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DC United Forward Jairo Arrieta celebrates his go ahead goal against visiting Sporting KC. Photo: Martin Fernandez

Unbeaten run reaches seven games as United and Sporting KC battle to a 1-1 draw

Washington, D.C., May 9, 2015 – Jairo Arrieta’s first half goal staked D.C. United to a late first-half lead against the run of play but that was not enough to hold up as Sporting Kansas City equalized just two minutes later as the teams played to a 1-1 draw tonight at RFK Stadium. Photo: Martin Fernandez.

United (5-1-3, 18 points) jumped back into a tie at the top of the Eastern Conference with the New England Revolution who briefly jumped ahead of the Black-and-Red by virtue of their 2-2 draw last night in Orlando.

Arrieta, filling in for an injured Fabian Espindola, scored his second goal of the season finishing off a nice set up from Chris Pontius in the 43rd minute. With the visitors claiming most of the possession and scoring chances up to this point, it was the hustle of Perry Kitchen that set United into the lead.

Kitchen’s high pressure forced a bad turnover that seconds later made it back to him and he sent a diagonal ball to the far side of the box where Pontius chested the ball down and cut the ball back directly into the path of Arrieta who beat Sporting defender Matt Besler to the pass and side-footed the shot inside the far post.

However, United fell asleep just two minutes later and Sporting equalized through Dom Dwyer’s cool finish just before the halftime whistle, much to the dismay of head coach Ben Olsen.

After the break United seized control of the match and created numerous chances to take the lead but could never find that final ball or final pass to put away their former Eastern Conference foes.

A big key to the match was the surprising exclusion of Fabian Espindola due to a knock received during the Columbus match last weekend. Espindola came to training through the week sporting significant bruising and just wasn’t able to go. Olsen said after the match that the team is being cautious with Espindola and other players and not rushing them back into the lineup, even though a heavy crush of games awaits the squad through the remainder of May.

United will end their three-game home stand when they entertain Orlando City SC on Wednesday night at 8pm. This match will be televised nationally on ESPN2

 

 

MLS announces new club on the eve of conference Semifinal matches

On the eve of the second leg of the MLS Cup Semi-finals Major League Soccer announced that Orlando City SC will become the newest member of the “club.” Orlando will join the league as the 21st MLS franchise and is set to debut, under a “purple banner,” in 2015.

Orlando will join the league’s 20th franchise, New York City FC, in league play at the same time. This is the first time since 1998 that MLS has added two clubs in one year. Back then the league added the Chicago Fire and the now defunct, Miami Fusion.

The excitement of the addition of MLS’s 21st franchise comes at a time when four teams remain in the hunt for the 2013 MLS Cup. Still in play are Real Salt Lake and the Portland Timbers in the West, and Sporting KC and the Houston Dynamo in the East.

Heading into their second legs respectively each team still is capable of advancing to the League’s premier event, but in my opinion, Real Salt Lake and Sporting KC hold the edge in their respective series.

Houston and Sporting will face off on Saturday November 23rd at 7:30 pm in Sporting Park to conclude their series. The teams have played to consecutive scoreless draws, including a 0-0 draw in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinal series and Kansas City has only won once against the dynamo in the last five meetings at Sporting Park. Coincidentally the win came in the second leg of last year’s Eastern Conference Semifinals – Houston would prevail 2-1 by virtue of their 2-0 win in the first leg.

The teams are obviously no strangers to each other and Kansas City looks poised to avenge their Semifinal loss from last year to advance to this year’s MLS Cup.

In the West, Real Salt Lake holds a slight advantage over the Portland Timbers as they head into the “confines” of Jeld-Wen Field in Portland, Oregon on Sunday November 24th at 9:00 pm. Real leads the series by virtue of their opening leg 4-2 win at Rio Tinto Stadium in Salt Lake City, UT.

All Kreis’ guys need to do is not loose by more than 1 goal (to avoid extra time) to a Portland team that has not lost a competitive match in their home field since March 9, when they fell 2-1 to the visiting Montreal Impact. For Portland, overturning a 2 goal deficit is by no means impossible, but they will have to accomplish something that has not been done since 2004 when the then Kansas City Wizards came back to defeat the San Jose Earthquakes 3-2 on aggregate to win the series.

Real holds the advantage by virtue of their 2 goal lead and the fact that Kreis’ squad is ready to forget this year’s Open Cup debacle.

If I were to place a bet on the official William hill website my money would be on a Sporting KC vs Real Salt Lake in the MLS Cup Final, with Sporting edging the boys from UT to win their Second MLS Cup, their first since becoming Sporting KC. A prediction I mad earlier this season on the UnitedMania.com Podcast.

