I made the JV soccer team in my freshman year of high school, but there was no coach in place until halfway through tryouts. The man named to the job did his best to keep morale up and made sure that we ran more than every other team we faced, but he had no soccer knowledge whatsoever. He would sit us down from time to time and give long-winded talks that, when boiled down, expressed his inability to understand how a game can be so unfair and yet so beloved. These weren't criticisms of the beautiful game; rather, he simply had to get the fact that our pretty talented squad could end up tying a team of guys who maybe had four or five guys that would have even made our 22-man team. He'd always close these talks by saying "soccer is a crazy game."
As all soccer fans know, my coach was right. This game we love is at times capricious and arbitrary. When things are going well, your team will play poorly against a bad team, only for the opposing goalkeeper to make a comical error that lets you score an 88th minute game-winner. When things are not going well, you see a 1-0 lead on the road turn on a goal that was clearly offside. In every league in the world, at least one team per week loses despite being "the better team," whatever that means in a sport where styles of play come with moral weight.
It's a good thing that soccer can be so unfair, because in all likelihood D.C. United will need some inexplicable help from the fates tonight to beat Real Salt Lake. I haven't encountered a single neutral fan that thinks United can get their hands on the club's thirteenth trophy tonight, and for good reason. RSL is an excellent team, playing at a home field with a significant altitude advantage. They're in the race for the Supporters Shield; United is racing to avoid being the statistically worst team in MLS history. United's only road win in any competition this season came in the USOC semifinal against a Chicago Fire team with a long history of eliminating us from knockout or playoff-style competition (technically, the penalty kick tiebreaker success against the Richmond Kickers is a draw).
That's going the long way around. Let's simplify things: The only United player, assuming everyone on both teams is fit and in form, that could start for Jason Kreis would be Chris Pontius, who would be a wonderful fit as the second forward for RSL given the fact that the role is a sort of forward/winger hybrid. Even our brightest young stars - Bill Hamid, Perry Kitchen, Nick DeLeon, Luis Silva - would only make RSL's bench behind their opposite numbers (Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman, Ned Grabavoy, and Javier Morales).
It's not just the individual talent levels involved, either. While Ben Olsen has had hits and misses turning an oddly assembled group of players into a coherent unit, RSL has showed the rest of MLS how to put together a deep roster that fits the coach's system. Off the field, Real Salt Lake has set themselves up to be their best on the field. United fans should have no qualms about admitting that RSL is an organization we should be trying to mimic in many ways.
So they've got the better players, they fit together better as a group, they're confident and successful, and they're at home. Any more bad news? Well, yes. While our reserves were taking a beating at the hands of Toronto FC, the RSL B team went into Vancouver and beat a full-strength Whitecaps team in desperate need of points. It's not just the result, but the nature of the result: A 1-0 win in which RSL scored early and then made it stand up by sticking to their formula (it's rare in MLS for a road team to win 1-0 via an early goal and still win the possession battle, but RSL did that with relative ease). That means they'll be at full strength tonight.
And yet, United should not go into this game thinking that there's no hope. For one thing, RSL has not had the best history in elimination games at home. In 2008, they comprehensively outplayed the New York Red Bulls but somehow failed to score, falling 1-0 to a goal from Dave Van den Bergh. In 2011, they hosted the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final having gone to Monterrey and snatching a 2-2 draw thanks to an 89th minute goal from Morales. A low-scoring draw or a home victory would have allowed RSL to make history, but Humberto Suazo's goal just before halftime gave Monterrey a 1-0 win at Rio Tinto Stadium - snapping a 37 game unbeaten streak at home for RSL in the process - and with it the CCL trophy.
Their path to this Open Cup final has also been rather more difficult than one would expect given the level of competition. They needed extra time to beat the Atlanta Silverbacks the Charleston Battery - the latter match also requiring a comeback from 2-0 down - despite both games being in Utah and both opponents being lower-level sides. Since then, RSL has met expectations (3-0 over the Carolina Railhawks, 2-0 over the Portland Timbers), but it's still safe to say that their road to the final hasn't been the stroll you'd expect with that schedule.
