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Playing on the road in Major League Soccer is tough, and D.C. United's playoffs hopes depend in part on how the team performs in its final two road games. Avoid these self-inflicted mistakes, and the challenge gets a little more manageable.
Conventional wisdom in Major League Soccer says that to be a successful team, you need to get wins at home and draws on the road. For a host of reasons that almost every team struggles to crack, getting a win on the road in MLS is extremely difficult. So, how have Eastern Conference teams done getting "draws on the road" this season (that is, have teams earned at least 17 points from their away matches)?
|Team||Total Points||Away Wins||Away Losses||Away Draws||Away Points||Away Pts/Game||Away Games Left||Potential Away Pts|
|Sporting Kansas City||58||8||4||3||27||1.80||2||33|
|New York Red Bulls||53||4||7||5||17||1.06||1||20|
|New England Revolution||29||1||12||2||5||0.33||2||11|
Perhaps not surprisingly, the only teams that have already met or exceeded getting at least 17 points from their road games are the top three teams in the conference: Sporting Kansas City with an impressive 27 points from 15 road games; New York Red Bulls with 17 points from 16 road games; and Chicago Fire with 18 points from 15 road games. And, interestingly enough, the three teams currently battling for the final two playoff spots each have a shot to meet or exceed 17 road points this year: D.C. United currently with 14 points from 15 road games; Houston Dynamo with 14 points from 16 road games; and Columbus Crew with 16 points from 16 road games. In fact, it's likely that getting to at least 17 road points will be vital for these teams to assure themselves a playoff spot.
With getting results on the road so tough, and D.C. United needing every point possible to secure a playoff spot, what can D.C. United do in their final two road games, at Toronto FC on Oct. 6 and at the Chicago Fire on Oct. 27, to maximize their chance of getting points?
Let's state right up front that home teams have huge natural advantages when playing at home, and there's little a visiting team can do to negate these. Playing at home means getting to keep a normal routine leading up to the match. Home teams get to sleep in their own beds, eat their own food, avoid jet lag or travel fatigue, spend time with their friends and family, and play on a pitch and in a stadium they know very well. Most importantly, they get to draw on the energy and emotion of their home crowd to lift their performance throughout the match.
So, visiting teams have to combat all the natural advantages home teams have, and they have to absolutely minimize their own mistakes (which are magnified on the road). Based on D.C. United's experiences playing as a visiting team so far this season, here are the top 5 self-inflicted mistakes to avoid in their final two road matches.
1. Strange Line Up Decisions. One of the real strengths of D.C. United this year has been the performance of head coach Ben Olsen. Since his appointment as interim head coach in Aug. 2010, D.C. United has consistently improved such that this season, Olsen's second full year on the job, the club has been a contender in the Eastern Conference almost the entire season. His performance has been recognized by the League (he was named coach for the 2012 MLS All Stars against Chelsea, a game he won), and by local fans as he was recently dubbed the MacGuyver of MLS by our own ChestRockwell. And in true MacGuyver fashion, he has tinkered with his starting XI and subs throughout the season. Early in the season, for example, D.C. United played road games in which Olsen kept Chris Pontius or Andy Najar on the bench until the second half. While we couldn't imagine either of these players not going a full 90 minutes today if healthy, I'm willing to give Olsen a pass on these decisions early in the season as he was figuring out the chemistry on this year's squad (and determining how healthy Pontius was coming off his 2011 season-ending injury). At Montreal on Aug. 25, however, Olsen's baling wire and duct tape approach mystified D.C. United fans. With a late scratch of Nick DeLeon due to illness at the team hotel, Olsen decided to leave Dwayne De Rosario and Chris Pontius on the bench to give them some rest in the midst of a 10-day, 4-game stretch, resulting in a starting XI that didn't appear competitive to play for a result on the road. Despite being down 2-0 in the second half, he subsequently brought DeRo and Pontius on around the 60th minute, negating the rest he was trying to give them as well. In the end, the overall approach seemed like a lose-lose for the team, and the result was a 3-0 defeat (see #3 below for further mistakes in this game).
