Sometimes perception and reality are rather far apart. D.C. United's opponent tonight, the Vancouver Whitecaps, are a good example: There was recent talk of head coach Martin Rennie being on the hot seat, yet if the playoffs started today Vancouver would get in. In fact, of late they've gone 4W-1D-1L, winning their last two despite starting their fourth- and fifth-best center backs together due to injuries to Andy O'Brien and Brad Rusin.
Why is Rennie still seen as under pressure? There are plenty of reasons. Ownership has spent money, including shelling out one of MLS's few seven-figure salaries to Kenny Miller. They've also gotten lucky on some player acquisitions, like Nigel Reo-Coker choosing them over the Portland Timbers (who had the higher discovery ranking at the time) or getting Darren Mattocks thanks to the Montreal Impact opting to take Andrew Wenger instead.
Perhaps more importantly, last season's team was in a great spot before a late-season swoon saw them back into the playoffs, where they summed their season up in a microcosm by fielded a puzzling line-up, taking an early lead, and then letting it slip away. After starting 2013 with two wins, Vancouver then went on a seven game winless streak, which is where the whispers about Rennie's future became audible.
The biggest change between the seven-game winless run and the current streak is down to Rennie finally trial-and-error-ing his way to a front three that works. Pint-sized Brazilian Camilo has 8 goals this season (plus 3 in 4 Canadian Cup games) despite hardly fitting the MLS convention for a lone center forward. Miller - a classic #9 before he arrived - plays from the left and has finally found his footing after being written off as a huge bust (think arguably a bigger bust than Marcelo Gallardo). Their recent play has been outstanding: Camilo has 5 goals in his previous 3 games, while Miller has 3 in 4.
Those two have been helped greatly by the play of Russell Teibert, who is making the breakthrough he always looked like he'd make if he ever got the chance to find himself in a run of matches. Teibert is less of a goalscoring threat than a roving creator able to give Camilo and Miller the service they need and the runs to keep defenders from cheating towards those two. Here's how in-form Teibert is: He entered June with 0 assists, and right now is just one off the MLS lead (held by Sebastien Le Toux, with 7).
Of course, nothing's perfect. The success of this trio has reduced Mattocks to a bit-part role; the Jamaican has played just two minutes in Vancouver's last five matches (and zero in the last four). It almost makes you hope he's being shopped around, what with us being in need of a fast, athletic young striker that won't need much of an adjustment period to MLS. Touted signing Daigo Kobayashi was supposed to be a less erratic version of Davide Chiumiento, but after some decent early performances was shunted out to the wing - Rennie will change formations all day long, but refuses to entertain the idea of a central attacking midfielder - and eventually found himself on the bench. He has been playing lately, but only when others are unavailable.
Like most mid-table MLS teams, Vancouver is doing well at home but is really struggling on the road (1W-1D-5L). Their only road win was at Red Bull Arena and was aided by Jamison Olave's 75th minute red card with the scores level. However, the Whitecaps aren't exactly a soft mark: They've only been shut out twice, and they've only let one home team score more than two goals. Generally speaking, they're losing tight games and creating some danger going forward rather than simply turning up as the day's sacrificial lamb.
I touched on Rennie's formation before. Basically, it's a 433 at home and a 4141 away, with the only positional difference being how far up the field the wide attacking players are. Vancouver may be feeling confident given United's terrible home record, but they'll still stick with the 4141 having flown cross-country:
One question mark isn't even in question. Young-Pyo Lee is being rested this week, and Reo-Coker has admitted to the press that he'll be filling in. That's an intriguing change. Reo-Coker will be more physical and likely will take more time on the ball, but is less mobile and has nowhere near Lee's experience (possibly the most experienced field player in MLS) as a right back. Reo-Coker's one game in that role against an MLS team came outside MLS competition, as he went 90 minutes there in the scoreless first leg of the Voyageurs Cup final.
More importantly, that means Reo-Coker won't be in central midfield, which is a huge plus for United. Reo-Coker is a great example of what a real midfield general is. In the US, the term is often misused on any player who happens to be a battling player with even modest skill. What it really means is a player who leads his team verbally and by example; think of someone who is both the brain and the heart of his team. That's Reo-Coker, who organizes his teammates, sets the tempo, and puts in hard work every game to set the right tone. The Whitecaps don't have a player who can embody all those characteristics, meaning that this is the right moment to play them.
In central defense, it's all about fitness. The pairing of Carlyle Mitchell and Johnny Leveron has seen two wins, but one was a wild 4-3 win over the 10-man New England Revolution, and the other was over Chivas USA and thus barely counts. If O'Brien or Rusin is fit, they'll replace the very suspect Mitchell. If both are fit, look for them to pair up at CB. If neither can play, United should focus on both attacking centrally and also high-pressing in anticipation of mistakes, because the chances will be there all game long. Sadly, that looks fairly unlikely.
In the midfield, Reo-Coker's position (but not his role) will probably go to Jun Marques Davidson, who has fallen out of favor due to poor form. Rennie reportedly used Rusin as a defensive midfielder in training - a role he played in the same game that Reo-Coker was previously at right back - but it's a very poor fit for Rusin's skill set. Between the weakness at center back if Rusin doesn't play there and the fact that Davidson is a natural anchor midfielder, this seems like it should be an easy choice. That said, don't put it past Rennie to overthink this one.
