If it weren't for the season Chris Wondolowski is having, there would be MVP talk surrounding Real Salt Lake's Alvaro Saborio. Staying focused on marking the Costa Rican for 90 minutes is a crucial part of the plan if D.C. United is to avoid defeat at RSL.
The pessimist will note that United is playing a fifth game in just 2 weeks. That in and of itself would make this a daunting assignment, but when you add in United's history at altitude over the years - in Utah and in Colorado - one is tempted to simply hope the score stays close. United has taken just one point out of the last six times the capital club has gone out to the Wasatch Front. United's sloppiness with the ball in both the 3-0 loss against the Montreal Impact and the 2-2 tie with the New York Red Bulls was a result of tired legs, and Rio Tinto Stadium is the worst venue in MLS to visit if you're not feeling your best.
Oh, and RSL is not exactly a pushover, either. Alvaro Saborio has 14 goals, Javier Morales is fit, and they have national team players in Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando providing quality and leadership. At least a visit to Colorado would offer the hope of playing a bad team (currently 19th in my personal SBN Power Rankings ballot, and by some margin after they lost to then-18th place Portland last night).
The optimist, however, would point out that RSL is not a team in good form. They've won just once - over perennial CONCACAF Champions League also-rans Tauro FC - while losing three and tying once in August (they also lost on July 31st to CS Herediano in CCL play). While none of those losses have been blowouts - they're all 2-1 or 1-0 games - it does indicate that RSL's famous mental toughness is not exactly razor sharp these days. While Saborio is scoring left and right, fellow forward Fabian Espindola is in such wretched form that Jason Kreis benched him for that win over Tauro, a game RSL virtually had to win.
If your glass is half-full, you'll also remember our last meeting with RSL: A 4-1 victory in which Dwayne De Rosario offered up one of the greatest individual performances in club and MLS history. That was an important win itself, coming in late September against a team that had previously had our number for a couple of seasons.
Keep reading to see how United can pour a little more into those empty glasses.
Some teams in MLS are all over the place when it comes to formation. RSL is generally not one of those, as Kreis faithfully fields a 4312 home and away. While they did trot out a slightly different 4321 against the Philadelphia Union in their last match, I have my doubts as to whether they'll do it at home and with rest (their visit to PPL Park came after beating Tauro mid-week).
That's a pretty settled lineup, but those two question marks are big ones. At center back, Kwame Watson-Siriboe was brought in as a project as the club's fourth (or even fifth, as Chris Wingert has plenty of center back experience) choice in the job. Injuries to Jamison Olave, Chris Schuler, and former United trialist Kenny Mansally have left Kreis with no choice but to play the raw Watson-Siriboe.
While the former Chicago Fire player hasn't been the reason RSL has struggled of late, it doesn't take a discerning eye to note that they simply lack the team-wide confidence they get from seeing the force of nature that is Olave back there. Watson-Siriboe has plenty of size and isn't slow, but he doesn't have the elite speed Olave does, and his positioning isn't anywhere near as sound. In turn, that hurts RSL's efforts to play a high line, which has a negative impact on their usually strong ability to harry opponents at all times by compressing their space.
All that said, Olave has recently been upgraded to questionable, and the hamstring strain that was keeping him out happened in the loss at Herediano I mentioned earlier. Hamstring strains generally take four or five weeks to clear up, and it's been four and a half weeks since Olave pulled up lame.
It's also worth noting that Schuler - a highly-touted player who would start for most MLS clubs - is probable after a long spell on the sidelines with a broken bone in his foot. If Schuler plays, we would probably see Borchers move to the right-center back position; if it's Olave, he'll step straight into the spot Watson-Siriboe currently holds.
The other question mark is Espindola, a player who normally causes just about everyone trouble with his unconventional runs, work rate, and the ease with which he hits the deck (which is why RSL fans complaining endlessly about Charlie Davies last year was amusing). He's probable with a groin strain, but he's in a long goal drought and his confidence is suffering. Kreis chose pint-sized Brazilian Paulo Jr. for that crucial game against Tauro, and could well choose him again tonight.
If it is Paulo Jr. getting the start, he'll play a more conventional second-forward role, differing from Espindola's tendency to drift wide. Kreis could also use Justin Braun, who has played well against United in the past.
