D.C. United is unbeaten in seven games, and come into tonight's game against the San Jose Earthquakes having won consecutive games for the first time since talkies took over the local cinema. After losing vital defender Emiliano Dudar to a hamstring injury, United relied on offensive firepower to make a normally stout Houston Dynamo side look like Toronto FC in the back.
In other words, the Black-and-Red are an intimidating opponent these days. The Quakes, however, can claim the same thing: Unbeaten in six (including five wins), they have as strong an argument to be MLS's hottest team as United does.
There are more similarities at work here than a hot streak and being the two teams in MLS that wear black at home. We already mentioned Dudar, but it bears pointing out that San Jose also went out and signed a top-quality center back in Victor Bernardez (who like Dudar will miss out due to a knee sprain). Both sides also added proven MLS right midfielders: United got Danny Cruz, while San Jose got Marvin Chavez...both from Texas-based teams, no less. Both teams have a talented foreign attacking midfielder who is struggling to get on the field (though with respect to Tressor Moreno, he has contributed more to the Quakes than Branko Boskovic has to DC in 2012).
In other words, tonight's game will be among the toughest of the season for both sides. The Quakes are at the top of the Western Conference and are justifiably being looked at as a contender. The pundits around the league have been a little slower to come around for United - first impressions are hard to shake after all - but Ben Olsen's side is now considered no worse than one of MLS's top six teams these days.
For United, a road win would prove that the recent hot streak is less a flash in the pan and more simply who we are in 2012.
Unlike in past seasons where Frank Yallop would change formations seemingly every week, the Quakes will almost certainly play a 442. The rotating personnel choices, however, are still in place:
The defensive question marks are solely down to injuries. Veteran Ramiro Corrales is not on the current injury report, but missed San Jose's last game with a calf strain. If he's unavailable again, Justin Morrow will be needed at left back. Morrow has been a revelation this season playing as a center back alongside Bernardez, using his positional sense to cover for the fact that he's undersized as a center back.
If Corrales can play, Morrow will probably return to center back. That in turn would require one of Jason Hernandez or Ike Opara to take a seat; in that case, my money would be on Hernandez starting at right-center back and Opara sitting the bench.
The midfield is tricky because of the versatility Yallop has at his disposal. Rafael Baca has been arguably the best player in MLS that no one's talking about despite being used both centrally in a box-to-box role and on both flanks. Chavez has experience playing on both wings, while Simon Dawkins - currently favored to stand in for injured left midfielder Shea Salinas - can also play through the center.
That's not all. Colombian veteran Tressor Moreno was brought in to be San Jose's #10, but Yallop has been slow fully entrust him with that role (or at least, is unwilling to incorporate such an attack-focused role into his midfield). The fact that the Quakes scored both of their goals last week after a double sub that involved pulling Moreno and shifting to a flatter midfield from the diamond they started in indicates that he's less likely to start this one.
On the other hand, Moreno went the full 90 in their 3-1 win over Real Salt Lake, so he could well get the start here. If he does start, Baca will stay in the team as either the right or left midfielder.
Finally, Yallop also has Khari Stephenson, who caused us plenty of trouble last season playing in the hole in a 4411. Stephenson has been getting some starts this season as a target forward after being used there in the preseason while Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon were both injured. The big Jamaican did well enough in the role that he's actually kept Lenhart out of the starting eleven in the past two games.
Lenhart still did plenty of damage in both games as a sub. RSL had Jamison Olave sent off because Lenhart got position on him chasing down a potential breakaway (it didn't hurt that Lenhart also got an arm across Olave and grabbed a handful of Olave's shirt in such a way that the ref never could have seen it). He followed that up on Saturday against Philadelphia by scoring twice, including a stoppage-time gamewinner.
As such, I expect the Quakes to continue with Stephenson as a target forward and Lenhart as a guaranteed sub coming in around the hour mark. Yallop could pull just about anyone for Lenhart due to the flexibility guys like Baca, Stephenson, and Chavez give him, but in any case it will be important for United to be leading when that sub is made.
