D.C. United must keep the ball moving to prevent Osvaldo Alonso from dominating proceedings tonight at RFK Stadium.
DC United will host the Seattle Sounders tonight, kicking off a three-game home stand. After losing three straight and conceding eleven goals in less than two weeks, the emphasis from Ben Olsen to his squad was that these home games require results. It's not just about stopping team morale from going into a tailspin; with the Philadelphia Union, Houston Dynamo, and Columbus Crew all having more success than most people expected, United needs to prevent the gap in the standings from growing. It might only be May, but the pressure is already on for DC.
The bad news is that this vital string of home games starts with the most difficult fixture of the three. Seattle comes to town unbeaten in their last six games, with their only losses coming at the hands of the LA Galaxy and the New York Red Bulls (#1 and #2 in the MLS standings). Many wondered how they would rebound after losing standout winger Steve Zakuani for the season and striker O'Brian White (out indefinitely due to a blood clot in his calf) in the same week; the Sounders responded by pummeling Toronto FC 3-0, as is more or less the standard result MLS clubs get against TFC these days.
Despite that quality result, the fact is that Seattle visits RFK having played this past Saturday at home, having to adjust to a new, narrower formation. Playing Toronto at home was the perfect match for Seattle to have given what could have been their fragile mental state after the Zakuani injury, but it's also hardly a good measure of a team's real ability. Hell, we beat TFC 3-0 on the road, and look at us since then. My point is that, though Seattle is feeling confident, there are reasons to remain hopeful on our side.
Losing Zakuani has forced Sigi Schmid to change the way Seattle plays, as he simply has no similar player on his roster. Seattle not only lost their fastest player; they lost the man who gave them real width going forward. That width stretched defenses out, giving someone like Fredy Montero that extra bit of space. Without him, Schmid opted for a narrow 4132 against TFC. While that formation will remain in place, the pieces may change in certain positions:
In the back, Tyson Wahl has taken over from Leonardo Gonzalez, who had been first-choice at left back for most of Seattle's MLS existence. While Wahl fits this narrow formation better than Gonzalez (he has a bit more speed and shows more of a desire to provide some width by overlapping), he had actually also gotten the start in at Colorado, with Zakuani starting. Wahl is hardly an all star, but he's by no means a pushover either.
Centrally, there is some confusion. Pat Ianni and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado have gotten the call in the last two matches, but Schmid doesn't often like to use Hurtado on short rest, due at least in part to a chronic knee issue. On the other hand, if Jeff Parke is in fact brought in for Hurtado, the Sounders would have a significant speed deficit going up against Charlie Davies and Josh Wolff. With Andy Najar believed likely to start as well, and Chris Pontius in good form, Schmid may end up fielding Hurtado and resting him for this weekend's game in Columbus.
That extra game, which will make it three in a week for Seattle, will also be a factor as Schmid selects his midfield. Osvaldo Alonso is a lock at defensive midfield, but everything else is less predictable. Mauro Rosales was held out against TFC, but Schmid now calls him a gametime decision. Rosales can play any of the three midfield positions ahead of Alonso, but Schmid may also opt to keep him on the bench with a view towards breaking down the more stingy Crew back four.
If Schmid chooses the same midfield that he used against Toronto, the speed will come from Brad Evans playing to the right. Evans may lack the skill on the ball that Zakuani had, but he does pose a tricky challenge for United. Pairing decent pace with a knack for making late runs that avoid detection, Evans is fresh off scoring twice and assisting on Seattle's other goal against TFC. Interestingly, when United played Toronto, Chris Pontius did a lot of good things defensively by pinching inside; tonight, he might be called upon to do the same thing, as he has the athleticism to keep up with Evans. This is very important, because Evans ran Toronto ragged and could have posted even better numbers on a night where he was involved with every goal scored.
The biggest challenges Seattle will pose are that they move well off the ball, and that their five attacking players are all comfortable with swapping positions. Montero will drop off the front line, Nate Jaqua (who has a history of being a DC killer from his days in Chicago and Houston) has experience playing as a wide midfielder, Evans is more often a central midfielder, Erik Friberg has logged more minutes on the right in MLS to this point, and Alvaro Fernandez has played both on the right and centrally for Schmid. Rosales could play anywhere as well.
Unfortunately, teams that are good off the ball are kryptonite for teams struggling with communication. Seattle will lack the speed to trouble whatever back four Ben Olsen chooses, but Houston is hardly a track team (in fact, that may have been the slowest attack we'll see all season) and we all know how that ended. New York was even sharper off the ball, and put up a 4-0 scoreline on us despite United even earning praise from Hans Backe. Speed won't really matter if our defenders struggle to communicate come 7:30pm tonight. It's our biggest weakness, and if we're going to take anything from this game, it has to be a lot better right away.
In the attack, I actually like our chances to create some danger with Najar and Pontius probably getting starts on the wings. The 2010 version of Pontius, hobbled by a severe hamstring problem, still managed to embarrass James Riley at Qwest Field last year, while the Najar seen in our two USOC qualifiers should be able to get the better of Wahl. If Hurtado is also left out, I would have to believe that Davies and Wolff will be able to escape their markers.
However, this will only result in sporadic attacks if our possession game continues to be plodding and predictable. Those four must make incisive runs, and both Dax McCarty and Clyde Simms have to keep the ball moving more quickly. An attack that thinks slow is slow, no matter how fast the individual players are; teams haven't had to neutralize our speed lately, because we've been doing it for them. This is a great opportunity to change that. Not only is the Seattle back four potentially vulnerable in that way, but with a narrow midfield and a ball hawk like Alonso out there, United simply has no choice but to think fast and get the ball off their feet.
In spite of Seattle coming in on a short rest, this will be a very difficult game. Seattle's attack is precisely set up to exploit what we've been doing wrong lately, and Alonso will dominate the game if we offer up another sloppy showing in central midfield. However, there are positive signs. There is little reason to doubt that, whatever our flaws, this will be a vastly more energetic showing than the Houston disaster; that by itself should cause Seattle some trouble given the difficultly of flying across the country to play with just three days' rest. We also have the tools offensively to cause Seattle some real problems if we can move the ball quickly enough.
The bottom line: The good DC - the only club to put up more than one goal against Columbus, and a team capable of winning 3-0 on the road - should be able to get at least a draw tonight. The bad DC, on the other hand, will get routed.