Heading into the most difficult and important stretch of games of the season, United certainly stumbled out of the gate last week with a disturbing loss in Toronto, and things just get tougher from here on out in international play as United faces the Honduran champions, Marathon who swept DC on their way to winning the group last year.
Well, it’s not Real Madrid on the other side of the field, but it might well be a team just as fearsome as Marathon rolled over United last season like jeep over a jellyfish. DC lost down there in Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano 2-0, and dropped the return match in RFK 4-2, neither match was even close.
The scores could have been much worse too. Marathon was easily the fastest and most dynamic team in the group as well as being by far the classiest to boot. Saprissa and Cruz Azul both pulled every cheap trick in the book to get their points, but Los Emeraldas simply outplayed everyone they faced up to and including the Puerto Rico Islanders, who bunkered and busted them out in the quarterfinals despite Marathon being clearly the better team.
Marathon appears to be picking up right were they left off too as they are the early leaders in the Honduran league at 4-1-1, although they did pick up their first loss just this past weekend against Real Espana. But, they’ve only given up five goals in six games, three of them to Real Espana’s Carlos Pavon (formerly of the Galax), and are cruising along averaging almost two goals a game scored.
Lots of familiar faces to DC United are still in their squad too. Although it appears someone has finally stuck a stake in Tyson Nunez as he has finally retired and his partner in crime Saul Martinez is also not on any roster I could find either. Which is good news as those two ripped DC for 3 goals and 3 assists last season. However, there’s still a lot of good attacking talent floating around their roster as DC United can attest having tried to sign attackers like Carlos Wil Mejia and Walter Martinez in the last two years.
Their midfield appears to be pretty much intact as well and in particular the central midfield of Mario Beata and Mariano Acevedo are very adept at launching counter-attacks, and right wing Marvin Chavez is a decidedly tricky player that DC needs to contain. Chavez has been linked to FC Dallas recently, but sadly nothing signed yet, so no doubt he will be out there to punish United if they are not careful.
Defensively, Marathon still have two or three Honduran National team defenders in Erick Norales, Mario Berrios, and Mauricio Sabillon, so no breaks there either. Bottom line, Marathon is good and they have reason to feel pretty confident about DC United coming to visit again, especially as they weathered the group stages at home last year without even giving up a goal, including shutting out Cruz Azul convincingly.
United on the other hand is a lot different team than the injured and anemic wreck the Green Monster faced last year. The roster is a lot more balanced and almost everyone is healthy. Namoff and Pontius are out with slight injuries and Fred is suspended, but the current state of United is a lot deeper than last year and Soehn has plenty of players to overcome those absences.
Unfortunately, what United does not have is very good road form, and the loss in Toronto certainly didn’t do anything to make anyone think United is able to find success outside of RFK. Even worse is that Jakovic and Emilio both played about as bad as they ever have in that futile match. Now Jakovic has been a revelation and rock solid most of the year and he simply cannot play that bad again especially with Namoff out and facing a Marathon side that attacks in waves. Emilio, too must be a legitimate threat to score or United could easily struggle to mount credible attacks against a very good defensive team that makes Toronto look like a seive.
So, considering all the options, I’m thinking Soehn has to go with as many veterans as possible. No way is this a good time to toss some fresh meat to the wolves like the newly signed defenders Habarugira or James or Ely Allen, or even the likes of Szetela, DiRaimondo or Jacobson, none of whom have all that much international experience, and there’s no way Firpo can be compared to the Green Monster of Honduras. You can always sub in some youth once you’ve established yourself, but bringing in experience off the bench having punted the first half is not too promising.
So, veterans like Emilio, Moreno, and Gomez especially are the best bet to establish some type of offensive scheme as they have the longest tenure together and have shown flashes of their 2007 form when they’ve taken the field together which really hasn’t happened often enough in my opinion. Youth and speed is nice, but guile and savvy might be a lot more valuable against a team that is already younger and faster than you are anyway.
Then Olsen must start in central midfield too, for his leadership and organization. No chance he physically runs down anyone on their roster, but not many younger United players are as fast as the Hondurans either. So, keeping organized and playing smart will be crucial. Simms, too is another calming and confident influence with first hand experience in Honduras that could be the difference between a hard fought close match, and a rout that United must avoid at all costs.
Quaranta playing the right side will be a crucial role as well, since Wallace playing the left will be lucky to just contain Chavez, much less get into the attack. So, it’s up to Santino to avenge his silly red card against Marathon last year after barely 45 minutes in the very last match of the group. He needs a good game both sides of the ball for DC to really have a chance.
Defensively, I think Soehn should use McTavish (or even James) to cover for Namoff leaving Jakovic in the center and Janicki on the bench. But seeing as how he’s used Jakovic on the right and started Janicki in the center against the likes of Real Madrid, I think it’s probably a forgone conclusion he goes with that again. But, which Janicki will show up? The one who blanked Real Madrid for much of the match, or the one who fumbled away a goal to Firpo? He won’t have good memories of playing Marathon last year either. But, Burch played pretty well against them, or Soehn can send out John to hack them to pieces. Either way.
Wicks too, must reassert himself. I never really discuss goalkeeping that much as that position is rarely the reason for wins and losses, but Wicks has gotten a bit of the yips lately and is a bit of a concern again. He’s been pretty shaky of late despite some highlight reel saves. Those are nice, but the blunders have cost points and for sure Marathon will punish mistakes.
So there you have it. DC could pull it off if they play their A game. I especially like DC’s five in midfield against Marathon’s four, that should slow them down right nicely and help prevent some man on man disadvantages for DC. But, whatever happens they must somehow manage to tighten up their hideous road defense. In particular, they must avoid their patented 15 minute meltdowns that let in multiple goals in a short span. Because United absolutely must keep this match close. Losing a close one would not be the end of the world, but a multigoal loss could be fatal.
DC-Marathon is likely to be the swing matchup of the group. Jabloteh is easily the worst team in the group and just happy to have made it his far. They will be the whipping boy of the group, so DC and Marathon will be slugging it out for right to advance along with group favorite Toluca.
Plus, the way the games play out, DC could be playing from way down the table as they have two of their toughest games first, hosting Toluca next week after this match in Honduras. While both Toluca and Marathon face Jabloteh in one of their first two matches. So, obviously winning or tying would be best, but avoiding a multigoal loss is imperative.
DC United got this far by being the first MLS team to actually win a qualifying round, and it took a supreme effort down in El Salvador. Now, they need a performance just as good, well certainly a result just as good anyway, if they are to give themselves a chance to advance into the quarter-finals.
For certain, they should expect to improve on last year’s debacle in CCL, but going from last to third in your group hardly makes that effort in El Salvador to even get this far seem worth it. Now, sticking it to a Marathon side that toyed with you last year and becoming only the second MLS team to make the knockout rounds along the way would be the right way to go about expunging some painful memories.