There's also the small matter of our previous meeting: A 1-0 victory for United at RFK in a game that was evenly played and rather short on real chances. In the end, the two teams probably had canceled each other out well enough for 0-0 to be the fairest score, but John Thorrington served up the game's single best play and Lionard Pajoy managed to turn the resulting rebound into a goal.
Obviously that's going to be hard to replicate. That game was at RFK Stadium, and perhaps more importantly involved a United team that entered the game with just one loss, rather than the case today where we have roughly 750 losses. RSL was also going through a lot in the early part of this season after some salary cap-enforced trades, so it's safe to say that they're a lot better today than they were back in March.
Better or worse, one thing that should be the same is how Kreis will line his team up. The diamond midfield is their calling card, and despite some moderately successful attempts to diversify their available formations, it would be a major shock to see anything but the normal RSL 4312 at kickoff tonight:
While the formation and style of play will be typical RSL, there are a couple of potentially questionable starters. In the back, Carlos Salcedo only turned 20 on Sunday but is in line to start. Kreis has trusted Salcedo as a starter for much of the season due to Chris Schuler's injury troubles. Schuler did play 90 minutes in Vancouver, but it was his first action in a real game since mid-May. Schuler is the better player, but an oft-injured player coming off of a four and a half month layoff is probably not going to start a cup final. The risks - a lack of sharpness causing a mistake, another injury setback, losing a substitution to replace him, and having to deal with a new central defense on the fly - are simply too great.
Perhaps the hardest position to predict is the left side of midfield, where Gil would normally get the start. However, since he went 90 minutes on the BC Place "turf," he might be hard-pressed to be ready for this game on short rest. If Kreis doesn't think Gil can give him at least 55 minutes of his best stuff, he has a couple options to replace him. Khari Stephenson - a player I still believe United should have picked up when he was available in the Re-Entry Draft - could step in and provide a more physical element than Gil (not to mention a booming long-range shot). Another option would be to bring in Sebastian Velasquez, which would likely mean shifting Grabavoy from the right to the left. However, since Velasquez also played the full 90 against the Whitecaps, I think Stephenson is closer to getting the call.
Up front, Alvaro Saborio will play if he's even close to fully recovered from the calf strain that has kept him out recently. In all likelihood, RSL has been resting him in the past two matches so that he can play in this game. If Saborio can't play, it would be a huge slice of good luck for United, as he's simply irreplaceable for Salt Lake. Rookie Devon Sandoval is the other true target man on the roster, but he is well short of Saborio in terms of guile off the ball and skill on it. Kreis has also used Robbie Findley and Olmes Garcia to lead the line, but both are very different players from "Sabo."
The other forward is also a bit of a question, mostly because RSL has been rotating guys into that spot all season long (mostly by choice rather than because of poor form). Joao Plata is turning out to be every bit as good of a signing as I expected for RSL, and he's emerged as the player Kreis chooses for the toughest games. Garcia and Findley are also strong options, with Garcia more similar to Plata and Findley serving as the pure speed option. If it's one of those two getting the start, look for them to play more towards the right rather than the left-sided position I've given Plata in the above image.
The good news for United fans is that the way to jam up the RSL offense is pretty simple on a conceptual level. The Black-and-Red will need to stay compact and disciplined all over the field to deny time and space for RSL's cadre of skillful passers. We'll also need to be the more patient team when RSL is attacking us, because they love to string passes together waiting for a rash decision from the defense.
Kreis has been very open about how his team sacrifices their ability to attack from the wings to overload the middle. That makes perfect sense given the players at his disposal, but it will also give us a very easy way to determine whether this game is going well. If Real Salt Lake's attacks are ending in aerial crosses from out near the touchline over and over again, United is doing a good job. If their attacks frequently see someone pursuing a pass through a gap in our defense within the width of the 18 yard box, things are going poorly.
That's the tricky part with RSL: The strategy needed to shut them down isn't rocket science. It's very simple and based on some regular old fundamentals. The issue always comes down to the execution of this simple plan. The devil is in the details with RSL; if someone is out of position, or inattentive to a run, or even just flat-footed, they will take advantage. I harp on focus all the time, and it's teams like RSL that put your focus to the biggest test. Normally United gives up goals via giant mistakes, but tonight we could easily lose this game because someone was a half-second late to get to where they needed to be.
