D.C. United is a team on the rise, and as we've discussed, the expectations placed on the team have gone up accordingly. On Saturday, United will host a San Jose Earthquakes side that is also coming along nicely after a poor start. This game should provide a new kind of litmus test: Is this young team ready to answer the call when the expectations are high, or are we not yet ready to reliably win games that we probably should?
Despite the injuries and the shuffling in the back, in central midfield, and up front, D.C. has been performing consistently well of late, and against good teams to boot. However, for this run to amount to something more than a late spring diversion, D.C. needs to be able to beat teams that are roughly equal to us when they come to RFK. San Jose isn't just "roughly equal" to us; they have the exact same record. This isn't a must-win in terms of the standings, but it offers up a great measuring stick for where these two teams are at the moment.
Much has been made of the fact that both United and San Jose are currently on five-game unbeaten streaks. It should be said, however, that D.C. has had the decidedly harder schedule. The Quakes have wins at home over the Houston Dynamo, the New England Revolution, and the Columbus Crew, along with road draws against the Chicago Fire and the Vancouver Whitecaps. On current form, the only team in that group that isn't struggling badly is Columbus. Contrast that against our run, which has come against five teams that would make the playoffs if they started today. You can't blame the Quakes for taking points against bad teams, but other than trouncing the Crew, this run might flatter them a bit.
For the ins and the outs of the Quakes, read on:First things first: Here's the likely San Jose starting eleven:
In the absence of Wondolowski, there had been talk of the Quakes sticking with a no-frills 442 and playing rookie Ellis McLoughlin in the withdrawn role behind Steven Lenhart. Instead, Frank Yallop has opted for a 4411, which emphasizes his team's depth in midfield.
I'm listing Brandon McDonald as a starter here despite the fact that he was left on the bench in last week's 2-0 win over the Dynamo. Yallop had indicated before that game that he'd prefer to start a more physically imposing player alongside Jason Hernandez, and with Ike Opara once again sidelined due to a foot injury, Bobby Burling got the call. The idea was to counter Houston's emphasis on aerial play and physical strength; it seems safe to say that United will offer up different problems, which in turn should see McDonald revert to a starting role.
Right back is more of a crapshoot. Steven Beitashour and Chris Leitch have been trading the job back and forth (over the last six games, the pattern is Leitch-Beitashour-Leitch-Leitch-Beitashour-Beitashour). Given that Beitashour started the past two games, I'm listing him ahead of Leitch. In any case, both are fairly run-of-the-mill by MLS standards; Leitch has more experience, Beitashour is a bit faster and is more dynamic. Chris Pontius should be able to get the better of either player, if we're being honest.
You may be wondering why Bobby Convey and Ramiro Corrales are listed in what would appear to be incorrect positions. Yallop has, somewhat bizarrely, been lining Convey up at left back - causing emo Convey even more reason to be unhappy with his lot in life; who wouldn't hate being a professional soccer player, right? - and playing Corrales as a nominal left midfielder. The idea is that Corrales will pinch inside to help clog up the midfield while Convey overlaps to fire in crosses from different positions than teams are used to seeing. The downside, of course, is that a right midfielder with quality and speed should be able to evade Corrales and emphasize Convey's suspect defending. As a result, Andy Najar's play could be the make-or-break factor in this game.
Elsewhere, Anthony Ampaipitakwong has had a decent run at right midfield; like Corrales he will pinch inside, though in this case it's less defensive and more about Ampai being a natural playmaker. The Akron product has given the Quakes a different element and has also been pretty solid taking free kicks. However, the goal-scoring return of Simon Dawkins from calf surgery may see Ampaipitakwong sacrificed. In that case, Khari Stephenson would shift to the right (he'd also play it narrow) and Dawkins would come in as the attacking midfielder. I'm not expecting that - Dawkins was out for awhile, so he's probably not fit enough to start yet - but it's a look we'll probably see as the game goes on.
San Jose would like to be a team that keeps the ball on the ground (hence the narrow five-man midfield). However, the Quakes recently have found themselves abandoning that approach for one involving an emphasis on Lenhart's ability to win headers. Basically, what goes wrong for them is that they don't have any game-breaking skill anywhere on the field right now. With Wondolowski with the United States and Dawkins injured, it's a team full of complimentary players and lacking the special elements that allow possession teams to win. For most of the game against Houston, San Jose controlled possession with ease but created precious little. It was reminiscent of our own early-season displays, where a lack of cutting edge nullified the advantage of having the ball so much.
Attacking San Jose should play into our strengths. As I said before, I am expecting strong games from Pontius and Andy Najar. Both fullbacks are vulnerable, and I don't think the wide midfielders will be able to help much either. As long as our central midfield and defense can push the ball wide early and often, there should be plenty of chances. Hernandez has the speed to help nullify Charlie Davies and Josh Wolff, but I don't think McDonald will be as comfortable against our pair of quick, mobile forwards. The key to all of this will be attacking quickly and with numbers; if we're isolating a winger down one flank, then we need both forwards and a midfielder bursting into the box to fully take advantage.
United will also do well to get off to a strong start. Eight of San Jose's last nine goals have come after halftime. The Quakes have been content to defend well and keep the score at 0-0 though the first half. That's partially a result of their more recent commitment to getting back to basics, and partially down to simply not having that many ideas going forward. It will probably be vital for D.C. to get after San Jose and jump out in front, because the Quakes have developed a knack for scoring in the last half-hour.
In central midfield, D.C. will need to be up for a challenge. Sam Cronin and Brad Ring are hardly MLS stars, but both are tidy on the ball and put themselves in good defensive positions as well. Ring has only just burst onto the scene, but brings a "little things" approach to the game that has helped the Quakes solidify their midfield after looking pretty soft in April. He tackles well, he doesn't turn the ball over much, and he's got a scrappy mindset that San Jose lacked during the early part of the season. San Jose's central midfield may not be big names, but along with Hernandez and McDonald they provide a tough-to-beat spine to Yallop's side.
Defensively, United will need to be fully prepared for the 90 minute battle that always comes when Lenhart lines up against you. Part of that is just simple stuff, like getting up for high balls and being strong enough to stand up to the physical play from the former Crew striker. The other side of playing Lenhart is keeping your composure. Lenhart has a knack for provoking angry reactions out of defenders, and that will play into San Jose's hands. Giving away free kicks for United is always a bad idea, so Perry Kitchen and (especially) Ethan White will have to play this one very intelligently.
San Jose will also look to play the long switch, somewhat similarly to how United would play last year with Santino Quaranta looking for Najar. The Quakes will play it mostly in the opposite direction, with Ampaipitakwong looking for Convey on the overlap. Defending that will require shifting as a unit, and will also require some attentive play from Daniel Woolard (closing down Ampai early) and Najar in tracking Convey's runs.
Once Dawkins comes on, the Quakes will probably become a different, more dangerous outfit. Dawkins loves to run at people 1v1, and unlike most MLS players he does this going straight down the middle. Clyde Simms will need to stay on his feet and force Dawkins to pass the ball off to others; should we be holding a lead, it might even be a good idea to bring in someone like Stephen King (allowing Simms to play deeper) to clog the middle up. Reducing the impact of Dawkins will be paramount if we want to keep a clean sheet.
To sum up, there are reasons to feel confident about this game. The Quakes are without their best player, and our most creative players happen to be matched up against their questionable outside backs. If D.C. can get off to a good start, we should be able to take advantage of a San Jose team that hasn't been flying out of the gates this season. It won't be easy by any means, but in MLS, playoff teams win this kind of game.