For D.C. United, stopping Jerry Bengtson and the New England Revolution will be all about applying pressure in the midfield and outworking the visiting Revs all over the pitch.
As much as it's tempting to mope or assume the worst following the injury to Dwayne De Rosario, it's time to look forward. D.C. United's next five games are arguably the easiest stretch of games in the entire season, at a moment when the Black-and-Red needed to catch a break. Teams that feel sorry for themselves never get anywhere, and a playoff spot is still a completely reasonable objective.
CJ Sapong's late, late equalizer for Sporting Kansas City last night was a gift for United. It means that the Houston Dynamo have played two more games than us but only have a four point lead in the standings. Those games in hand are tonight's match against the New England Revolution and our trip to Philly to take on the Union this coming Thursday. What I'm getting at is simple: We still control our own destiny.
Speaking of the Revs, they are one of MLS's worst road teams at 1W-2D-10L. That said, a shocking nine out of those ten losses have been by just a single goal. In other words, while New England has not figured out how to win on the road, they play everyone tight and have avoided the kind of thrashings you'd expect just reading their record (the one big loss was all the way back on March 17th at KC).
If there's one team that won't feel too sorry for us for losing De Ro for the rest of the regular season, it's the Revs. They lost top scorer Saer Sene to a torn ACL a little while back, and it wasn't that long ago that club legend Shalrie Joseph was shipped off to Chivas USA. They're even in the odd position of seeing a player like Benny Feilhaber sitting the bench. Just to give you an idea on how far Feilhaber's stock has fallen in the eyes of Jay Heaps, SB Nation's Revs blog The Bent Musket was thinking about his worth as trade bait on Thursday.
foolish quirky approach Heaps has taken has not seen his team give up on him. They're still fighting, and their backs are against the wall: A loss to United would eliminate the Dixie Wanderers from the 2012 playoff race. Obviously they're already more or less out of the race, but teams tend to fight hard to delay the inevitable in this kind of situation, and you can be sure that Heaps would take plenty of joy in damaging the playoff prospects of a team he always seemed to relish playing against. It's like killing the murderer in any horror movie: They're not dead until they're really dead.
The Revs have gone back and forth from a 442 to a 4231 for much of the season, but considering their most recent attempt at a 442 saw them snap a 10-game winless streak (by the way, their last two wins were over Columbus and NYRB. Thanks guys!), I would expect that formation tonight:
There are only two real question marks. In the back, AJ Soares has been preferred for most of the past two years over Darrius Barnes, but Soares had a minor hamstring issue recently that opened the door for Barnes, who may have played his way into the starting role for the time being. If Barnes does end up getting the start, United should be very aware of his long throw-in, which is the most deadly in MLS. It's not just about distance: Barnes fires his throw-ins towards the area with the kind of velocity you tend to associate with a traditional cross. Anywhere within 40-45 yards of goal, and Barnes is within range.
The other question mark is Jerry Bengtson, who is probably going to play despite playing all 180 minutes for Honduras in their two World Cup qualifying wins over Cuba (scoring once in each game to boot). If Bengtson has some small knock that Heaps wants to protect, or if he's just too tired to start, I would expect to see 17 year old Diego Fagundez - who played 73 minutes in New England's win over the Crew - get the start and be replaced by Bengtson in the early portion of the second half. It's also possible that Fagundez, a more natural second forward than Dimitry Imbongo, starts alongside Bengtson.
In the intro, I mentioned that Feilhaber is buried on the Revolution bench. In his place has been energetic utility player Ryan Guy, who has taken advantage of his new starting role with some quality performances. Guy was previously best known as that one American playing in the League of Ireland, and came back to the US known primarily as a winger. As a Rev, however, Guy has played all over the place: both wings, right back, withdrawn forward, lone striker, defensive midfield, and now a more box-to-box role alongside former United stalwart Clyde Simms.
Guy isn't exactly the world's best player - utility guys never are - but he never stops running. If Branko Boskovic is going to play (highly likely now that Marcelo Saragosa is apparently doubtful with a hamstring strain), he has to be prepared for Guy to always be buzzing around him, and the rest of the midfield will need to take note of any late runs he makes out of the middle to join the attack. Those can come down the middle, but he is a former winger, so he can also swap spots with a wide man for a move forward here or there.
