Anybody else still feel a little dizzy after Wednesday night? It's been so long since D.C. United won in any competition, I think my tolerance for the happiness chemicals in my brain must have dropped, and I'm suffering what can only be described as a dopamine hangover. But by tomorrow night, when the Black-and-Red host Toronto FC, I'm hoping to be back at 100% and ready to endure another happy hangover (and not the kind that can follow losing... again).
To help us get ready for the invading Canadians, I exchanged a few questions with Duncan Fletcher, my counterpart at SB Nation's outstanding TFC site Waking the Red. My questions for Duncan are first, along with his answers and all the funny Canadian spelling they carry. You can see my answers to his questions a bit farther down.
Questions for Waking the Red
Happy Relegation Bowl 2013! With Toronto FC the only team within a shout of being as bad as D.C. United* what, if anything, is TFC's biggest strength coming into this weekend? (* excluding the raging dumpster fire that is Chivas USA, of course)
I seriously think relegation would be the best possible thing that could have happened to TFC in the last 7 years, but oh well. TFC's biggest strength? As wrong as it feels to say this, it's currently the defence. Yes, there hasn't been one clean sheet all season, 19 goals in 13 games isn't actually all that terrible, and for a team with a 1-7-5 record, a -7 goal difference isn't bad. As annoying as it is to hear it from Ryan Nelsen after every single defeat, we have been in every game, no-one's scored more than 2 goals against TFC and there's only been one game TFC have lost by more than one goal, and in that one the 2nd was scored in injury time. Injuries (Richard Eckersley) alarming loss of form (Ashtone Morgan) and a curious dropping that can only be explained by some sort of unknown behind the scenes drama (Danny Califf) have led to a series of ever changing makeshift lineups at the back, but they've still usually managed to do ok back there.
The main problem is that we've very rarely scored the goals to give the defence any kind of breathing room, only once all season have TFC been up by two goals, and that pressure has led to a lot of panicky late game collapses that have undone the good work of the first 80 minutes or so. TFC still don't know how to close a game out, but they're generally quite good at getting to the end of the game with a chance, that's down to the defending more than anything else.
Last season, before he signed with Queens Park Rangers and subsequently took the head job in Toronto, Ryan Nelsen was rumored to be coming back to D.C. United as a player-coach for Ben Olsen. The prospect had us pretty excited down here, though it didn't work out. How has our favorite Kiwi looked on the other side of the touch line for the Reds so far?
It's maybe too early to tell, but for now at least results are bad and opinions are mixed. It was a very tough situation for a rookie coach to be put into, a poor team that was about to undergo yet another rebuild, with very little fanbase patience left, and there's very little experienced help for him to draw upon from his assistants. He's learning on the job, there's been some odd substitutions and his incessant post game positivity can be grating to supporters who've gone through years of different coaches telling us that things are better than what we all just watched. The squad isn't really good enough right now to expect too much. As you'd expect from him, the defence does seem improved, with a more teamwide focus and an effort to press high up the pitch, so hopefully that focus will continue to provide a foundation that can be the start of a good team when the overall squad quality is improved. For now I'd go with cautious, though far from convinced, optimism.
Another connection between our two distinguished clubs is one Mr. Kevin Payne. He's the only club president United have ever known (the position was eliminated when he left this winter), and now he's running things at BMO field. We all know TFC has historically been a club that never exactly valued consistency or the long term - has the introduction of KP to the mix changed that?
There certainly hasn't been signs of consistency or stability yet, we're still very much in the early stages of purging and rebuilding, which seems to be being approached in two phases, trying to solidify things right now, along with looking more long term. the old coach and two DP's were jettisoned before the season started along with plenty of the old squad. While rebuilding for right now, it seems like flexibility for the future was a definite concern, with a lot of players brought in on loan deals, two of which have already been sent back to their clubs. The draft was used to bring in allocation money and it seems like salary cap space is very much being pursued right now, Terry Dunfield was released this Thursday and reports suggest Danny Califf and Stefan Frei are both being shopped around, high price backups are apparently not part of the plan.
That means the squad right now is definitely lacking, but there's plenty of talk of new players being brought in who will hopefully improve things. The one signing Payne has made so far that is definitely supposed to be part of the long term is Matias Laba, a defensive midfielder brought in from Argentinian as a young DP. It's questionable whether that much money needs to be spent on that position, but Laba has looked very good so far, a decent passer of the ball and a tough tackler who's not afraid to take a smart yellow card when it's called for.
Hopefully once he gets in the players he wants it will then lead to some much needed stability, for now though it's been chaos as usual.
And finally, how about a lineup projection and a match prediction?