With Lenhart - MLS's #1 villain not named Rafael Marquez - it's always important to stay disciplined. Lenhart may look like a Jeff Spicoli-esque surfer doofus, but he is an expert at provoking opponents while going unpunished himself. It comes from all angles, too: Lenhart runs his mouth, commits cheap-shot fouls, and will hit the deck under the slightest contact (he's not an outright diver; rather, he just flops when touched at all). Dealing with all of these things without retaliating or putting yourself into a position like Olave did where Lenhart's play-acting can get you in trouble will be vital. I'm particularly concerned about Brandon McDonald, whose emotions are seemingly never far from the surface.
San Jose also has this guy, maybe you've heard of him. Name's Chris Wondolowski. Wondo has continued to score at the kind of rate we've come to expect of him, and those finishes tend to be just about every kind: Headers, both feet, breakaways, chips, volleys, etc. The solution sounds simple: Stay focused, always be aware of where Wondo is and where he wants to go, and communicate when having to transfer marking duty. Unfortunately for DC, that's what every team wants to do with Wondo, and yet he's still right in the thick of the Golden Boot race. It's a lot like chess: Simple rules, devilishly complex in execution.
The best way for United to shut down Wondolowski is to deny him service. The Quakes love to play crosses from the wings (they're averaging over 22 per home game if Opta is accurate). It's not just guys like Chavez and Dawkins, either. In all honesty, the best crosser they have is actually their right back, Steven Beitashour. "Beita" is the best attacking right back in MLS right now, and United will have to minimize the number of crosses he can make bombing up the right flank. Nick DeLeon will have a lot to do with this, but so too will our forwards; after all, it's not like Chavez - one of the signings of the season to this point - just stands around doing nothing. If United's left can battle San Jose's right to a standstill, we'll be well on our way to a good result.
Obviously I think the Quakes are really good, but do they have any weak spots? They sure do: Right down the middle. Sam Cronin is a smart player and a big factor in their possession game, but he's not a hard-tackling tough guy for a defensive midfielder. He's also not particularly fast, so De Ro and co. should be able to work some combinations around him.
Behind Cronin, it gets even weaker. With Bernardez definitely out and Morrow probably needed elsewhere, there is a big drop off in terms of soccer IQ at center back for San Jose. Hernandez and Opara are both stellar athletes, and Hernandez is known as one of the most tireless man-markers in MLS, but neither is blessed with very good decision-making ability. If Chris Pontius can continue making the kinds of runs he made against the Houston Dynamo, and if our midfielders can get forward to offer further options, we will pull their center backs (particularly Opara, whose presence on the Olympic team only tells me that we need better center backs as a country) out of position frequently. United's speed of thought and speed of play will be critical.
It's worth mentioning that Buck Shaw Stadium is supposedly the smallest field for pro soccer in the world. That is actually a myth; the real smallest field in MLS is Jeld-Wen in Portland. In fact, San Jose's home pitch is the same size as BMO Field in Toronto (no, seriously). That said, it is still a small surface. That means a more physical game against a team with some good size and strength. Just as we saw against the Dynamo, United will have to be the hungrier team; loose balls will be plentiful, and winning the majority will serve as a platform to control the game and create chances.
The bottom line is that this will not be an easy game. San Jose is confident, functioning well as a group, and they've cycled enough players through the lineup that the short rest won't be too big of a problem for them. They can play direct like Houston did, or they can revert to a more possession-based game (look for a lot of that; my gut tells me that Yallop will want to wait for our makeshift back four to make a mistake and then pounce).
They are legitimately in first place in the West right now, and going into their place - where they've got two straight 3-1 wins over RSL and the Vancouver Whitecaps - is as tough as it gets these days. If United can overcome the loss of Dudar and the short rest and the travel and come up with 3 points, it would be a hell of an achievement. Even a draw, given the circumstances, would be a further indicator of how far United has progressed this season over last.