DC Looking to Succeed in KC

It’s been a long time since DC has had success against Sporting Kansas City, but with KC perhaps tired and a little banged up after their midweek penalty kick win over Seattle for the US Open Cup, DC just might find some very valuable points in the playoff hunt.

SKC had to go the full 120 minutes and PKs to garner their first US Open Cup trophy, and it was quite a physical match to boot, with injuries to left back Seth Sinovic and Paulo Nagamura as well as numerous bumps and bruises. So, while KC welcomes back All Star center back Aurelien Collin and has the home field advantage, how motivated and able they are to cash in on that remains to be seen.

DC, on the other hand has lost their left back too as Daniel Woolard suffered a concussion in the win over the Crew and defending league MVP Dwayne De Rosario has a bit of a banged up shoulder. But, they welcome back former rookie of the year, Andy Najar from his successful and possibly lucrative Olympic sojourn, as well as traded for young veteran left back Mike Chabala from the Portland Timbers.

DC trails SKC by four points in the Eastern Conference but has two games in hand, so a win especially on the road would go a long way toward United’s playoff aspirations. Kansas might have a bit of a Cup hangover heading into this game as this season is already a success with that Open Cup win and subsequent automatic entrance into the CONCACAF Champions League next year.

Tough to tell who Vermes lines up in this match as SKC given the situation above as well as the fact that with their Open Cup run, SKC has had a pretty full schedule of late. Going on the expectation that neither Sinovic, Nagamura (facial laceration), or Roger Espinoza (played 120 min a day after returning from Olympics with a banged up shoulder) play in this one at all, and that it’s doubtful either former DC midfielder Bobby Convey (hamstring), CJ Sapong (groin) or Jacob Peterson (shoulder) start, although they may see minutes, I think Vermes goes with a mixed lineup.

Almost certainly Kei Kamara and Teal Bunbury will start as two of the three forwards in their 4-3-3, the other could be Convey, but I don’t think so as he wasn’t even in the 18 for the Open Cup. I think Soony Saad gets the start as he played well coming on for Convey early in the win over NE in their last league match.

In midfield, there’s no question Grahma Zusi will be the playmaker in the center, and if Nagamura and Espinoza are out, I think Brazilian antique Julio Cesar moves up into one of the holding roles alongside young bruiser Michael Thomas, who also played well as a reserve in that NE match.

Without Sinovic, Vermes has a bit of a dilemma as the young American has started 20 of 22 matches and is third on the team in minutes played; however, Michael Harrington could easily replace him and has had success there against DC in his past having scored a goal in his first MLS match against DC in the 2007 opener. Obviously Collin alongside Matt Besler has been as good as any central pairing in MLS this year, and former number one pick Chance Myers on the right completes a pretty solid defense in front of the White Puma, Jimmy Nielsen in the nets.

As for DC, Olsen’s biggest decisions obviously are who plays for the concussed Woolard and who starts at the forward positions now that DC media is reporting that Maicon Santos (toe), Hamdi Salihi (viral infection) are out, and DeRo has only practiced once since injuring his shoulder against the Crew.

Looking at the defense first as is prudent entering a road match in a place you haven’t won since 2007, the obvious choice is Chabala as he’s a natural left back and quite familiar with SKC and MLS, albeit only familiar with DC’s game plans since Thursday. Also considering SKC’s three forward system, I think Olsen goes with a hybrid formation to maximize DC’s strengths and minimize DC’s weaknesses. I think he starts Dejan Jakovic as the left back and pretty much goes man on man along with Brandon McDonald,and Emiliano Dudar against KC’s three forwards.

Further, considering the key to taking KC out of their high pressure game and breaking down their defense is to get your outside players well forward into the attack, I think Andy Najar plays the “right back” position but really is almost a midfielder only concerned with helping McDonald and Perry Kitchen as necessary or when Harrington gets forward, but really is expected to fly forward any chance he gets.

At forward, clearly Long Tan is going to get another chance to keep his surprising starting slot, but with DeRo now doubtful, I think Olsen has to tap Chris Pontius as the other starter up top to give DC a more serious scoring threat to go along with the slasher, Tan.

Taking Pontius out of midfield is no problem as Nick Deleon is back to playing well, and Danny Cruz is easily capable of battling with anyone on his side of the field and covering for Najar when he overlaps. In the center, Boskovic is going to get thrown to the wolves a bit as he faces Cesar and Thomas or Espinoza, so he needs to make sure his contributions on set pieces are a lot better than the dismal efforts that bounced away hideously.

So, looking at them matchups, DC is in dire straits of course, but has a glimmer of hope. Kamara has played the most minutes of any KC player and will flat out be tired, as will Bunbury who has played a ton of minutes lately after not playing very many earlier on. If they are the least bit off and DC’s defense plays as they are capable, that’s a net gain for DC. I also like Kitchen against Zusi as the KC midfielder has been slumping a bit of late and Kitchen is playing light’s out good as the midfield anchor for DC. If KC’s main attackers are contained reasonably well, DC is in good shape for at least a respectable tie.

