D.C. United should prepare for a battle against Shalrie Joseph and the New England Revolution tomorrow.
Some MLS teams make it a point to play "good" soccer, which means different things to different people. DC United, as an organization, has made it abundantly clear how they feel the game should be played. Most pundits rush to praise clubs like Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas for embracing a skillful, attacking brand of soccer. Even commissioner Don Garber has said that referees should reward positive play. The style of soccer throughout MLS is a big talking point with anyone attached to the league.
The New England Revolution do not come up in these conversations.
This is not a team that will earn admiration from neutral fans or even grudging respect from opponents. There was a time when Shalrie Joseph was New England's destroyer in midfield; now, he's a prime source for creativity and goals. Sure, at least some of that is his evolution as a player, but much of it has to do with the fact that Steve Nicol's recent sides have had to make up for a lack of flair by working hard, avoiding risk, and scrapping for anything they can get. Playing the Revs is less jogo bonito and more barroom brawl.
That's not to say that the Revs are an awful team. There is nothing easy about playing their kind of soccer, which is based on minimizing mistakes, covering more ground than your opponent, taking advantage of what chances come your way (particularly from set pieces) and keeping a compact shape at all times. It might not be pretty, but it will be a challenge for a young United team that, for all its progress, has yet to face this type of challenge in 2011.
While there is some useful information that can be gleaned from New England's season-opening 1-1 draw, it's vital that we avoid reading too much into it. The Revs went to LA in full-on park the bus mode; on their home (artificial) turf, they are likely to attempt to keep more possession and send numbers forward more often. That possession, if they can be consistent in their passing, might be used primarily as a defensive weapon (it's kind of hard to score if you don't have the ball), but even if that's the case it'll be more positive than their approach against LA.
Last week's Columbus Crew lineup was very easy to fill out, as Robert Warzycha's personnel decisions were all rather openly discussed in the press. Steve Nicol is proving harder to read, though that is less down to secrecy and more because of injuries and international call-ups.
The Gambian national team has called in both Sainey Nyassi and Kenny Mansally for an African Cup of Nations qualifier, depriving Nicol of his fastest offensive players. While Mansally is almost always a substitute for the Revs, Nyassi was left out as well in LA. This probably had more to do with New England's ultra-defensive tactics, one element of which was playing the more defensively responsible Zak Boggs - who spent much of the preseason playing right back - at right midfield.
Meanwhile, Serbian attacker Marko Perovic, who led the Revs in goals last season and is their most dangerous free kick taker, left their game against LA in the 22nd minute due to what looked like a strained hamstring. Perovic missing out would be a big plus for DC, as set piece play is New England's most dangerous method of attack. On the other hand, both Kevin Alston and 34 year old MLS newcomer Didier Domi - Nicol's likely preferred outside backs - have been declared fit to play and will likely start.
What follows is the most likely New England starting eleven:
Boggs, Joseph, and Chris Tierney are not particularly attack-minded players, so there will be times where Schilawski seems lost on an island up front. Matt Reis referred to their formation last week as a 433, but in reality both Boggs and Perovic (later Mansally) dropped off way too far to be called forwards. The lack of speed going forward makes me wonder if Nicol might not give some minutes to rooke Ryan Kinne or Nigerian youngster Michael Augustine, but I doubt that either will start.
The question marks in central defense are based on the fact that Darrius Barnes played right back at the Home Depot Center. With Alston's return, Barnes will almost certainly move back into his natural central role. The other starting role will be up for grabs between young Argentine Franco Coria and rookie A.J. Soares. Based on what I saw, I'd give a slight edge to Coria; Soares made a couple of mistakes against the Galaxy, and Coria also has about a season's worth of professional play under his belt that Soares does not.
In watching the Revs last week, I noticed that Coria is a physical player who is well-versed in the dark arts of defending. He got the better of Chad Barrett in a battle that went on throughout Barrett's 63 minutes. What stood out to me was that Coria got away with numerous little shoves and grabs off the ball; he's the kind of guy that will goad opponents into retaliation fouls and bookings. Every defender does that stuff, but Coria seemed to go there more often, bumping or grabbing Barrett just before the ball would be served his way. I wouldn't go so far to call him a dirty player, but my guess is that he'll be unpopular around MLS before too long. That said, the guy is also a pretty sound defender when the referee is looking, so getting through is not going to be easy.
The emphasis for the Revs is staying compact from front to back, but with this midfield, there won't be much support for Schilawski (or possibly Ilija Stolica, if he comes in or wins his job back after starting in 2010). That brings us back to something I've mentioned a few times: Set pieces. The Revs are heavily reliant on set piece play to generate offense, since their current squad lacks the quality to create chances from the run of play on a regular basis.
Perovic's absence is big in this regard, as I said earlier. In his stead, look for Tierney to stand over most dead balls for the Revs. He's not anywhere near as threatening as Perovic in terms of shooting directly on goal, but his service into the box is pretty good.
From there, it's about two Hs: Height and Hunger. If the above lineup is accurate, the Revs will feature six players that are six feet tall or over: Stephen McCarthy (6'4"), Joseph (6'3"), Barnes (6'1"), Pat Phelan (6'1"), Boggs (6'1"), and Coria (6'). Stolica is also 6'1" as a sub, and Schilawski plays bigger than his listed 5'10". The Revs have a significant size advantage over DC, and they will absolutely be looking to put it to good use. There was a real desperation evident in New England's players when they had set piece chances, and Joseph is one of the very best in MLS at finding the ball by whatever means necessary in these situations.
As a result, United will have to be fully dialed-in on every free kick until the ball is completely cleared; the Revs scored in LA after Perovic was given a second chance to fire a cross in following a corner. It would also be for the best if the Black-and-Red avoid giving away fouls in the defensive third. The lack of speed or trickery on the ball in the Revolution squad at the moment will help in this regard, but it's still something United can't take lightly. The worst thing I saw against Columbus was our loose play on dead balls. The effort in that department has to be significantly improved if United is to keep the Revs off the board.
Going forward, there isn't a clear weak spot to prey on as we saw against Columbus (I heard some dude said DC should attack the channel between James and Balchan, which is where Josh Wolff scored the opener from). Last year, New England had MLS's worst defense; this year, they've upgraded in terms of personnel and have started the year with a system that covers up any other cracks fairly well.
As a result, the best thing for United to do will be to keep the ball moving quickly while looking for chances to isolate people on the dribble. The idea would be to get the defense to collapse on the ball, then dish it off quickly for someone else to take advantage of the newly-opened space. United will have a clear advantage in terms of speed in most areas of the field, but the Revs will probably be compact enough to neutralize the threat somewhat.
Another attacking priority will be patience. DC is a young team, and young teams can get frustrated when their opponent doesn't give up much despite being under pressure. The Revs proved to be very resilient against the Galaxy, despite what was likely a 70/30 possession split. United's players have to restrain themselves from getting desperate with the ball, because that will most likely end in poor decisions and easy clearances.
The bottom line is that New England is banking on DC mistakes at both ends; being smart enough to avoid them is probably the single biggest thing United can do to position themselves to take three points. This game will be all about attention to detail and focus. If DC can avoid calamitous defensive mistakes and stick to their marks on set pieces, the odds of a shut out are very favorable. In the attack, the biggest thing will be to value possession and be willing to reset the attack if there's nothing on rather than cheaply give the ball away. It's probably not going to be a classic, but a smart performance from United should be enough to bring home at least one point from their first road trip of 2011.