able fill in for Birnbaum when he rolled his ankle five weeks ago, but if Birnbaum is ready to start, this would be a good game to ease him back into the starting lineup to get his game fitness back. Then Bobby Boswell and Sean Franklin have been iron men across the rest of the backline in front of Bill Hamid.

Philly on the other hand has some real problems in their defense with the loss of Vitoria and the hideous play of their goalkeepers in general. Rais Mbolhi has been banished for his awful play, then their rookie backup, John McCarthy looked promising out of the gate, but pulled up lame at the first post and their former number one pick, Andre Blake has been unable to see the field and is now injured too. Youngster Brian Sylvestre on loan from the Carolina Railhawks looked pretty good in Vancouver and is likely to start again, but he also got shelled in Vancouver so we’ll see. As for the defense, without Vitoria and Carlos Valdes, Maurice Edu has had a run at center back which didn’t look promising at all and he is now back in midfield where he can do less damage. Former DC defender Ethan White has been largely ineffective and then last week, another rookie, Richie Marquez got a shot, but then got tossed for a reckless hack in Vancouver and will be suspended for the DC match.

It seems likely Philly coach Jim Curtin will go with his usual 4-5-1 with the big Venezuelan, Fernando Aristguieta as the lone forward with Cristian Maidana playing underneath him. Across the midfield Andrew Wenger has been starting over Sebastian LeToux on one wing lately with the speedy and unpredictable Eric Ayuk Mbu on the other. Zach Pfeffer has been holding down the middle with Edu while the crafty Vincent Nogeira works himself back to fitness after bouncing back and forth from the injured list most of the season. Given the lack of warm bodies, it seems likely the Brazilian Fabinho gets a start on the outside allowing Raymond Gaddis to join Ethan White in the center of defense with Sheanon Williams playing the other outside back in front of Sylvestre in goal.

That is not a lineup that should put much fear into anyone. DC has advantages in nearly all areas offensively and defensively. Obviously Silva and Arrieta are crafty enough to get around White and Gaddis, Williams will be tough for Rolfe to exploit often, but he has proven efficient when he does get the better of his defender and he’ll get chances. DeLeon on the other side should have the edge over Fabinho who has been less than thrilling when he’s seen the field. Especially as Philly’s wingers rarely defend very well if they ever bother to defend at all. Kemp and Franklin should both be able to help in the attack and could swing things totally in DC’s favor. Philly does clog the middle well, but DC doesn’t attack down the center much anyway unless it’s a quick counter off a mistake which negates them being able set their defense.

Defensively, Mbu is frightening but totally erratic and he doesn’t seem to mesh well in their offense, so he could be a handful for Kemp, but Birnbaum or Opare have the athleticism to manage him if Kemp is caught upfield. Aristeguieta is a beast and has a deadly shot, but nothing Boswell hasn’t handled well in this league for the past ten years. Maidana and Pfeffer or Noguiera are very crafty, but Kitchen and Arnaud are easily their match.

Both teams play a similar style in the sense that they try to stay tight defensively and pounce on counters or force mistakes. Unfortunately for Philly, DC simply has better players for those roles even if Espindola doesn’t play a minute. I fully expect this to be an ugly midfield battle at first, but then DC will exploit a Philly mistake and pretty much cruise to victory from there, assuming the soccer gods keep their nose out of things and everyone plays to their abilities. Philly’s defense is simply too threadbare to keep United off the scoreboard for the match barring celestial interference, and even if Philly grinds out a goal, DC will wear them down in the end much like they did against Orlando.

DC even has the edge in the intangibles too. Their record is 5-4-3 all time against Philly and 3-3-0 in Philadelphia but swept Philly last year with two 1-0 wins. Obviously DC is the much hotter team in MLS right now with 3 wins in the last 4 games, while Philly has lost 4 straight. Philly is also a paltry 1-3-1 at home having lost their last 2, and 3 of their last 4 at home, while DC is 2-1-0 on the road having won their last 2 after an early season loss in NY.

No matter how you slice it, DC is the big favorite on paper and soccer gods willing should add three more points to the coffers on Sunday.

Early Silva goal holds up; Lead extended to six points in the East

Luis Silva’s 10th-minute goal held up as D.C. United fought off a valiant effort from the Philadelphia Union in their 1-0 victory this afternoon at sun-splashed RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. in front of 19, 478 fans.

United (15-9-6, 51 points), playing at home for only the second time all month, extended their lead atop the Eastern Conference standing to six points over the New England Revolution and Sporting Kansas City, both sitting at 45 points after the Revolution went to Kansas City and got a big win last night.

With only four games remaining and Sporting coming to town on Friday night, United is in excellent position to put further distance between themselves and SKC and also move closer to clinching the Eastern Conference title and the automatic CONCACAF Champions League berth that goes with it in the 2015-2016 tournament.

Silva, the teams goalscoring leader with eleven on the season, put the Black-and-Red ahead in the 10th minute thanks to some determined work from Nick DeLeon. DeLeon drove at the Philadelphia defense and worked a cross to the opposite post where Chris Korb pulled the ball down. Korb’s pass to Sean Franklin got caught up in a thicket of players and fortunately rebounded back to him when his one-time left-footed cross met the forehead of Silva who nodded the ball just inside the far post.

United should have doubled the lead a bit later in the first half when Bill Hamid, who posted his ninth shutout of the season (11th overall for United), launched a ball over the Union defense and caught Fabian Espindola in stride. The tricky Argentine striker got to the ball just as Algerian goalkeeper Rais Mbohli was closing the space down and dribbled a shot towards the gaping empty net. However, Union defender Carlos Valdes was on the spot to clear the ball off the line. The play remained alive as Espindola picked up the loose ball and spotted Silva at the penalty spot. Silva’s one-time left-footer was grazed by Mbohli and then cleared again by Valdes off the line to keep the score at 1-0.

With the Union pushing the tempo in the second half, United failed to capitalize on numerous counter attack opportunities, particularly when second-half substitutes Chris Pontius and Eddie Johnson came into the match. Their failure to create any decent chances to put the match away kept the Union in the game as the visitor tried to carve out the game-tying goal. Their best chance came in the 86th minute when Perry Kitchen tripped and fell on the ball just outside the penalty area. Kitchen landed on the ball and was harshly given a yellow card which will keep him out of Friday’s match up with Sporting Kansas City due to an accumulation of yellow’s throughout the season.

Christian Maidana stepped up and sent his shot straight into the wall and United saw the remainder of the match out. The win for United is their 15th win on the season which means they have five times as many matches as they did a year ago (3 wins), a feat that no doubt will be repeated again in MLS any time soon.


Episode 141 – Struggling Without the Talent

Join the guys, sans Mike Martin, as they look back at United’s past few matches. Including the win over FC Dallas, the heartbreaking loss at Portland, and the road win vs the Philadelphia Union. The boys also talk about Eddie Johnson’s controversial comments and introduce Stone Giant, a Boston Band with a close connection to the show.