DC’s attack without DeRo will be hard pressed to manage much against the best defense in the Eastern conference, but DC has actually outscored KC quite considerably this season (35 goals for to 27 in 2 less games) and could shock a tired team with a sparkling FK or a capitalize on a mistake such as say, the over-rated Chance Myers getting over run by Pontius and Deleon.

Plus, if DC keeps the game tight, DeRo off the bench has to be about the scariest player outside of Chris Wondolowski for KC to see coming into a tight match.

However, all of that is pie in the sky unless DC decides to show some gumption on the road this season which they really have not done this year. DC has a mere 3 wins on the road this year, all against the dregs of the East (TFC, Philly, NE) and worse has gone paws up against almost all upper middle class opponents (LA, SJ, Houston twice, NY, and throw the Crew in there too), going a combined 0-6, outscored a whopping 17-5 being shutout 3 times.

Obviously, DC can’t go into KC with all guns blazing or they will likely lose 5-2 like they did in SJ, but they can’t go in twitchy and tentative like they did in LA (3-1 loss)or the second trip to Houston (4-0), but a solid performance like the first trip into Houston (1-0 loss in Houston’s stadium opener) would give DC a chance to get out of KC with some huge points both in the standings and in the old confidence department which will be crucial heading down the stretch.

Of course, DC has some wicked Karma to overcome too. KC has never been a kind place for DC. Plenty of ugly ghosts for DC to remember from the past. As mentioned Dc hasn’t won there since 2007, but further than that, DC has only 4 wins there in their last 17 matches since the turn of the century. But, United does have a handful of draws out there, 5 in the last matches there. True, some were wrenching draws like the season ender in 2009, but draws nonetheless and a point in this match would be just fine.

And KC hasn’t been lighting it up at home this summer, either. Sporting has been hardly inspiring lately with a 0-2-2 record since mid June, including two 0-0 draws sandwiched between a 1-0 loss to the Fire and a 2-1 loss to the Crew in their last hoe match. That’s a whole lot of not scoring at home to go with that dismal record as well. Of course, DC has been even worse than that on the road lately, so perhaps recent trends are not the right comparison to make.

Obviously, DC should not be favored in this match, but given KC’s banged up and tired team, recent form at home, and perhaps overconfidence given their recent record against DC, maybe DC could sneak away with a point or more. Without their biggest guns might be a good thing for DC to rally behind, forcing an emphasis on tight defense and grinding a result on the road would be a good step in the right direction for a team with playoff aspirations. Winning at home is mandatory for a contender, but having a winning attitude on the road, even if you don’t actually win, is crucial to any kind of decent playoff success.

DC needs to take the next step.

Nick DeLeon

DC Has a Sporting Chance at Home

DC United (and top draft pick Nick DeLeon, above) hosts defending Eastern Conference champion, Sporting KC, in the season opener of the 2012 season, and after having lost to SKC here in the final match of 2011, DC drastically re-tooled over the off-season and looks to have as good a chance as any at contending for the Eastern Conference this year.

After its fourth straight year out of the playoffs, United made significant changes since the end of the 2011 season, most notably the signing of designated player, striker Hamdi Salihi to bolster an attack that was essentially carried by 2011 MLS MVP, Dwayne De Rosario. However, United also cleaned house to such extent that only four roster players have even been with the team since 2009, which was Ben Olsen’s last as a player (Chris Pontius, Dejan Jakovic, Bill Hamid, and Stephen King).

In all, United will likely have only 5 starters returning to their respective positions (unless Pontius makes a surprise start after just recently returning from injury), and a 6th in second year Perry Kitchen moving from the backline to midfield. It seems very likely United starts at least 4 newcomers; Salihi, first round draft pick, Nick DeLeon in midfield, and right back Robbie Russell along with Argentine central defender Emiliano Dudar on the backline. DC will also get an added boost in midfield as last year’s designated player, Branko Boskovic, is expected to start after missing most of last season due to injury, and especially from league legend De Rosario, who has recently been rewarded with a long term deal essentially guaranteeing his retirement in Black and Red.

On the other side of the field, Sporting KC has made few changes to a team that came within an ace of representing the East in the MLS Cup last year, despite starting the season with only one win in their first ten matches. Gone is Mexican Omar Bravo replaced in midfield by former DC young gun, Bobby Convey, but the rest of their potent attack remains the same. A slight change to their deep midfield with the addition of former Metro, Luke Sassano who replaces the injured Julio Cesar, but their backline and goalkeeper remain intact.