As much as there is the temptation to believe that shutting down RSL's attack means locking Javier Morales down, the more vital job is forcing Kyle Beckerman into playing negative passes and generally placing the RSL captain under pressure at all times. RSL's possession game is built on Beckerman's ability to consistently connect with Morales and the forwards, as well as feeding wide players when they get into good spots.
If, however, Beckerman finds himself with nowhere to go in terms of a forward or sideways pass, he'll have to move the ball back to the back four. This is a defense that is used to Beckerman being the easy choice to get the ball forward, so forcing them to play out of the back rather than simply pass to Beckerman will throw them off. If you see RSL defenders playing long balls to nowhere, things on this front are going well.
How will that be done? It's a group effort. Our central midfield - whether it's the dual holding set-up featuring Perry Kitchen and Marcelo Saragosa, or the diamond with Branko Boskovic coming in - will need to leave no realistic angle for Beckerman to play down the middle. Our wide midfielders will need to get narrow, again shutting off passing lanes while also decreasing Beckerman's space. Finally, we'll need effort from the forwards tracking back to make Beckerman have to pass earlier than normal.
In the RSL attack the big danger is Saborio, who is having a stellar season. The Costa Rican's aerial prowess is as good as any target forward in MLS, and he does it without quite having the size or bulk of some other analogues throughout the league. Saborio's timing is his best weapon, and that extends to his runs off the ball as well as picking the right moment to leap for headers.
The good news is that Brandon McDonald and Dejan Jakovic (or Emiliano Dudar, if he returns) have the size and strength to compete with Saborio. The bad news is that Saborio is great at finding the seams between players, and also has a great habit of getting free on set pieces (something we've been weak on lately).
Stopping Saborio isn't rocket science. United's defenders will need to communicate well, and whoever finds themselves marking Saborio has to stay tight in the run of play and make some contact on set pieces so his jumping ability is impeded. Easier said than done, obviously, but it has to be pulled off for United to get a result.
Going forward, United will need to settle on an approach to this game. If we see Boskovic return - he'll be fresh, at least - the idea will be to keep as much possession as possible. United's poor use of the ball is why they lost in Montreal, and is also why we didn't create more chances against a fragile NYRB defense. Playing RSL isn't just about hurting their possession game defensively; if you're keeping the ball, that's time they aren't in possession. The downside, of course, is that a tired United team is going to have trouble connecting passes and staying mobile to provide options.
The other way forward is to stick with the Kitchen-Saragosa central midfield and try to drag RSL down into something less aesthetically pleasing. As much as that sounds like the more cautious, prudent way forward, it comes with a similar problem: Tired legs make it hard to pressure and scrap for 90 minutes, and this approach would leave us just one mistake away from seeing things go wrong. We saw how this house of cards can collapse in Montreal.
Trying to combine the best of both approaches might help, but it's not an easy thing to pull off. Do you want a 4231 with Boskovic at attacking midfield? That means De Ro playing as a lone striker. Maybe you want De Ro to play the attacking midfield role instead of Boskovic? That means placing a lot of trust in Lionard Pajoy - who will be low on energy after the minutes he's played since arriving - or Long Tan, who probably lacks the maturity and soccer IQ to play alone up top in a game like this.
In the end, United is going to have to dig deep to find some extra energy no matter which style of play is emphasized. Further, even if the idea is to turn the game ugly, DCU will have to be much better with the ball than they've been in the last two games. Otherwise, a patient RSL will eventually wear us down.
To create chances, United's wingers - regardless of approach - need to attack Tony Beltran. He's not bad by any means, but he's the weakest starter if Olave is fit, and he's looked a bit uncertain playing alongside Watson-Siriboe of late. Ben Olsen has been switching Nick DeLeon and Chris Pontius throughout games, and they'll both need to isolate Beltran whenever possible.
Finally, it is vital to not fall behind. Overcoming tired legs at altitude against a team that keeps the ball is already hard enough, but having to chase a game in that scenario? You're basically looking to hit the lottery at that point. United simply must put their best foot forward to start this game, and in all likelihood will need to take a lead at some point just to ensure a draw. The circumstances make a shutout difficult, but RSL hasn't been scoring much lately. One goal for United might be enough to avoid defeat, and I think we'd all agree that a draw at RSL after the past two weeks would be a good result.