Benching Feilhaber and trading Joseph away has also seen the Revs drop the surprisingly attractive soccer Heaps had them playing earlier this season in favor of a more scrappy, blue-collar approach. The Revs might have played some nice soccer before, but it left a defense that (on paper, at least) is simply not MLS quality exposed. The idea of late has been to keep games tight and hope for players like Lee Nguyen or Bengtson to make do with fewer chances to go forward.
Speaking of Nguyen, his tendency to drift inside from the left - sometimes all the way to the right - both with and without the ball has troubled us this season (particularly in our 2-1 win at Gillette Stadium back in April, a game in which Nguyen excelled despite needing an IV before kickoff due to an illness). Our right-sided players can't simply track Nguyen all the way across the field without exposing their wing, so the key here is handing him off at the right moment. That requires attention to detail and, above all, strong communication.
One quick note about the Revolution midfield: New acquisition Juan Toja is available to play, but is not match fit. Heaps probably won't want to use him unless the game is close and he can throw him in for 15 minutes in search of an equalizer. Toja is an excellent player with a history at RFK, but I think the timing of this game is a bit of good luck for us.
Up front, Bengtson and Imbongo might not know each other very well. Between injuries for Imbongo and Honduras call-ups for Bengtson, these two have only had 15 minutes on the field together in MLS play.
Imbongo - a Kinshasa native who was previously in the reserves of 1860 Munich - looked like a hard-working oaf in his first Revs appearance, but against the Crew he looked like a far more competent player. He won't wow anybody with his skill, but his work rate and physicality caused the Crew - a team that works hard and is full of big, strong players - some problems.
As for Bengtson, the former Motagua marksman seems to have cured his case of Kenny Cooper-itis (a condition in which a striker who would be great if he stayed centrally ends up drifting to the wing for no apparent reason, and to the detriment of himself and his teammates), and the result has been a quick adjustment to MLS. Bengtson's only made 4 starts due to his commitments with Los Catrachos, but his 0.41 goals per 90 minutes would be good for a 14 goals in a full 34 game season. He offers a little bit of everything: Speed, some strength, and he's fairly clinical as a finisher. If Bengtson isn't getting touches and starts wandering out to the right wing, United has defended well on the night.
Going forward, DC's De Ro-less attack should still be able to find some joy. The new-look Revs back four features German Florian Lechner on the right and Kevin Alston - a career right back - on the left. That's good for United, because Lechner is basically a journeyman caliber defender who would have little hope in a footrace against Chris Pontius or Nick DeLeon.
Pontius in particular should have a good outing. Lechner is vulnerable if Pontius drifts wide left, and right-center back Stephen McCarthy is also not particularly agile or quick-thinking. Pontius (and DeLeon, too) will have the option of going wide around Lechner, cutting into the channel, or going further inside to force McCarthy into a tackle at speed. If United is going to score goals without their talisman, this is the best place to attack.
A key to most great United wins this season has been a strong commitment to applying high pressure all over the field. Tonight would be a great night to see that return. Alston is a stay-at-home fullback due to his lack of comfort with the ball, and now that he's been switched to the left he'll have the ball on his bad foot. Andy Najar and our forwards should look to step forward on Alston and make him hurry his passes; eventually he'll cough one up in a good spot.
High pressure will also work in central midfield. Guy is adequate on the ball but is there for his work rate, not his skill. We all love Simms, but if the guy has a weakness it's that he tends to treat the ball like a time bomb. United will probably be in the 4132 Benuski and some other jerk discussed earlier this week, which means Najar and DeLeon will need to pinch in defensively to compress the space in the midfield.
Just to further emphasize this: United needs to press tonight. Needs. To. Press. Tonight. I rank pressure tonight just as highly as I do focus. It's that vital. A high-pressure approach will pay dividends if the Revs stick with the team that beat Columbus (who, it should be noted, failed to press in a night where they were very sluggish).
This United team can feel sorry for themselves, or they can take a look in the mirror and see what they're made of. Heaps would trade just about anything to Ben Olsen for the starting eleven United has available tonight, because our squad is more talented at virtually every position. On nights like this, where you're playing a lesser team but they're desperate, you have to force them to meet your level of quality.
This is a game playoff teams win, with or without their top player. The Revs are a competitive team, but they don't know how to win games, and at this time of year that killer instinct is almost like having an extra man on the field. If United can combine a touch of ruthlessness with hard work and the obvious advantage in ability, this game should absolutely be a win. If, however, the Black-and-Red simply turn up expecting an all-but-eliminated team to just roll over and die, our season will be in truly deep trouble.