While United will play essentially a straight up 4-4-2, while SKC prefers a 4-3-3 setup which may well create some matchup problems for United defensively, but will almost certainly provide space out wide for a potentially very explosive DC offense to exploit. Given the nature of this as a home opener and the likely tactics of both teams, as well as the history between these two clubs, certainly a high scoring barn burner is far more likely than a one goal affair.

Looking at the matchups, DC could have some trouble in midfield defense and in handling KC’s 3 forwards, especially last year’s rookie of the year, CJ Sapong (and later Teal Bunbury his likely replacement late in the match). SKC likely will start Kai Kamara, Sapong and Convey across their forward line. Which means DC’s Dudar will get a quick initiation into the type of physical forward that abounds in MLS. Also Kamara’s athleticism and SuperBobby’s guile could pose huge problems for DC’s wide backs, Daniel Woolard and former RSL defender Robbie Russell acquired in the off-season. Considering KC’s constant movement and switching style of attack,KC could easily confound United’s relatively new defense unless they are all on the same page from the get go.

Even worse, SKC relies on a brutally quick counterattack which could be lethal against United’s perhaps lesser athletically inclined defenders, especially as Perry Kitchen is the lone midfielder tasked to stop counters but will have to choose quickly as KC has essentially three central midfielders to start the attack. Kitchen showed remarkable class and intelligence for a rookie last year on the backline, but this will be a rude awakening to life in midfield in MLS to see the clever and effective former Terp, Graham Zusi, Wily Honduran Roger Espinoza, and the big teeth rattler with a surprising touch, Luke Sassano all coming at him at various times. The rest of United’s midfield is not remarkably skilled at defending, although Andy Najar is certainly willing, but that could be a huge trouble spot if Kitchen is left on an island.

However offensively; DC United has the inverse advantages of their wide play and sick collection offensive talent. Salihi is just as mysterious to KC’s central defense as Sapong is to Dudar, but he’s surrounded by defending MVP DeRo, has slick Montenegran midfielder Boskovic in support, as well as former rookie of the year, Najar and rookie sensation, DeLeon (if not Pontius) swinging in balls as well. DC’s attack should be a serious handful for KC’s defense to handle as well. Especially Najar against KC left back Seth Sinovic and DeRo against anybody wearing a KC kit.

Obviously, there’s no current trends to evaluate as pre-season is absolutely meaningless in MLS, but United should have some concerns considering the history against KC in the first few games of a season. United is 2-4 against KC in either a season or home opener and a brutal 0-4 since 2001, when DC did prevail in the only time they faced KC in an actual season opener at home, a 3-2 win back when Thomas Rongen was still patrolling the DC sidelines. In fact, all time in home openers, DC is a relatively dismal 7-4-4 and has only one home opening win since 2004, a rousing 4-1 thrashing of TFC in 2008 when Marcelo Gallardo patrolled the midfield. Even worse, DC is a pathetic 0-3-2 in season openers since 2005 including 2 shutout losses in KC in the last 3 years.

On the bright side, despite some recent success, KC is a mere 5-12-4 in RFK over their history being outscored 33-24, although 2 of those wins have come in their last 4 matches here. DC also clings to a bare 18-16-9 edge over KC all time having outscored them 66-61, meaning the teams have averaged 3 goals a match over their history. So, expect a reasonably high scoring match all things considered.

There you have it. DC’s revamped team going against the best in the East last season right off the bat. Both teams with explosive offenses on paper, DC with perhaps an edge there and with home field advantage. Both teams also have somewhat suspect defenses, SKC with an obvious edge there given their continuity from last year.

SKC poses a potentially bruising test for the Black and Red right out of the gate, and it will almost certainly be a riveting match for the RFK faithful hoping to see United’s quest for a return to prominence begin tomorrow night.

DC Hosts Sporting KC to End 2011 Season

DC United has little at stake in this last match, but SKC will win the Eastern Conference with a win and will certainly want make sure they secure home field advantage. However, some United players will literally be playing for their jobs, and all will hopefully be playing for pride in front of their long suffering fans in their final match at RFK for the season.

Well, perhaps now that the pressure is off United might actually play with some passion and determination for a full 90 minutes, because they certainly haven’t played that way in the 5 match winless streak that saw them squander all their games in hand and drop them from the playoffs for the fourth straight year.

Granted that final 10 minutes against Portland was about the most thrilling soccer seen in RFK in years, and DC arguably deserved the win, but the fact remains that valiant tie only served to break the crushing four game losing streak that preceded it. Young and inconsistent with ineffective veterans outside of savior Dwayne De Rosario, DC literally crumbled down the stretch under the strain. But perhaps with very little at stake in this final match before the long winter, and their pride and possibly some careers on the line, maybe now they will show a full 90 minutes of effort.

