On the back of three games without a loss, D.C. United fans are feeling confident. After all, we've only conceded one goal in three games, and that streak has been against teams that are stronger on paper than tomorrow's opponent, the New England Revolution. This is a team that was bad in 2011 and "improved" by naming a financial industry worker with no coaching experience as their new head coach and signing MLS and international cast-offs.
Their supposedly big-time signing - forward Pepe Moreno - isn't even particularly big-time, and then spent weeks refusing to honor his deal (probably did some research on delightful, scenic Foxborough, Massachusetts). If not for the never-ending disaster that is Toronto FC, these Revs were supposed to be MLS's biggest pushover.
Oh, and the best Revolution player (Shalrie Joseph) is suspended. This one's in the bag...right?
Not so fast, my friends. Even if you're willing to ignore New England's 3-1 win against the LA Galaxy at the Home Depot Center - the same place LA beat us by that same score - you have to respect the history. United's recent history against the Revs is nothing short of a horror show. DC has six straight losses (four by one goal) and is winless in seven consecutive games against New England. We haven't beaten the Revs since 2009, and it's not like they've been a good team over the past few years.
Still feeling like this one will be a breeze?
New coach and
noted jerkface former player Jay Heaps fiddled with a 4231 in preseason, but has stuck with a 442 in league play:
Heaps has a more or less settled team that he'd like to call on (with Saer Sene's forward partner probably the only question mark), but injuries and suspensions are going to make Saturday's lineup pretty far removed from that ideal.
Matt Reis will almost certainly play despite knee swelling; Bobby Shuttleworth is the backup if Reis can't go. In front of him, normal starter right back Kevin Alston is doubtful with his umpteenth hamstring problem, so I'm expecting new German defender Florian Lechner to deputize as he did last week. Lechner doesn't have Alston's speed, which should translate well for us given United's options at left midfield.
Stephen McCarthy has been converted to center back from defensive midfield this season, but may need to revisit his old role if our old friend Clyde Simms is held out due to a calf issue. If McCarthy does move forward, his center back spot will go to whoever is healthy out of John Lozano and Darrius Barnes (both have had injuries themselves recently).
In the midfield, Kelyn Rowe - an early competitor with Nick DeLeon for Rookie of the Year - will play centrally due to the suspension of Joseph. He did an adequate job in that spot in New England's last-gasp 1-0 loss at FC Dallas last week. Benny Feilhaber could return from injury and would be a very dangerous threat, but he was in a protective boot up until very recently. I think in this case, the "doubtful" injury report is an accurate one.
Rowe's spot at right midfield would normally fall to Ryan Guy in such a situation, but Guy has shown rather well in a withdrawn forward role. Between his performances up there and Moreno possibly being short of fitness, Heaps may want to keep Guy up front. That would mean Jeremiah White or possibly even rookie Alec Purdie stepping in on the right side.
Up top, Heaps will definitely call on athletic target man Sene, who was formerly with Bayern Munich...or their reserves that play in the German 4th division, close enough. Partnering him could be Moreno, or Guy, or tricky dribbler Fernando Cardenas, or former United striker Blake Brettschneider, or teenager Diego Fagundez, or even newly-signed Swede Bjorn Runstrom. It's a crapshoot, in other words. Moreno was not bad against Dallas, and the Revs are short-handed, so he may have the slight lead for the time being. An appearance by Runstrom, who hasn't played in months, would be a surprise.
Unlike Steve Nicol's mostly conservative teams (Nicol's Revs only attacked if their opponent was truly awful), Heaps has urged his team to play a more attack-minded game. The Revs will try to use their skillful, positionally flexible wide players to throw United off going forward by looking for passing combinations. This is not a long-ball team, nor are the Revs going to simply play for set pieces.
Even with Joseph out, New England has the passing skill and overall quality in terms of first touch to move the ball quickly upfield, with players exchanging spots to boot. Lee Nguyen, unwanted in Vancouver, looked very sharp coming in from the left against the Galaxy, who made a terrible mistake in fielding Paolo Cardozo - who has no interest in defending - at right midfield ahead of the out-of-form Sean Franklin at right back.
Nguyen's ability to move inside to a left-center area between the lines threw LA off, and he created chances both by passing and by running at Franklin. Fortunately, United has been doing a very good job of getting compact in the midfield when we don't have the ball. The defensive positioning we've seen from Danny Cruz of late would indicate that Nguyen won't have the time and space to cause trouble like he did against LA.
