When the MLS fixture list was released, if you'd have asked me to circle the single toughest game for DC United, "Away vs. Real Salt Lake" would have been my choice. Jason Kreis and co. entered the season as a healthy favorite for the Supporters Shield, and fans across the league got caught up in their run at the CONCACAF Champions League title. They entered 2011 with the league's top goalkeeper in Nick Rimando, the top two defenders from 2010 in Nat Borchers and Jamison Olave, and Newcomer of the Year Alvaro Saborio running up top now fully adjusted to MLS play. Well-coached, deep, and full of players that would be stars elsewhere, it could be safely said that RSL was loaded.
Things have changed since then, but only a little bit. On one hand, RSL suffered two extraordinary blows within a 12-day span: Their loss in the CCL final, a tournament in which they had really gone all-in mentally, was followed by a season-ending broken ankle for attacking midfielder and talisman Javier Morales. Soon thereafter, RSL's epic home winning streak was broken, and they generally appeared to be a team mostly reliant on a tight defense. On the other hand, any team that can experience that kind of adversity and still end up amongst the frontrunners (on a points-per-game basis, RSL is only behind the LA Galaxy) must still be a pretty tough opponent.
So while playing at the Rio Tinto Stadium is not quite as menacing as it was coming into the season - a development that is mostly down to United's "this is what we're capable of" west coast road trip a couple of weeks ago - it's still no joke. If DC United has been a Jekyll-and-Hyde team in 2011, it will take an appearance by Dr. Jekyll at his very best for Ben Olsen's young guns to escape the Wasatch front with a result.
We start, as always, with the likely formation DC will be up against:
There are lots of question marks there, but it's more straightforward than it would appear. In the back, the outside backs will be two from Tony Beltran, Chris Wingert, and Robbie Russell. Wingert has pretty much owned left back all season, but has experience on both sides. Right back has really been where the battle for time has taken place, with the speedier Beltran having the recent edge over the stronger and more experienced Russell. Kreis has shown a tendency to pick his starter here based on the opponent; will he be more worried about dealing with Chris Pontius from a speed perspective, or will it be more about size and off-the-ball movement?
Personally, I'd play Russell if I were Kreis, but then I'd choose Russell over Beltran every time anyway. That means that, should Beltran continue as the starter, United may be catching a small break. It's not that Beltran is bad - you don't get minutes at RSL if you suck - it's just that I don't think he has the same level of soccer IQ. It's not much of a weak spot, but it may be our best avenue of attack, which means Party Boy will have to be a lot sharper than his uncharacteristically clumsy showing against San Jose last week.
The midfield is probably another situation where Kreis will leave one odd man out. Andy Williams started at attacking midfield last week, but Kreis might leave the door open for Collen Warner there. If that's the case, Williams could play right midfield, with Ned Grabavoy going to the left. If Williams is playing centrally, Grabavoy will be on the right and left midfield could go to teenager Luis Gil or young Argentine winger Nelson Gonzalez. Will Johnson should be back in time for this one, but after playing all but 40 minutes of Canada's three Gold Cup matches, he may be kept in reserve with an eye towards the long haul that is the MLS season.
Up front, you'll notice that I'm listing Fabian Espindola in an oddly wide position for a forward. That's because Espindola loves to slide way out towards the touchline in order to a) isolate outside backs, who in MLS tend to be weaker than their central counterparts and b) stretch the field to open up space for his teammates. When Morales was healthy, this positional choice from his countryman was absolutely crucial, but neither Williams nor Warner have the same aptitude for manipulating the space an opponent gives you. Still, Espindola - who has the freedom to pop up wide on the right from time to time as well - isn't just a one-trick pony. He's combative and irritating to opposing defenders, and he will run all day long. If Jed Zayner is going to return at right back from his long layoff due to a hamstring strain, he's jumping into the deep end here.
Partnering Espindola is Jean Alexandre, who was previously known as RSL's back up defensive midfielder. While Alexandre will never be mistaken for Saborio, he makes up for some predictable runs and a heavy touch with a high work rate and a powerful physique. Given how Steven Lenhart easily won the physical battle against Ethan White and Perry Kitchen last week, it will be key for them to rebound and show that it was simply a bad game and not indicative of a flaw in their partnership.
RSL loves to keep the ball as much as possible. No one in MLS is more dedicated to a possession-based style of play than them. That narrow midfield plays a big part, but the biggest factor is that RSL moves so well off the ball. Their outside backs know when to come forward, their forwards know when (and where) to check back, and in general the whole team avoids being predictable. When your movement is good, the simple pass is often a deadly pass as well. Coping with this will require an outstanding team defensive effort from United (think smothering FC Dallas at home, or rendering LA impotent at the Home Depot Center).
Beyond that, the biggest factor in terms of disrupting RSL's possession game will be to get after Kyle Beckerman in the RSL engine room. Beckerman dictates the pace of the game for RSL, and he's become so good at it that you'd be hard pressed to choose between him and Shalrie Joseph, who has long been the league's gold standard in that sort of role. If the DC midfield (and forwards, for that matter) can effectively surround Beckerman and force him into more backpasses than usual, RSL will end up with possession that doesn't mean much rather than possession in our end.
Going forward, I again want to emphasize attacking through Pontius, especially if Beltran is in. He's the weak link back there, and also the weakest channel to attack is the one between him and Olave. The department Olave needs to improve in is his ability to diagnose plays before they happen; what got him the Defender of the Year award last year was a tendency towards the spectacular defensive play based on superior athleticism and speed, not simply outwitting attackers.
We're splitting hairs here - RSL has given up just 7 goals in 12 games - but it's on that half of the field that we're more likely to make things happen. Borchers (who in my opinion was the real best defender in 2010, and that form has continued this season) and Wingert are as savvy as they come, and while Andy Najar may be able to blow past Wingert with his pace, it's going to take something special for Najar to have an option once he enters that space. RSL tends to force you to beat them with an outstanding play, which is precisely why you see them ending up with so many shutouts.
In possession, the absence of Johnson will give the DC midfield something of a break. Dax McCarty will still have to lead a group that moves the ball quickly and efficiently, but Johnson's disruptive qualities would have made that a bigger challenge than it will be against either Gil or Gonzalez (neither of whom is a particularly dedicated or intelligent defender). That said, the narrow diamond RSL plays means there will be little time centrally, so it will be vital for McCarty and Clyde Simms to get the ball off their feet quickly, which in turn means our wide men and forwards need to give them options.
United is capable of going to Rio Tinto and getting a positive result. We're also capable of going there and getting blown out, a la our 4-1 losses at Houston and Colorado. RSL is not at their best, but there are some good MLS teams that would probably lose to RSL's allegedly "below par" form. While this may be the best time to fit this game in, it's still an extremely tough challenge. As happy as we all were with DC's win at Portland and draw at LA, it will take even more from this young team to avoid defeat in Utah. A huge improvement defensively is required, since allowing even one goal to RSL these days is usually enough to end up with a loss.