But it won’t be easy as SKC has been as hot as anyone in the league since June when they resurrected their season after moving into Livestrong Park. Since getting their shiny new stadium, SKC has gone from the bottom of the East to a chance at their first conference championship since winning the West in 2004 (and losing to DC in the MLS Cup that year, too).

With a dynamic multifaceted attack that has only been outscored this season only by Seattle and New York (and tied by DC, each with 49 goals in 33 games), as well as the 5th best defense in the league, SKC has become a formidable team after starting the season an abysmal 1-6-3 in their first 10 games and now sits atop the East having rung up a record of 11-3-9 since.

There’s no chance SKC coach Peter Vermes will rest anyone, so I fully expect him to trot out his best players in that wicked 4-3-3 hybrid they play. Which means a forward line spearheaded by Teal Bunbury supported by Kei Kamara (each leading the team with 9 goals) and Grahma Zusi (5 goals 7 assists), and with Mexican Omar Bravo pulling the strings in midfield, and he only has 9 goals himself, as well as rookie of the year candidate, C.J. Sapong with 5 goals coming off the bench, SKC has a lot of weapons to go against a sketchy DC defense.

As for the rest of the team, Vermes has used Roger Espinoza and Julio Cesar pretty consistently lately behind Bravo in midfield, and his backline of Seth Sinovic, Matt Besler, Aurelien Collin, and Chance Myers going from left to right in front of keeper Jimmy Nielsen hasn’t changed in weeks now that Myers has arguably finally begun to live up to his high draft status.

Ben Olsen on the other hand does have some decisions to make. MLS leading scorer, Dwayne De Rosario has been playing with some bad bruises lately and really has nothing to prove in this last game, nor is it smart to risk him simply for a better shot at the golden boot which he might win anyway, leading SJ’s WOndolowski by a goal with one game to go. So I doubt he starts, but should come on for a curtain call for the fans unless he simply can’t play at all.

Also, Olsen all but admitted Charlie Davies is not very effective against defenses that play a deep back line that he can’t get behind very easily, well that describes SKC’s defense pretty accurately, and considering rookie Blake Brettschneider definitely made a case for himself and perhaps deserves some true recognition for the spark he provided coming on for Davies against Portland, choosing which of those players to start can’t be an easy decision.

In addition, Wolff was an embarrassment in that Portland match, pretty much turning over every ball he touched and contributing very little to United’s dismal offense for the first 85 minutes of the game. Now, he’s had a decent season and doesn’t deserve to be dumped on, but he also has nothing to prove either, and if he is simply out of gas at the end of probably his last season being considered a serious candidate to start matches, then he should sit and Olsen should give someone else a chance.

So, given all that I suspect Olsen will reward Brettchneider with the start at forward, and I personally would love to see him give Santino Quaranta a chance at forward, as DC’s prodigal son has been squeezed out a bit of late. But has been a very good soldier about it and seems to be getting back his long lost aggression at going to goal and making things happen in the attack. Tino’s faults lately have been pretty poor defense tracking back, but he’s always been fine pressuring forward on defenders, and as long as his offensive mistakes are from being aggressive, you can live with that.

As for the rest of the lineup, I think Olsen plays Austin Da Luz (or Santino, if Wolff starts) on the left, Stephen King, Perry Kitchen, and Andy Najar in midfield. On defense, unless Dejan Jakovic is leaping tall buildings and flat out begging to start, then his hamstring should not be risked except for a curtain call as well. In that case, it will be Daniel Woolard, Brandon McDonald, Ethan White, and Chris Korb in front of Bill Hamid. Which would challenge for one of the youngest lineups in MLS history, but hey, these young guys are the guys who’ve earned it lately.

Unfortunately, no matter whom DC starts, even DeRo in his superman cape, United simply does not match up well against SKC and their amorphous attacking system and rock solid defense. I’d like to see if Santino could put Besler and Collin on their heels, and I think Brettschneider has as good a chance as anyone to bang successfully with those guys too. However, even Davies and Wolff don’t seem to be better options, especially considering the way they’ve been playing recently.

Now, possibly Najar gets the better of Sinovic, but Espinoza is great at helping out and it might be a little too much for Andy to be able to carry the attack on his own, and let’s face it, if he beats Sinovic to the end line, only Brettchneider has shown any skill at getting n the end of a cross lately, but then again Collin and Besler eat up crosses. On the other side, Myers is much more the weak link and either Da Luz or Santino could find success against him, but his speed in recovery is very good, and neither DC option defends the wing well enough to negate Myers’ jaunts up the right side.

Then of course without DeRo, United’s central midfield is toothless in the attack, but King and Kitchen together will defend Bravo and company much better than if DeRo was on the field. So, all in all, DC’s attack is likely to struggle without some luck or SKC playing below their ability, but that’s really to be expected given the situation.

