United vs Columbus Preview: Can United stop the rot? [Update – Pontius injured; not available]

D.C. United is currently on a four-game losing streak and in spite of the offense finally coming to life in last weekend’s 3-2 loss at home to the Philadelphia Union, the confidence that rode underdog United to the Eastern Conference finals last season has all but eroded.

For most of United’s dreadful start to the 2013 MLS campaign, it’s been a lack of offense that has crippled the Black-and-Red in their seven matches played (1 win, 5 losses, 1 draw). In the forementioned match last weekend the defense was the culprit as United fell behind 2-0 after just 11 minutes had elapsed. Unexpectedly however United did come straight back with their most impressive buildup to a goal this season through Perry Kitchen to give United brief hope of a comeback.

That all but ended when Jack McInerney scored his second goal of the match a few minutes later, again on poor defensive marking from United. Although Lionard Pajoy’s goal two minutes after the break gave United another chance at life, yet they rarely threatened the Union goal again and fell for the third straight game at home and fourth game overall.

This losing streak started at the hands of this weekend’s opponents the Columbus Crew when they waltzed  into RFK  on March 23rd and bossed United around and came out with a well deserved 2-1 win.  What earmarked that match was the relative low soccer IQ of United on the day as they gave up countless free kicks to a team that thrives on such situations and scored both of their goals on free kicks. If not for the goaltending heroics of Bill Hamid on that afternoon, Columbus may have netted 5 or 6 goals.

For the most part this season United has been sound defensively but that first Columbus match saw the cracks in United’s foundation that eventually crumbled last weekend against Philadelphia. One has to hope that United will play a much smarter match this time around and do their best not to concede silly free kick situations in their defensive half of the field.

Josh Williams scored against United in that first matchup and Chad Marshall has always been a stellar set piece threat. Even with their top player Federico Higuain struggling, the Crew are essentially where everyone expects them to be, right in the middle of the Eastern Conference fight with a record of 2-2-3.

On the opposite side of the ledger are struggling United. This team simply can not put together a solid 90 minutes of soccer. When the offense struggles, as is has for most of the season, the defense is usually there to bail them out and keep them in games. However, the one time United did break out offensively (and saying a team broke out with 2 goals is disengenuous at best) the defense completely fell apart.

Ben Olsen had some harsh words for his team midweek by saying that their current problems are on them, not the coaching staff that claimed they were prepared for the matches. Olsen is absolutely right. It’s always about the players and while most of us can quibble about the players he chooses to run out week after week (i,e. Lionard Pajoy) the fact of the matter is that the key players for this team have been mediocre at best. That means you Chris Pontius and Dwayne De Rosario. You are the team leaders and you need to guide this team out of it’s funk. There is no help on the bench though most people wouldn’t mind seeing anyone else besides Pajoy get a run out. This isn’t to say that coaching doesn’t play a role in matches. It does, but not to the degree that most people think it does.

Having said that, it’s quite baffling why Olsen has stuck with Pajoy this long. The goal he scored last weekend pretty much secured his spot in the lineup and that has to gall most if not all of United’s loyal fan base. Not many people including media and the fan base can put a finger on why Olsen has such a soft spot for Pajoy. Olsen tells us it’s mostly the intangibles that keep Pajoy on the field. A conversation during the nationally televised match on ESPN2 against Philadelphia between play-by-play man Adrian Healey and color commentator Taylor Twellman pretty much summed up the feeling about the Olsen-Pajoy dynamic.

“Olsen says that he likes forwards that work hard”, said Healey. ” I like my forwards to score goals”, Twellman shot back without hesitation. That is it in a nutshell.

Getting back to the matchup this weekend, United are in a very difficult position. Knowing that they’ve already dropped a match against Columbus and knowing how Columbus generates most of their offense, it seems logical that Olsen most likely will slip back into his preferred 4-5-1 formation to help defend and counter. Yes, it flies against what most of us want to see this team do, but if you look really closely at how this team has played this season, the 4-5-1 gives them the best chance at a result.

United went with the 4-5-1 and went 1-1-1 in their first three matches. After that Olsen decided that he needed more offense on the field and United has gone 0-4-0 with his two forward formation since that time. Look, I’m a two forward guy. I don’t believe for one minute that this group of players can be successful over the long haul of a season with a lone forward, particularly if that guy is going to be Pajoy.

In the absence of anyone else stepping up and taking over that spot, which includes De Rosario, Carlos Ruiz and the young DP Rafael,  this means that we can expect to see Pajoy manning that spot until which time someone can start pounding in goals.

In midfield Olsen started Marcelo Saragosa in the place of Raphael Augusto last weekend and quickly made the switch back to Augusto at halftime. While that didn’t make too much of a difference, I’d like to see Augusto continue to gain experience in these tough matches. United may also have the services of Marco Sanchez who missed last weekend with an ankle sprain. Sanchez however has been underwhelming at best and his slight frame was pushed around too easily in the last matchup between the sides so I think we’ll see a substitutes role for him. Kitchen will marshall the middle of the field as usual and will have Pontius on one side and Kyle Porter most likely on the other.

As for the defense, it was woeful last weekend but Brandon McDonald and Dejan Jakovic aren’t going anwhere anytime soon in the middle. Chris Korb will continue at right back as will Daniel Woolard at left back in spite of one the worst defense performances he’s ever had in a United shirt last weekend. Hamid of course will man the nets.

For the Crew they are coming off their worst performance of the season as they dropped a 1-0 decision in Chicago in which they didn’t even force a single save from goalkeeper Sean Johnson. The loss snapped a four-game unbeaten streak that started in D.C.

Their lineup hasn’t changed much since their visit to DC in late March so we expect the usual suspects for them this time around as well. The only possible change could be to sit rookie Ben Speas and switch forward Dominic Oduro over to his spot to allow Costa Rican striker Jairo Arrieta into the lineup. However, Speas did score against United in the first matchup and he’s obviously a much better defender than Oduro could ever hope to be. With United most likely taking a defense first policy, my guess is that Arrieta is out of luck for a start for Columbus’ at the beginning of the Crew’s three-game homestand.

Now, on to the prediction. This one is going to be pretty simple. I’ve seen no evidence to date that United is capable of outplaying anyone much less Columbus on their home field. United will have to outplay Columbus to get a result and Crew Stadium hasn’t seen a win from United since 2007 and the Black-and-Red have yet to even score a goal on the road in three matches so far this season. Sounds good doesn’t it?

Not likely. With United’s fragile state of mind, it will take an effort unforseen in quite some time for United to pull off a win. I predict the losing streak will reach five games and United will continue their scoreless streak on the road with a 2-o loss to the Crew.


[UPDATE – Chris Pontius injured and did not make the trip to Columbus – United’s next match after Columbus is not until May 8th – reports has the injury at a few weeks at least]

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