D.C. United's season has not gotten off to a good start. Two losses from two games, and now we're on the road without three important starters and question marks concerning the form and/or fitness of our highest-paid players. If it weren't for the debacles-in-progress that are our Atlantic coast brethren, we'd probably be the focus of a lot of the obligatory "crisis!!!!!!?!?!?!" talk two weeks into the season.
Meanwhile, the Vancouver Whitecaps will host us coming off of their first-ever MLS road win, and two straight to open the season. They haven't conceded a goal yet, their new manager seems to know what he's doing, and they took advantage of the Philadelphia Union's bizarre decision to jettison their entire offense (Sebastien Le Toux). Sounds like we're in for a long night? Don't be so pessimistic.
As seems to be the case with every expansion team - regardless of how true the claim is - much was made of the supposedly tough environment for visiting sides. Don't believe the hype: The Whitecaps were 6W-5T-6L with an even goal difference at home. In other words, they were a mediocre team at home, even with the advantage of playing many games on turf at Empire Field and the amount of travel teams had to do to get to Vancouver (not that the Whitecaps felt any pity, what with their roughly 6 million miles on the road in 2011).
There has been a lot of talk about Vancouver's good start to the season. MLSsoccer's various writers, editors, and pundits unanimously picked the Whitecaps to win this game. I'm a little surprised by that, as Vancouver has had the single easiest opening slate of games league-wide. Winning a home game against an expansion team in their first-ever MLS game is just what you're supposed to do; anything less would be an embarrassment. Being outplayed by a Juan Pablo Angel-free Chivas USA - the worst team in MLS right now - and only scraping out a 1-0 win is hardly something to brag about.
In fact, Vancouver may be dealing with more chemistry problems than United is at this point. They have a new coach in Martin Rennie, two new starting defenders, two new faces in the midfield engine room, and a new attacker who loves to roam. The Whitecaps attracted a lot of attention for the players they brought in, but it still takes a long time to turn an list of good players on paper into a real-life good team. Wait, does that sound familiar?
We'll call Vancouver's flexible lineup a 4231, but it will at times look like a 433, a 442, or a 4411 depending on where the attacking midfield trio of Camilo Sanvezzo, Davide Chiumiento, and Le Toux decide to move during the game:
Goalkeeper Joe Cannon was subbed off in the first half last week after trying to play through an early collision that left him with a thigh contusion. He is likely to start ahead of back-up Brad Knighton; in either case, United must boost the number of shots on goal significantly over the past two games.
If Cannon's quad is not 100%, his leaping ability will be impaired while also giving him a lingering reason to doubt himself. If you know keepers, you know that confidence is crucial for them. It's also worth noting that Cannon, at 37, is a long way removed from the player he was in the early-to-mid 2000s, where he was arguably the most crucial player for the Colorado Rapids (United even tried to trade for him at the very tail end of that era).
If it's Knighton - a pretty capable MLS back-up, it must be said - we need to test a guy that simply hasn't played many minutes in MLS. It would be great to see our arsenal of long-range shooters (Dwayne De Rosario, Branko Boskovic, Chris Pontius, and Hamdi Salihi have all 25+ yard golazos during their careers) take aim early and often. It could be that a soft goal is exactly the kind of slump-buster that this offense needs.
The other selection headache for Rennie will be in the engine room, where Englishman Matt Watson started over Gershon Koffie after the young Ghanaian picked up an ankle problem late in the week. Rennie believes Koffie will be fit to play, so he'll have a decision to make. Both players are very athletic, with Watson the more imposing of the two and Koffie more mobile. On the downside, both players lack composure with the ball and make some rather dubious, impulsive decisions.
United can take advantage of that. While anchor midfielder Jun Marques Davidson, a Japanese-American with extensive experience in Japan's J-League, is steady and keeps things very simple, Koffie and Watson both struggle in possession. DC's forwards must exacerbate that by not allowing the back four to make simple passes to Davidson.
Vancouver wants to play a possession game, and the first step in the supply line is finding Davidson. Cutting that out forces them to drag one of the attacking trio into a deep spot or risk playing the ball to a guy that could cough it up (and lacks the vision to do much positive even if a turnover is avoided). The former will help blunt their attack and slows the game down for our defense.
If they go for the latter, United's attacking midfielder (whoever it ends up being) should look to apply pressure early on Koffie/Watson. We might get the turnover in a good spot, or we might simply force an errant pass upfield; in either case, it's a better outcome than letting Davidson set the tempo and find the more dangerous players with a forward pass. It's always better to disrupt your opponent's patterns where they start than to let them build from there.
