This was supposed to be the easy part of the schedule: A four-game string featuring three home games against some of MLS's worst teams (New England, Toronto, and tonight's opponent, the Vancouver Whitecaps) and a road trip to face a rudderless San Jose side. While the road trip went according to plan, DC United has maddeningly been unable to take the full three points from what should have been the easiest fixtures of the season. A loss to the Revs was followed by 90 minutes in the Twilight Zone against Toronto FC. The disappointing nature of those results is underlined by the fact that with wins in those games, United would be in 3rd place in the East (meaning in the playoffs).
The Whitecaps are in last place in MLS, but they are hardly MLS's worst team at the moment. Their 4-2 home win over the Chicago Fire underlined their attacking capabilities and showed that former United boss Tom Soehn has not lost the locker room in Vancouver. The Whitecaps have every reason to be a broken team - they've had plenty of injuries, and have already endured a coaching change - but against the Fire they still looked like a team that has some belief in themselves.
On the other hand, Vancouver's success against Chicago was largely down to a Fire team that self-destructed over and over again. Disastrous individual mistakes by Yamith Cuesta and Sean Johnson gifted the Whitecaps their first-half goals, and Vancouver's fourth summed up the game: Following a Camilo freekick that Johnson saved, Chicago's entire team stood still as no fewer than four Whitecaps raced each other to punch in the rebound. You can't fault Vancouver for beating a weak opponent, but there's a big difference between us and the Fire at this juncture.
As was often the case in DC, Soehn does not come to town with a predictable starting line-up:
The biggest news is in the back, where the word in Vancouver is that Jay DeMerit is fit to play. This being a Soehn-coached team, however, DeMerit will probably simply replaced fellow first-choice defender Alain Rochat, who stayed home with an adductor strain. That link also refers to right back Jonathan Leathers as Vancouver's unsung hero, which is another way of saying "This is not a good team." There is also an issue in goal, as Jay Nolly made his first appearance in weeks, moving Joe Cannon to the bench.
The midfield is all question marks. If Mustapha Jarju is deemed fit to play after captaining The Gambia to a 3-0 friendly win over the Democratic Republic of Congo, he will likely come in as the second forward alongside Eric Hassli. Camilo, in turn, would shift to left midfield. Soehn would then have to pick two central midfielders from John Thorrington, Gershon Koffie, and Pete Vagenas, and also select a right midfielder between Thorrington, Shea Salinas, or Davide Chiumiento. Soehn did try Chiumiento at the point of a diamond back on July 30th, but the result was a 4-0 beatdown from the visiting Los Angeles Galaxy; that scoreline will probably keep Soehn from trying that suicidally naive midfield again.
What the Whitecaps do well is attack. Despite the high probability that they'll play two defensive midfielders and an utterly one-dimensional winger in Salinas, this is a team that can create plenty of chances. Hassli is the main reason for that, in part because he poses a unique challenge to opponents. Instead of using his size mainly to fight for headers, Hassli instead prefers to stay on the ground and use his bulk to barge past opponents before shooting. It doesn't hurt that Hassli has one of MLS's hardest shots, or that he prefers to hit his right-footed shots from the right-center channel (most right-footed players prefer to shoot from the left-center, a la Chris Pontius).
Hassli will be joined by the shifty and elusive Camilo, who has turned out to be a lot better than his resume (tore up the Maltese league, then disappointed in Korea) would have lead one to believe. Whether on the left wing or playing as a withdrawn striker, Camilo will work hard on both sides of the ball and loves to run at defenders when he can isolate them. In particular, he likes to get deep on the left wing and try to dribble into the box, forcing defenders to tackle well or risk conceding a penalty kick. No matter where Camilo lines up, Perry Kitchen will see a lot of him.
Davide Chiumiento is the other high-quality attacking player Vancouver will use. Chiumiento would be at his best in a 4231 or 4411, which would give him the freedom to create without having to defend much. The Whitecaps could play that way, with Camilo and Salinas playing as the wingers, but for reasons beyond my comprehension, they do not. It's a shame for MLS, because Chiumiento is a great entertainer; with the ball on his feet, he probably has as much skill as anyone in the league. DC's main worries from him will be his ability to go at people 1v1 (like Camilo, but from the right side instead) and his free kick wizardry. When Chiumiento is in, DC simply cannot give away silly free kicks.
If Vancouver has plenty of attacking talent, why are they in last place? No credit for guessing it's their defense, which is often shambolic. There have been numerous changes throughout the season, and the one player they have that's both good and has been healthy is Rochat, who will miss out. DeMerit is a stellar player at the MLS level, but he's got all of 45 minutes of reserve league action under his belt over the past few months. Leathers is steady, but doesn't give Vancouver any high-end qualities at right back other than toughness. Jordan Harvey has struggled quite a bit since coming over in a trade, and rookie Michael Boxall is arguably the worst center back to start 90% of a team's games this season.
The midfield also provides little help. Salinas has big soccer IQ issues, and Vagenas is a spent force physically. Koffie will blossom into a top-notch defensive midfielder, but at just 19 years old still makes mistakes. Thorrington is a quality player, but his injury history makes Mr. Glass in "Unbreakable" appear rugged; his lack of playing time makes him unfamiliar with the group, and vice versa.
In other words, this is a team that United should score goals on. Chris Pontius and Andy Najar (returning from suspension) should have a field day; Najar will find Harvey on an island plenty of times, while Pontius would do well to attack the space between Leathers and Boxall in an effort to cause confusion. Speaking of Boxall, we should also look to flummox him further by playing Charlie Davies from the start. Boxall is slow of foot and thought; Davies is pretty much the worst kind of player for him to face.
In the midfield, the best way to beat the Whitecaps is to keep the ball moving quickly. Koffie's lack of experience can be exposed that way, but more importantly it will render the glacial Vagenas a non-factor defensively. The higher-paced our passing game, the more likely Vancouver will struggle mightily to hold off the United front six. It will also probably generate some free kicks; the Whitecaps have, like any young, unfamiliar team, been poor on set pieces all season long. This would be a nice game to score via a header and end our bizarre no-goals-on-headers streak.
It sounds like a broken record, but this is a team you beat if you want to make the playoffs. That means finishing your chances (unlike our wasteful display against New England) and avoiding the catastrophic mistake (see: last week against TFC). Vancouver is better than their record would indicate, but they're also a deeply flawed team in terms of defending individually, playing as a unit, and being consistent. A confident attacking display should see DC score some goals and own possession; the big question is whether we can finally play up to our potential rather than that of our opponent.