In central midfield, it will be crucial for all four DC midfielders to play with vigor and really hunt the ball in packs. As much as we all like Simms, his main weakness in possession is that he tends to be very hurried on the ball and lets his touch get away from him. Between that and Rowe being out of position, United should be able to win this crucial area of the field, forcing turnovers and not allowing the Revs to move the ball efficiently. Adding to New England's problems is the fact that the possible right midfielders for New England don't pinch inside like Rowe does, meaning that the central midfield won't have that extra support that they have put to good use of late.
United's back four should be very aware of Sene, who is something of a classic target man. He's big, he's strong, he has decent speed, and he loves to play physically. Being prepared for that - that is, being ready for a guy who is going to try to push people aside and not allowing it to happen - will be key for DC. It's a simple job, but it's also a bit different than dealing with an out-of-form Eric Hassli, the elusive Blas Perez, or David Estrada trying to get in behind the defense.
Playing off of him could be Moreno, who despite a lack of matches in 2012 was not exactly dull against Dallas coming off the bench. At the very least, he has a venomous shot from long range, so if he's in United will have to step out early and close those opportunities down. If it's Guy instead, the challenge will be that Guy works pretty hard and showed against LA that he can make some sneaky runs. He won't wow anyone with his talent, but he'll be there to pounce if United loses focus.
Going forward, United should thrive down the wings. Chris Tierney is a very skillful player on the ball, but is slow for a fullback and also likes to get forward, which is never a good combination if you want to defend well. On the other side, Lechner was torched repeatedly by Fabian Castillo in the game against Dallas. United should look to attack the flanks throughout the game, via both combinations designed to spring a winger in behind and with early passes down the line. Dwayne De Rosario has shown that he has that kind of pass in his bag of tricks, and all four of our wingers are quick enough to make it count.
Finally, there are set pieces, the preferred method for the Revs to beat us over the years. Barnes has the best long throw-in in MLS (it's not just about distance; Barnes puts the kind of speed you see from corner kicks on his throws), but he is unlikely to get a start. Tierney, meanwhile, usually provides high quality service from free kicks and has even scored on one or two over the years. The Revs are smaller than usual - particularly without Joseph - but it's still important not to give up any unnecessary fouls in our end.
Going the other way, United should be focused on making their own set pieces count. Dallas got their 95th minute winner on a fairly bland lob into the box by Zach Loyd that found a criminally unmarked Ugo Ihemelu at the six. The loss of Joseph means that United should have a size advantage over the Revs in the box. If DeLeon can keep up his promising service, we should be able to make some trouble for Reis if the Revs are forced to foul.
Ultimately, this is a game that appears to be playing into our hands. We're facing a makeshift lineup, our strength down the flanks should expose their slow outside backs, and we should control the midfield throughout. However, we have usually been in roughly the same spot against the Revs over this hellish streak of losses.
Say what you will about Heaps (no really, go ahead and give him your worst), but he has his players working hard and has crafted a mobile and skillful midfield that moves well and can create chances. Anything less than our best effort - think 4-1 against Dallas - and we could be looking at yet another seemingly inexplicable loss to a lesser team. The bottom line is that, in MLS, you have to collect three points when your below-average opponent is also missing key players. With the new playoff structure, this game is all the more important. Three points gained also means three points denied for a Conference foe with designs on their own return to the playoffs.
UPDATE: Lots of news as a result of the now-updated MLS injury report. Lechner (broken metatarsal) and White (headache related to concussion) are both out, so you can discount them as options. Lechner will almost certainly be replaced at right back by Alston, who has been upgraded to probable.
Elsewhere, Benny Feilhaber has been upgraded to questionable. My guess is that he will take part in the game, but possibly only off the bench. Simms and Reis have been upgraded to probable as expected, so they'll start.
My expectation of the starting lineup would now read as follows (442, R to L): Reis; Alston, McCarthy, Soares, Tierney; Guy, Simms, Rowe, Nguyen; Moreno, Sene. Guy could still play as the withdrawn forward, but only if Purdie is given the nod at right midfield. Moreno could still be replaced as a starter by Cardenas as well, or possibly even Brettschneider if Heaps opts for a dual target man approach.