Defensively, Vancouver presents a potentially tricky problem, but playing them early in the season should mitigate that. Le Toux never stops running and loves to take up central positions. Camilo is a floater as well who roams in search of moments where he can isolate a defender and use his dribbling ability. Chiumiento roams from side to side trying to find extra space in which to use his abundant skill and creativity. There will be times where Le Toux plays up front and Chiumiento moves to the abandoned flank in a 442, and there will be times where it's Camilo and Le Toux swapping roles.
In other words, each player demands a lot of positional freedom, and that can make the crossed signals that are common amongst new attacking teammates even more of a problem than usual. They have shown their potential as a group, but only in glimpses. The performance against Chivas contained very little of that intricate passing and intelligent movement; in fact, Vancouver only had 35% possession. By the summer, they should be very dangerous, but today, they shouldn't be particularly sharp in that aspect.
As such, United will need to be a bit more focused on players trying to make things happen individually. Le Toux must simply be tracked everywhere, so whichever wing he is on at the time (he and Camilo can be expected to switch at some point) must have solid communication between our wide defenders and midfielders.
Camilo, on the other hand, looks for isolation, so coping with him will involve central players getting into good positions to support the outside players as well as our midfielders tracking back to help our fullbacks. If Camilo wants to run at Daniel Woolard or Chris Korb, he should be in a spot where he's just going to dribble into another United player who can make the tackle before the Brazilian can make his next move.
With Chiumiento, the key is denying him space with the ball and being physical. He is very easily frustrated both when the game doesn't go his way and when teams put him on the ground, and getting him to lose focus and disappear from the game will give DC a far easier task defensively. Marcelo Saragosa will need to have a big game, but he'll also need help from our other midfielders as well as our center backs.
One caveat on the physical side of things: Fouling in dangerous spots is not advised. Chiumiento and Camilo both have excellent accuracy going to goal from free kicks, and the Whitecaps scored their goal last week on a service into the box. They don't have the size and aggression that Sporting Kansas City or the Houston Dynamo do, but they can still hurt you if given the chance. Saragosa gave away an avoidable foul in LA that very nearly became a David Beckham goal, and that's something we can't repeat.
Striker Eric Hassli is a deceptive player. Despite his size, he's not actually a huge force in the air. Like Emiliano Dudar, Hassli has a bad head injury in his past, and Rennie is trying to help him get over the mental block that has kept him from being an aerial threat.
What that means for DC is that Hassli will probably still be a target, but with the ball being played to his feet. The Whitecaps will be try to keep the ball on the ground, and they have shown glimpses of being very good in that regard. They aren't cohesive yet though, so a positionally solid game throughout the defense and midfield should go a long way from keeping Vancouver from attacking fluidly. Focus and communication will be vital.
Going forward, the Black-and-Red will want to play quick combinations in the right-center and left-center areas (near enough to the middle to get at the center backs, but not so far into the middle that Davidson, who anchors that area, will get in the way). Martin Bonjour is new to MLS, and he and Jay DeMerit won't have a great understanding as a duo just yet. Getting them to separate and open up gaps looks like the best avenue of attack.
Both players fit the brave, traditionally English ideal of a center back: Hard-nosed, no nonsense, physical, but not necessarily the quickest of foot. Playing the ball in the air is more or less a lost cause against them - DeMerit has great leaping ability and Bonjour is 6'3" - but playing quickly on the ground should create chances. Hopefully this is the game for De Ro to get on track, because it's a match-up that sets up well for his skill set.
The flanks might be trickier. New right back Lee Young-Pyo has 127 caps for South Korea and a World Cup semi-final to go with a career with stops at PSV, Tottenham Hotspur, and Borussia Dortmund. He's not quite as fast at 34 as he was in those days, but he still has extensive experience, great soccer IQ, and commendable technique. On the left, Alain Rochat is one of the best in MLS at his job. He's savvy, strong, committed, and skillful with the ball as well. Of the two, Rochat will come forward more often, but Lee might be the more dangerous in terms of service.
This is a more favorable match-up overall for United than the unrelenting pressure of Sporting or LA's cruelly intelligent play. There's plenty of skill on the ball throughout the Vancouver team, but they feature a lot of new players trying to buy into a new system set up by a new coach. Much like us, it's going to take them time to jell. Being the home team can add to that, as the fans get frustrated when players miss connections or give up turnovers in bad spots. An intelligent, disciplined showing from United could very well take advantage of the same sort of things that KC and the Galaxy exploited against us.