Lineup - Joe Bendik in goal. In defence Doneil Henry is suspended and Darren O'Dea loooks unlikely to be healthy, so I'll guess at Ryan Richter, Steven Caldwell, Gale Agbossoumonde and Ashtone Morgan. In midfield Matias Laba, Jeremy Hall, Jonathan Osorio and Bobby Convey looked good in the last game against Philadelphia so they should continue with Luis Silva sitting behind Robert Earnshaw up front.
Prediction: may the winless streaks continue, with a 1-1 tie, De Rosario tying it up late.
Questions for B&RU
Happy Relegation Bowl 2013! Anyone could have predicted TFC struggling this year, but what the hell happened in D.C? Is there hope that whatever went wrong can be fixed by Ben Olsen or will a change need to be made there?
Is there a toast we say for the Relagation Bowl? "Here's to staying up!" comes to mind - not that going down is a worry in North America... But I digress. Mostly on purpose, because, as a D.C. United fan, I want very few things less than to look at the year 2013 so far. The team failed to improve in the offseason, and in a league that is making strides the way MLS is, that's a recipe for doom. We thought the consistency and added depth would prove to be a good thing, but the losses of Branko Boskovic, Hamdi Salihi and, especially, Andy Najar were too much to overcome. Combine that with Dwayne De Rosario starting to show his age and regressions from attackers like Chris Pontius and Nick DeLeon and the center back pairing of Dejan Jakovic and Brandon McDonald, and you have yourself a last place team. There's hope - not a lot, but some, especially after Wednesday's U.S. Open Cup performance - that Benny & Co. are righting the ship. We haven't heard nearly enough rumors of summer transfers, though, and some new blood in the roster is sorely needed.
Alain Rochat is now a United player, what do fans make of the signing and what difference do you see him making for DC?
Speaking of new blood, there's Rochat, who seems likely to debut for United and start at left back on Saturday. He's a veteran in what has shown to be a painfully young defense this season. This team needed somebody to know when to slow things down in the back and when to dig in, and even if Rochat isn't the top left back in the league, he should provide those elements to United. With the team beset by injuries - thus proving that the Black-and-Red are entirely less deep than originally thought months ago - Rochat's versatility may come into play as well.
Now for the obligatory Canadian portion of this. How come De Ro hasn't been playing? How's Jakovic looking this year? How has Kyle Porter settled into the team and does he look like becoming a part of DC's future? Can we have all 3 for the Gold Cup please?
De Ro hasn't been playing because he hasn't been De Ro. Before his hat trick in Open Cup play this week, he had a single goal on the season to go along with a lone assist, and the team was losing. Every other starter had been pulled at one point or another to no avail, so really, it was Ben Olsen throwing anything he had at the wall to see if something would stick. (It didn't.)
Dejan Jakovic thrilled us all last season. Since his arrival at RFK stadium from Serbian club Red Star Belgrade before 2009, we've al seen his speed - especially in recovery - his comfort on the ball, and his emergency defending ability. But it never all came together for an extended period - he'd always be undone by switching off at an inopportune time(s). The ceiling was high, but we weren't sure if he'd ever reach it. Then, 2012. He pulled it all together and combined with Brandon McDonald to create a lock-down defense down the stretch. This year, it's like 2012 never happened - back to the same old mistakes and brain farts.
Kyle Porter has been a little bit of fresh air during United's horrid run this season. His willingness to take players on has been complimented by improving crossing ability and better understanding with his teammates. He's willing to try a lot of things, and many of them come tantalizingly close to coming off without quite getting there. He's somebody to keep an eye on, for sure.
It's Gold Cup - I don't think we can stop you. Just don't hurt our De Ro (again) or our Dejan (again) or our Porter, k?
Lineup and score prediction?
United finally got some bodies back from injury just in time to lose half the team to the trainers in Wednesday's Open Cup win, so let's see what Ben Olsen will cobble together. It'll be a 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 with Bill Hamid in goal and a defense of Chris Korb, Dejan Jakovic, Daniel Woolard and Alain Rochat. Perry Kitchen and John Thorrington will hold down central midfield with Kyle Porter (currently listed as questionable, but I think he'll go) and Nick DeLeon on the wings. Dwayne De Rosario will occupy the space underneath target man Rafael Teixeira de Souza (and hopefully not Lionard Pajoy).
I think this is the one where D.C. get off the schneid in league play: 2-0 for the boys in black.
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What are your thoughts on the Reds, and how do you think United will match up? Have your say in the comments. And, of course, be sure to check out the rest of Duncan & Co.'s work over at Waking the Red.