Obviously compressing the space in the middle and defensive thirds will be vital for United, but that's not to say Olsen should order his side to bunker down (as many pundits expect). Trying to simply defend for 90 minutes is not something United is good at in the first place, and it also reduces the game to simply waiting for RSL to score a goal. Saborio's inclusion makes bunkering even more difficult, as he gives RSL an aerial presence that will force United to do something other than drop deep.
As such, the DC midfield is going to have to take care of the ball and ensure that we get our fair share of possession. This will have three main benefits: First, it actually allows us to mount an attack, which we'll need to have consistently if we want to score enough goals to win this game (since a shutout seems like a lot to ask of this United side). Second, possession will help us hide our defense and relieve them from being under constant pressure. Finally, since RSL is more comfortable in possession than any other MLS team, it stands to reason that they're not going to be so comfortable when the other team is giving them a dose of their own medicine.
It's also vital to make sure whatever possession RSL gets isn't in a steady rhythm. That means combining as a team to keep Kyle Beckerman off the ball as much as possible. Our forward(s) need to work hard to make it difficult for RSL's defenders to play Beckerman the ball out of the back, and in the midfield itself we need to limit the number of times he's used as an option to reset or switch the point of attack. The more Beckerman is getting the ball with ease, the more likely it is that RSL's possession game is going somewhere. If, however, we can force RSL's back four to play the ball elsewhere or go long, we can make the game choppier than they'd like.
In the attack, United won't be able to follow the San Jose blueprint of lumping the ball in the box for headers from our version of Steven Lenhart. RSL has looked a bit shaky in the air without Jamison Olave or Schuler available, but we don't really have the players to take advantage. Instead, our best bet is to make use of the flexible roles Dwayne De Rosario and Luis Silva have in our 4411.
Nat Borchers is an excellent leader at the back, but he can be a bit slow of foot if the opponent throws him a curveball in terms of movement. Salcedo has tremendous potential, but is still only a 20 year old defender; like any youngster, he's going to have difficulties with more complicated or well-disguised runs. A repeat of the stagnant play we saw from our attack in New England would virtually ensure a shutout. If De Ro and Silva can be constantly exchanging roles and approaching from unconventional angles, and if Pontius can line up a few Party Boy Specials (cutting inside on Salcedo), we might actually be able to produce some danger.
In terms of set pieces, RSL is definitely the stronger team at both ends of the field. While their group of potential targets weakened significantly with the departure of Olave, the fact is that Saborio is still tremendous in the air, Borchers is still a threat, and the service from Morales is still very good. Fouling needs to be avoided if possible in the defensive third - especially you, James Riley - and United will also need to be sharp after the initial clearance. RSL is very smart about feeding balls back into the box, and Beckerman has scored plenty of goals on low shots through traffic following half-cleared corners.
At the other end, Nick Rimando's speed and underrated strength mean that he can be very aggressive at coming out to grab or punch services into the box. Quite frankly, I'm not optimistic about United doing much in this department. Our service from corners, no matter who the taker is, usually results in lofted balls that someone like Rimando will eat up. We might be better off taking all of our corners short, because there's nothing gained from just hitting and hoping.
Mentally, this is actually kind of an easy game for United. Thanks to our horrific league form and the quality RSL has all over the field, the expectations are for the home side to win with little fuss. Those are circumstances that will allow United's players, burdened with disappointment over how this brutal season has gone, to put their troubles to the side for the night. RSL is taking this game very seriously, but the ghost of those losses to Monterrey and NYRB still hangs over them. By simply playing RSL evenly to start the game, United can amp up all that pressure within the team and from the stands. Every minute that the score is tied and every turnover that United forces will provoke some restlessness and frustration, and a DC win will require throwing RSL off their mental game as much as anything else.
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- D.C. United vs. Real Salt Lake lineup: US Open Cup final edition
- Escape the Shutdown with D.C. United's 1996 U.S. Open Cup Championship
- TLW: Top 5 Ways DCU Can Win the US Open Cup Just by Doing What They've Done in the Past
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