This is round one of three. After failing to collect any points from the New England Revolution the past two years, D.C. United will get three chances in 2012. With a weakened team due to injuries and suspensions, our chances won't get any better than Saturday.
To prepare for the match, we exchanged questions with Steve Stoehr of SB Nation's Revolution blog The Bent Musket.
B&RU: Many MLS analysts had the Revolution ranked 18th or 19th heading into the season, but the team has gotten off to a decent start. As someone who covers the team, are you pleasantly surprised or did you see this coming? Is this early success sustainable?
TBM: To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised. I couldn't imagine that things would really be as bad as they were last season, but it's been so long since New England strung two wins together that taking down Portland and LA back-to-back came out of nowhere. As far as sustainability, I'm not sure. This team is still young, and there are about 15 brand-new players on the roster, so they're still gelling and building chemistry. If Jose Moreno pans out and Kelyn Rowe continues to progress, I see no reason why this team can't make a playoff push, but it really comes down to how well the squad buys into Jay Heaps' new philosophy and style.
Around these parts, we sometimes refer to D.C. United as Olsen's Army, because the team has taken on the playing style and character traits of the legendary player and current head coach in many ways. Have the Revolution similarly taken on the identity of Jay Heaps?
The Revs were Nicol's Army for so long that I think it's going to be a little while before the term "Heaps' Army" really takes flight. That said, we are definitely starting to see evidence of Jay's influence on the squad. Jay was a fiery competitor who, despite playing in defense, had a definite attacking bend to his style, and was a tremendous athlete. So far, in their best performances, we've seen the Revs play high-intensity, high-energy, high-pressure soccer with a lot of running and a lot of attacking, which is exactly the sense you get from Jay in his press conferences and when he's on the touchline.
Some United fans are finding it just a bit harder to hate the Revs this year with some popular former D.C. players on the roster. How are Clyde Simms and Blake Brettschneider doing so far? Can the Revs please sign Joseph Ngwenya too? Pretty please?
Listen, Joe Ngwenya scares the crap out of me. I still have nightmares about him in the '07 MLS Cup! Clyde has been hands-down the Revs' best offseason acquisition of 2012. I understand United has Perry Kitchen coming up, but I can't understand why a guy like Simms would ever be allowed to leave. Against LA he was (I believe) 44/46 passing. Read that again. His steady influence in midfield replaced the hole left when Jeff Larentowicz departed for Colorado, and now he sits deep, plugging passing lanes and recycling possession with calm, simple touches. He frees Shalrie to be a freer influence in the midfield, and honestly the guy just pops up out of nowhere wherever the ball happens to be. He's just always in the right place at the right time.
Blake has been less impressive. He's got the size and strength, but his touch is clumsy and he seems to think too slowly on the ball. Could be youth, but you have to imagine that he's now behind Moreno, Sene, Runstrom, and Cardenas in the depth chart up top, so his chances may have dried up for the time being.
TBM: After a slowish start, D.C. just pulled off an incredible 4-1 thrashing of FC Dallas and then managed a creditable 0-0 draw against a very, very good Seattle side. In the wide-open East, results like that can get a team in the playoff picture pretty quickly. Do you believe D.C. is a playoff team this year, or are these just flukes or strong home performances that, in the end, will still see United coming up short?
B&RU: If anything was a fluke, it was the one goal that United allowed in the Dallas match, which came off a random mistake from our best defender, and likely a blown offside call. The fact that United has allowed only that one fluky goal in its last three games is no accident, and that's the reason that this team will be in the playoffs in 2012. With as much attacking talent as D.C. has on its roster, the consistent goal-scoring that's been lacking will come eventually. But the defense is so much better this year than in the past few years that saw United outside the playoffs. That's what's raised our expectations. And with teams like the Philadelphia Union and Toronto FC getting out of the gates far worse than anticipated, a top 5 finish in the Eastern Conference should be easily within United's reach.
I watched the entirety of the Dallas match, and it looked like Nick DeLeon, Maicon Santos, and Danny Cruz were really calling the shots in attack. One guy who looked good but did not - and has not - had the effect that is really expected of him is Dwayne De Rosario. Why do you think DeRo is having such difficulty re-creating his MVP form from last season, and do you think he can capture that again? As a follow-up, if he does get back to that summit, just how dangerous can this team become?
I don't mean to make excuses for him, but the formation and De Rosario's role in it have changed a bit from last year. The past three weeks, Ben Olsen's squad has been playing a mixture of a flat 4-4-2 with a 4-1-3-2 with De Rosario in central midfield, which has given him more defensive responsibility and less freedom than when he was playing as a withdrawn forward for us last year. So we don't really expect DeRo to duplicate his incredible numbers from last season, but he'll continue to be a key component of our attack. He earned assists on two of our five goals already this year, and there's no reason to think that he won't approach the 10-goal mark by season's end.
Give us an under-the-radar player Revolution fans should watch out for in this match.
If you're a Revolution fan and you're not familiar with Emiliano Dudar already, then you will be soon. The 6'-4" Argentine defender has been a big reason for United's defensive improvement, but so has left back Daniel Woolard, who's really stepped up his play this season. No longer is any spot in the D.C. defense weaker than any other spot.
Who do you think D.C. United players fear most on the pitch for New England?
If he plays, that would surely be Benny Feilhaber, who seems to dictate the rhythm for the Revolution. If he doesn't play, then the fear for us might be that Lee Nguyen and Kelyn Rowe will negate the advantage that D.C. might expect to have on the wings. More than any other player though, I fear an uncharacteristic letdown from our team. That cost us six points from two winnable games against New England last year, and United can't afford to let that happen again in 2012.
Finally, let's have your projected starting XI and a scoreline prediction.
Although Bill Hamid has returned to full training after recovering from the injury he picked up during Olympic Qualifying, I think we'll still see Joe Willis in goal. Robbie Russell and Brandon McDonald will join Dudar and Woolard along the back line, while Andy Najar will return to join De Rosario, Perry Kitchen, and Nick DeLeon in the midfield. Hamdi Salihi and Maicon Santos will start up top. I'm predicting United to earn its third shutout in four matches, get Salihi his first MLS goal, and escape Foxboro as 2-0 winners.