Defensively, things are even worse if possible. Even with Kitchen and King hopefully negating Bravo and keeping Espinoza from jumping into the attack; Bunbury, Zusi, and Kamara are a handful for good defenses and DC isn’t one of those. Woolard has been very consistent, but is a physical mismatch against Kamara, Zusi is much better than Rodney Wallace and if Korb lays off him, he has an absolutely wicked shot from distance, but if he bodies him, Zusi is tricky enough to get the ball or himself around United’s rookie right back. Bunbury is a specimen too, fast and tricky enough to get away from McDonald, and while White could stay with him, unless White has suddenly learned to concentrate 100% of the time, Bunbury (or later, Sapong)will punish DC.

Plus, SKC switches all over the field to create mismatches and DC has trouble marking the players they are expected to defend and patrolling their own area effectively. Once SKC starts to exploit the spaces United leaves fairly regularly, or even worse forces United to pass off players to each other which will brutally expose DC’s notoriously poor communication skills, they could score at will. No, unless DC plays above themselves and SKC lays an egg or DC flat out gets lucky, then book this as a loss.

Interestingly, there is some reason to hope when looking at the trends. SKC is a mere 3-7-6 on the road being outscored 24-20, including only 1 win, and being shut out twice in their last 5 away matches. They are also 0-4-3 against the rest of the East on the road losing in Chicago, New England as well as NY, while being outscored 9 to 5 overall, and were shut out four times, too: in NY, Philly, Toronto, and Columbus.

Kansas City also hasn’t won or tied in RFK since 2007 and that 4-2 loss early in 2007 is the only blemish in 5 straight wins over KC since 2006. Incredibly, DC has beaten KC in RFK all three of the last dismal playoff-less seasons, even a miracle 1-0 win in last year’s abysmal season. KC is also a pitiful 4-12-4 here in their history being outscored 33-23 in the process. DC holds the all-time edge against them 18-15-9 as well, although KC has outscored DC 66 to 60.

Granted United isn’t exactly light’s out at home as any season ticket holder can attest, but they are 4-4-8 and have outscored opponents in RFK 32-27. Even better, DC has 2 wins, only 1 loss, and 9 points in their last 6 at home (2-1-3). Unfortunately, DC is also 1-3-3 against the East in RFK with the lone win being against the Crew in the first game of the season, and they have been outscored 15 to 11 in those East matches to boot.

Another thing to consider is SKC has the inside track to win the East with a tie, or even a loss if other results go their way. SKC sits at the top with 48 points tied with Philly, whose season is over and KC has the tiebreaker edge over Philly (in total goals scored, being tied on everything above that)as long as they don’t lose by more than a goal. If that happened, only Columbus could then snatch the East away from SKC, but the Crew would have to beat the Fire in Chicago. Certainly possible, but it does leave the door open slightly for SKC to not be totally committed to a win mentally.

So there you have it. On paper, DC shouldn’t win, but historically they’ve been able to pull it off even at the worst of times. The pressure is off, it’s the last game in front of the fans, and maybe the last match for DC ever for some guys, and SKC might quite understandably be looking past DC especially as they could still win the East anyway. Granted all that is a stretch, but the soccer gods do have a sense of humor and hopefully some compassion.

It would be nice to be left with a good performance for the long bitter winter nights ahead.

Backs Against the Wall for DC United

United only has one thing on the agenda tomorrow night in their makeup game against the Portland Timbers, and the same thing for their last game of the season against KC on Saturday. They have to win both games (and get some help from a slumping NY), because anything less means they will have missed the playoffs for the fourth year in a row, a fate that has only happened to only two other teams in the history of the league.

Yep, United is the only team with four MLS Cups, but without a win tomorrow, a loss by NY on Thursday and another win in the last game of the season, DC United will become the third team to have missed the playoffs for four years in a row. Unfortunately, United hasn’t won two games in a row in over two years, and doesn’t appear likely to be able to pull it off now given the appalling four game losing streak they are currently riding.

In fact, as my buddy Chris pointed out the other night on the show, United has won only one “must win” game since winning the MLS Cup in 2004! Since winning their fourth MLS Cup, United has only won the US Open Cup (in 2008 over a USL team), other than that it’s been bupkis in MLS. They did win two Supporter’s Shields, but didn’t really face any truly must win games in order to secure those, and considering they were drummed out of the playoffs each time (in Conference final by NE in RFK in 2006, and in the first round by the Fire in 2007), those years are hardly examples of coming up big in big games.