2. Early Red Card. As tough as playing on the road is, it's almost impossible to get a result (or avoid being embarrassed) when you go a man down early in a match on a good team's home ground. At Houston on Jul. 15, Dynamo attacker Macoumba Kandji found himself alone breaking in toward goal from the left side of the box. Despite Kandji's hard first touch that sent the ball careening toward the end line, Bill Hamid rushed off his line and leveled Kandji, drawing both a penalty shot for Houston and a straight red card for Hamid. Replay makes it look pretty clear that Kandji would likely not have scored if Hamid had avoided wiping him out, but even if Kandji had scored a goal, D.C. United would have faced a potentially manageable 1-0 deficit with all their players still on the field. The way it played out, however, left D.C. United down 1-0 and with only 10 players for 70+ minutes. Too tall a task for a team that struggles on the road under the best of circumstances, ultimately leading to a season-worst 4-0 defeat.
HIGHLIGHTS: Houston Dynamo vs DC United, July 15, 2012 (via mls)
3. Giving Up Early Goals Against the Run of Play. In at least two road games this season, D.C. United opened the first half with strong play that produced good chances, only to see the home team counter them and score a goal on their first real opportunity. During the Jul. 15 match at Houston discussed in #2 above, D.C. United was the better team for the first 15 minutes and seemed to be controlling the match when Hamid took out Kandji in the Dynamo's first dangerous chance of the match, leading to a penalty shot goal against the run of play that put D.C. United on its heels for the remainder of the match. Similarly, in the Montreal match on Aug. 25 discussed in #1 above, D.C. United dominated play early on in the match against a very hot Impact team that had won its previous four matches (and, to be fair to Ben Olsen, his unusual starting lineup seemed to be working well). Using the offside trap with skill, D.C. United kept Montreal from any scoring chances. In the 24th minute, however, Marco Di Vaio beat the offside trap and finished a superb curling shot around Bill Hamid into the corner of the goal. From that point on, the field tilted in favor of the home team, leaving D.C. United with a 3-0 defeat, its second worst of the year.
HIGHLIGHTS: Montreal Impact vs D.C. United, August 25, 2012 (via mls)
4. Giving Up Goals at the End of the Half. Maintaining defensive focus going into halftime and at the end of a match is something every coach talks to his team about. During D.C. United's first road game, at the LA Galaxy on Mar. 18, D.C. United successfully absorbed Galaxy pressure throughout the first half and looked poised to go into halftime tied 0-0. Following a cross to Todd Dunivant on the far post one minute from halftime, however, Robbie Keane was left unmarked at the near post and subsequently converted Dunivant's nice header back across the face of the goal. D.C. United never recovered from this goal and went on to lose 3-1. Similarly, on Jun. 24th, D.C. United went to New Jersey to play the New York Red Bulls, only to find that a late first half goal was too much to overcome again. After Chris Pontius scored a dream goal 30 seconds into the match to put D.C. United up 1-0, New York came back to tie the match 1-1 on Brandon Barklage's 20th minute goal. In first half stoppage time, however, Barklage struck again on a rebounded free kick to put New York up 2-1. D.C. United would never have the lead or be tied again in the game and would go on to lose 3-2.
HIGHLIGHTS: LA Galaxy vs D.C. United, March 18, 2012 (via mls)
EXTENDED HIGHLIGHTS: New York Red Bulls vs DC United, June 24, 2012 - MLS Playback (via mls)
5. Having Too Many Non-Soccer "Injuries". OK, this problem bends the definition of "self-inflicted". But at multiple away games this season, strange non-soccer maladies befell key members of D.C. United the day of the match. At Montreal, for example, Nick DeLeon wasn't able to leave the hotel due to illness. A week later, when D.C. United played at Real Salt Lake, Andy Najar was a game-day scratch due to a tooth issue, while Branko Boskovic was held out due to a virus. I won't pretend that D.C. United can control all these non-soccer issues, but let's make sure everyone has received their flu vaccine (it's available early this year), is brushing and flossing regularly, and is washing those hands frequently!
If D.C. United is going to make the playoffs this season for the first time in five years, it almost certainly is going to have to do what conventional wisdom says and get a minimum of 17 points from 17 away games. To do this, D.C. United must minimize the mistakes it controls like those above, while fighting as if everything is on the line down the stretch (which it is). And even with that, getting a win at Toronto and/or at Chicago will be tough, but doable.
What self-inflicted mistakes does D.C. United need to avoid this week at Toronto FC? What's the key for them playing better on the road?