The faint din you've heard about the playoffs in the past month in MLS circles has now become a roar. This was underlined in last night's game between LA and Colorado: The Galaxy clinched a playoff spot with a win, while the Rapids now have just five games remaining. The time for teams to make their move up the standings is now.
DC United has something everyone in MLS will envy: Time. The Black-and-Red have no fewer than ten games left to pile up points; theoretically, United could almost double their current 31 points. While that might not be realistic, the fact is that DC must get wins - not draws, not close losses - if the advantage of these games in hand is going to count for anything.
Tonight's opponent, Chivas USA, is a direct rival for a playoff spot despite being in the Western Conference. The Goats come into this match with 31 points, just like DC. They've also been inconsistent, both at home (where they boast an unimpressive 4W-4T-5L record) and in terms of offense (in their last eight games, Chivas has been shut out five times, but also have two 3-goal outbursts and also notched a 2-2 draw in Colorado). Sound familiar? There's a reason we both have 31 points right now: Neither team can be 100% sure which version of themselves will show up when the lights come on and the whistle blows.
Read on for more about Chivas:
Robin Fraser uses a narrow diamond 442 formation:
Most of the selection issues Chivas will face are in the back. Heath Pearce is out with a hamstring strain, so Fraser will need to select a center back from a pool of flawed candidates:
Andrew Boyens: A New Zealand international, he's got experience but is very slow and prone to fouling.
David Junior Lopes: Enormous Brazilian has only just been signed, and thus far appears to be struggling to find where referees draw the line between fouls and acceptable tackles
Ben Zemanski: Quality utility player, but center back is not at the top of the list of positions he can play (which include right midfield, defensive midfield, and box-to-box central midfield).
Zarek Valentin: The promising rookie has appeared much more confident as a right back than as a center back in MLS, though he was a center back at Akron.
Given that United doesn't really play that much in the air (at least when we play well), Boyens and Lopes would probably see their aerial strength go to little use. Valentin, meanwhile, is a question mark due to injury and would more likely be started at right back anyway. Thus, I am expecting Zemanski to get the nod. Zemanski is a smart player who rarely plays poorly; his ceiling might not be too high, but he's the most reliable option for Fraser.
Whoever replaces Pearce will be partnered by Michael Umana, who will likely move to the left-center back slot. However, Umana played the full 90 for Costa Rica in their games against the US and Ecuador, and there is at least some chance that he could be left out as a result. If that's the case, Boyens will probably come in to the right and Zemanski to the left. This would be very beneficial for United; Umana is no all-star, but he's got plenty of experience and seems more comfortable against our style of play than Boyens would be.
At right back, meanwhile, there are still more choices for Fraser. Valentin has logged the most minutes, but with his recent injury troubles, the door has opened for others. Northern Virginia product Michael Lahoud - fresh off his own ankle issues - is the most likely choice if Valentin can't go or is used in central defense. Lahoud is small, but is a tremendous athlete with a work rate to match. Fraser could opt for the more experienced and skillful Mariano Trujillo, but when you consider that a) Chivas will already be at a disadvantage in terms of team speed and b) the right back will be up against Chris Pontius all game long, such a move would be inviting disaster.
Further forward, left midfield will be a choice between Jorge Flores and French newcomer Laurent Courtois. What we'll likely see is Flores - who is a bit like a lower-middle class man's Andy Najar - starting and Courtois subbing in for the last half hour. Courtois is a tricky player, and has been able to make an impact coming off the bench several times now despite being new to MLS and presumably somewhere short of 100% fitness.
Up top, Alejandro Moreno will start provided he's not wiped out from traveling to play for Venezuela over the international break. If Moreno is held out, Fraser will choose between the inconsistent but dangerous Justin Braun or Marcos Mondaini, a technically gifted Argentine who started brightly in 2011 but has faded (he also might be a bit of a dirty player).
Chivas loves to keep possession, and if we allow that, they'll eventually start to open up our defense. There are two things United has to do to prevent that: First, with the ball, it's vital to not be as sloppy as we've been in our recent games. The very direct approach used against Chicago and Kansas City did not work at all, and Chivas is another team that will be just fine with us playing low-percentage attempts at the "killer ball" all game long. Depriving Chivas of the ball will serve to disorient them; it's no coincidence that the only wins Chivas has in their last 14 games are over San Jose, Houston, and New England (all overly direct teams).
Second, when we don't have the ball, we need to get after both Simon Elliott. While LaBrocca is justifiably getting plenty of attention for a breakout season, Elliott has a lot to do with the Chivas approach. Elliott rarely does stupid things with the ball, and has the patience to set his team's rhythm from defensive midfield. If we can force him into playing backwards - which will require consistent high pressure, which is a team endeavor - the Goats will be disjointed coming out of the back and will have to bypass midfield more often than they'd like.
Defensively, United will need to be very aware of the late runs by LaBrocca, who is in contention for a place on the MLS Best 11. LaBrocca is an expert at delaying his run just long enough for people to forget him, or hanging back just long enough to be regarded as a non-factor, before surging forward for a look at goal. Clyde Simms will need to be focused throughout tonight's game on where LaBrocca is, but he'll need help as well. The communication and awareness of Brandon McDonald and Bill Hamid will help in this regard, and our other midfielders will also need to be ready and able to track LaBrocca if Simms is forced to deal with some other situation.
Up top, Chivas will likely have a very savvy pairing in Moreno and Juan Pablo Angel, who intriguingly looks a bit more sprightly and dangerous playing for LA's other team than he did playing alongside David Beckham and Landon Donovan. This isn't so much an athletic challenge - Moreno and Angel are a combined 67 years old - as a problem of soccer IQ, focus, and anticipation. A particular problem will be Moreno's expertise at drawing fouls; with Carlos Ruiz out of MLS, no one in the league is better at initiating contact yet getting the call in their favor. Chivas is not LA, Houston, or Portland in the set piece department, but they have some size and both LaBrocca and Elliott serve up a decent ball.
Going forward, it will be important to move the ball quickly and attack at speed. This will require good movement off the ball as well as more patience than United showed against the Fire or the Sporks. As 83% of our readers seem to think, that means we need Dwayne De Rosario moved back to his preferred attacking midfield spot. Not only would that add much more intelligence to our central midfield's passing, but De Ro's mobility will be a big problem for Elliott, who at 37 is MLS's least-mobile defensive midfielder. If he's fully fit, Charlie Davies could make a tremendous impact in this game by stretching the field, giving the rest of the team the space they'll need to slice through Chivas going forward.
Most United fans will remember the 2009 stretch run, where DC had the bizarre luck of five straight home games before a season-ending trip to KC. The schedule-makers favored us then too, but United lost three of those games - including a 2-1 defeat against a very weak San Jose, as well as a dire 2-0 loss to (wait for it) Chivas - and ended up missing the playoffs on a tiebreaker.
The way forward is illuminated, but if United doesn't walk down the path, someone else will. Tonight's game against Chivas (and the return leg at RFK on the 21st) could end up being critical to the playoff hopes of both clubs. Taking four points from this series would be a huge step forward for DC; winning both games would be even better. However, anything resembling the disappointing showings in Chicago and Kansas City will likely see us needing to win that home game in a couple weeks to split the series. The time to differentiate ourselves from the also-rans starts tonight.