Of course in recent history, United had no must win games in 2010 because they were pretty much eliminated from playoff contention in August. But, DC did face must win games in the last games of 2009 and 2008, as well as the Open Cup final in RFK in 2009, and didn’t win those either. In 2009, DC lost 3 of their final 4 at home and still had a chance to get into the playoffs with a win in KC in the last match, and gave up a PK in stoppage time to draw 2-2 and was eliminated. In 2008, the last match was in Columbus and again a win and they make the playoffs, but instead hit the post three times and fell 1-0 and out.

So, it’s not like DC fans haven’t seen this before and those were games the team at least tried valiantly to secure the points! This most recent Fire loss was simply atrocious. It was a miracle that they were even in position to win after getting their only shot on goal with Dwayne De Rosario’s PK in the 90th minute, but of course that was a tease as the Fire stormed back to snatch the win with two stoppage time goals for one of the most brutal losses in RFK history.

BTW, incredibly there have only been 5 games in MLS history where a team behind by a goal has won with two or more stoppage time goals, and DC has been involved in 3 of them. Ben Olsen set up Jaime Moreno, and then scored the winner over the Fire in stoppage time in RFK in 2000 after being down 1-0 well into stoppage time, and United prevailed in the Massachusetts Miracle in 2003 with 3 stoppage time goals (Eliseo Quintanilla (PK), Kovalenko, and Eskandarian with a bonus goal) in a 4-2 win after being down 2-0 until the 83rd minute. DC arguably was involved in another in when Luciano Emilio scored in 90th minute and Chris Pontius in the 93rd to beat NY on the road 3-2 in 2009.

But I digress, so back to the game at hand. Unfortunately, Portland won’t be an easy opponent as they also need to win both their last two games to have a shot at the playoffs themselves, and a loss would eliminate them as well. A tie does neither team any good, although Portland would still be alive praying for a NY loss Thursday, and then needing to win their last game at RSL.

DC does enter this match as healthy as they have been for most of the season, but with some real hard questions about starting positions for Olsen. Charlie Davies has played a mere ten minutes the past two games and says he is healthy and doesn’t understand why he is not playing more. Nice that he wants to play more, but it makes you wonder why Olsen has been sitting him so much if he is so healthy and dangerous as Davies seems to think of himself; and how angry Olsen is about Davies’ public comments about playing time. Also, while technically DC’s game plan was successful for 90 minutes, I think overall it can be said any team that doesn’t get a decent shot off until the death doesn’t have a good game plan.

That means that how to use DeRo will be the key to Olsen’s lineup. Often this year, DeRo has played forward and scored piles of goals, but that was with a healthy Chris Pontius and a dangerous Andy Najar. With Pontius out and Najar relatively ineffective against the Fire, DeRo did not get nearly enough touches on the ball. But, playing him in midfield means you have to start Davies which Olsen has obviously not wanted to do recently. So, Olsen either changes his mind and starts his malcontent designated player, or risks another dismal offensive performance in a vital game.

Not knowing the dynamic between Olsen and Davies, for example whether or not Olsen is angered by the post game comments or merely brushed them off as frustration from a player he is trying to send a message to; and not knowing how sharp and healthy Davies has actually been in practice, I can only go on what I’ve seen recently, and Davies has been ineffective even when getting decent minutes lately. He did little in the loss to the Crew the last time he went 90 minutes, missed the Philly match with the flu, and did little in 68 minutes in the Chivas draw, etc.

So, for my money, unless Davies is tearing up practice and Olsen isn’t bothered by Davies comments, then he has to line up DeRo as a forward and keep Davies on the bench until halftime so he learns to keep his mouth shut instead of trying to throw his coach under the bus. Tough time for a guy to need to learn a lesson, but it seems as if that’s the way this is likely to play out.

So, that means pretty much the same starting lineup as was out there against the Fire. But, I think there are two changes that I think Olsen is very likely to make. First of all, Austin Da Luz has done nothing to keep his starting job, while Santino earned the PK against the Fire, and while he has been pretty inconsistent, at least he has sparked some things offensively, while Da Luz has been consistently tidy, but rarely ever a threat. Santino has shown serious glimpses of his old aggressive form, and he links with DeRo and Najar very well, so he can truly take some of the pressure off those guys which Da Luz hasn’t seemed able to do.

I also expect Olsen to move Perry Kitchen to midfield and bench Clyde Simms, who has been pretty ineffective himself, but more importantly it will inject some fire and feistiness into a bland midfield as well as relieve Kitchen of marking some big tough players that Portland will throw forward on set pieces. This is a very good game to bring Ethan White out of the doghouse and show you have some faith in him as his size and athleticism especially on set pieces could be huge against a team that has a lot of big bodies the likes of Eric Brunner and Futty Danso.

Granted, both chyanges are risks, but if you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’ll keep getting what you’ve been getting, and lately, that’s losses stacking up like cordwood. So some token changes are in order no matter what. Therefore, I’m expecting Wolff and DeRo at forward, Quaranta, Stephen King, Kitchen, and Najar in midfield from left to right, and Daniel Woolard, Brandon McDonald, White, and Chris Korb to start in front of Bill Hamid.

Portland on the other hand does have some injuries seriously hampering them. Knee injuries to Darlington Nagby and Sal Zizzo has zapped them from the starting lineup, and speed merchant Jorge Pelazza has a banged up back which might slow him down a touch. They also have a defensive midfielder as their leading scorer in Jack Jewsbury, which says something about the year Kenny Cooper is having as the co-leading scorer as each of them have 7. Considering Portland’s fairly solid defense, their light scoring offense (14th in MLS in goals scored) is the biggest reason for their -8 goal differential.

So, using my crystal ball, I expect Sean Connery…err, I mean John Spencer to trot out Cooper and Pelazza at forward, Ex DC winger Rodney Wallace, Diego Chara, Jewsbury, and Khalif Al-Hassan in midfield from left to right, and Mike Chabala, Brunner, Danso, and Lovel Palmer from left to right across the backline in front of former DC net minder, Troy Perkins. My, won’t Perkins and Wallace, who led DC in assists last year tied with Santino, be just itching to extend DC’s misery.

However, looking at the matchups, DC does match up pretty well against them as evidenced by the 3-2 win over them in earlier this year in Portland. Cooper and Pelazza are streaky and manageable for White and McDonald. Cooper likes to play like a 7 foot guard and shoot threes, and if he hits them they win, but if he misses, as 7 goals in 32 games suggests he does more often than not, DC breathes a big sigh of relief. Same with Pelazza, who has 6 goals on the year, lightning fast, but hasn’t scored in almost two months.

On the outsides, Wallace and Al-Hassan (6 assists) are good enough to trouble Korb and Woolard, but not too badly. Korb is becoming quite a steady player and is as feisty as Wallace is athletic. Al-Hassan is quietly putting together a very respectable season for a light scoring team, but then again Woolard is doing the same for a soft defensive team. Portland may have a slight edge, but not much, especially as Jewsbury and Chara are not really all that dynamic in the run of play offensively, and Kitchen’s competitivness will go a long way toward negating their offense.

I expect a goal from them, but not much more unless DC just turtles into a shell and gets peppered until they crack. For one thing, their set pieces by Jewsbury to Brunner and Danso are lethal already, but now they’ve been bringing on the behemoth Bright Dike, who has a standing invitation from Holland to lie on their beaches and hold back the North Sea any time he likes, to make things even more difficult in defending their set pieces late in games.

However, going the other way, DC will score too, hopefully one more than they give up. DeRo and Wolff are fully capable of dancing around Brunner and Danso, especially if Santino and Najar are causing real problems for Palmer and Chabala. Granted, Chara and Jewsbury will completely negate King and Kitchen offensively, but that’s OK as long as DC gets some joy on the outsides.

Heck, DeRo alone can generate goals against Portland as he has already done with the game winning assist in a 2-0 Toronto win and the game tying goal for NY in their 3-3 tie with the Timbers after he was traded to NY. In fact, a goal or an assist and I have to think he’s the first player ever to score a point against one team in one season while playing for three different teams. Now that would be a shocking record, of course then again, if he doesn’t help TFC and NY in those games, DC would be in a better position in this game, but hey, what can you do.

As for trends, DC won the first meeting, so that’s good, but they’ve lost four in a row, including their last home match which is obviously bad. Portland lost last weekend to Houston at home too, but have 7 points out of their last 5 games unlike DC. Portland is a paltry 2-9-4, outscored 21 to 7 on the road, and while they did win their last road match against Vancouver 1-0, they have only 2 goals and 5 points east of the Mississippi River and have been shut out 4 times those 6 games.

DC does have some promising stats on their side however. The Black and Red is of course average at home being 4-4-7, outscoring their opponents 31 to 26. However, DC is 3-1-4 in RFK against the Western Conference, outscoring them 16-10, even with that hideous 4-2 loss to SJ. So, there is reason to hope for a good result.

Honestly, if I was a handicapper, I’d call this one a 1-1 tie barring divine intervention. But since DC just loves to tease their fans with some hope, before crushing it irrevocably, I fully expect DC to find a way to win this one before getting blown out by KC next Saturday.

Of course, if NY gets a point Thursday, it’s all moot anyway. But, if NY was to lose (which I think they will) and DC win tomorrow (which I think is slightly better than even money given the torture factor alone), then for the third time in four years, DC would face a truly must win game in their last match of the season, and have another chance at winning two games in a row for the first time in over two years.

Surely, the time has come for them to beat the odds?