Ahead of the anchor man, it seems like Matt Watson will get a call given a series of facts like Teibert's form as a right winger, Reo-Coker's temporary relocation, and the status of Gershon Koffie. The young Ghanaian may be making a return this week, and will start if he's fit to do so. If not, look for Teibert to move into central midfield. His role on the right will either go to Kobayashi, Eric Hurtado (think a faster but more raw Danny Cruz), or Kekuta Manneh, who Rennie prefers as a supersub rather than as a starter because he doesn't like fun.
In terms of how the Whitecaps play, they're a good illustration of how formation and approach don't automatically mean you'll play attractive soccer. Vancouver plays a fashionable formation (just try to get a job coaching within the USSF these days without stating that you prefer a 433) and their focus is on a possession-oriented game that thrives on skill with the ball and smart movement rather than size and speed.
That should add up to a tremendously entertaining team, but Rennie's cautious nature means he fills his central midfield with guys known for their work rate and physicality more than anything else, and he wants his teams to play defense-first soccer. Possession for the Whitecaps is designed to shield the defense first and to attack second. On the turf at BC Place, they open up and throw more high-speed counters into the mix, but on the road the idea is to pinch a result somehow rather than anything more high-minded.
None of that is meant to imply that the Whitecaps are a non-threat going forward. With Camilo and Miller in particular, the threat is that they'll use their excellent spatial awareness to give themselves room to run into. United must defend as a unit and above all must communicate and stay focused. Both of those players are the sort of guy that punish you precisely when one defender takes half a second off because the ball is 50 yards away. Both Camilo and Miller are excellent at sensing when their marker has dozed off, and the whole Whitecaps team makes sure their first look on the ball is to see if either has a window to get in behind the defense.
With the ability and form of the entire front three, United's best bet is to prevent them from getting much of the ball rather than trying to defend them once they've got it over and over again. That means making central midfield a nightmare in terms of pressure. Unless Teibert is used centrally, none of the three central players is much of a playmaker; in traffic, they're all far more comfortable just playing a simple pass sideways or backward. If we don't give them time to pick out their passes forward, there won't be much of a supply line for the Vancouver attack.
If one of the front three has to see the ball, it would be best to see Miller having to check back deep, as he's less of a creative threat. More than likely, Miller will simply pass the ball back from whence it came. The more he's facing away from goal and/or dropping deeper into the midfield, the better things are going for DC.
Each pictured central midfielder has an issue. Koffie is a quality young player who always seems to be around the ball, but he's not yet skillful enough to do much damage with the ball in terms of passing (though as a #8 he is a credible goal threat). Watson is similarly busy, but tends to be far more lateral than Koffie. The typical Watson play involves him carrying the ball towards a teammate to connect a five-yard pass rather than just make a twenty-yarder. He has a lack of confidence in his passing ability, which means he's more of a midfield bureaucrat connecting the players who actually do things together. Davidson, meanwhile, is a bit over-confident in his ability on the ball and can be a source of turnovers; given his deep positioning, those turnovers should be rapidly turned into threatening attacks.
Free kicks around the 18 are an underrated threat for Vancouver. Camilo might be the single biggest threat to score directly from a free kick in MLS, especially since Juninho Pernambucano left that part of his game back in France. The job is tricky here: If United is too focused on avoiding fouls, guys like Camilo and Teibert will get past their defender. If United is overaggressive, this could be the result. Camilo is even a threat from out on either wing, and you'd best believe that he'll be looking for Bill Hamid to telegraph that he's expecting a cross.
The fullbacks will also be a factor. Harvey isn't the best defender, but overlaps relentlessly to make up for it. Oddly enough, he's scored three goals this month, and two came from the run of play rather than following a set piece. When the ball shifts wide to Teibert (or Kobayashi, for that matter), United needs someone - likely our right midfielder, but it could also be a forward if need be - tracking Harvey. That means knowing where he is before the ball breaks wide, and then anticipating his tendency to make a hard run into the area rather late in the play.
Reo-Coker, on the other hand, will likely still try to do what he can to make his normal impact from right back. That means he'll probably take his time on the ball and attempt to continue setting the tempo. He'll probably be further forward than a normal right back when Vancouver is just playing the ball around in their half, but won't overlap very often. If United can effectively sever him from the rest of the team - namely, by putting him under enough pressure that his only option is to quickly play to a fellow defender or all the way back to Brad Knighton - he can't transmit that sense of calm to his teammates. What we want is for Reo-Coker to have to focus entirely on his fundamental duties as a right back rather than having the chance to go above and beyond in influencing his team's overall play.
Going forward, our last two performances would be good enough to create chances against Vancouver. O'Brien is coming off of an injury, and Rusin is merely a reasonable player for an MLS team to have as their third center back rather than an impressive starter. With Harvey attacking in part to hide his defensive weaknesses and Reo-Coker not a right back, there should be a mix of disorganization (in spite of O'Brien's vast experience) and beatable individual defenders. There's a reason Whitecaps fans were so upset about losing Alain Rochat.
If Leveron is in, there will be some communication issues - he's still learning English - as well as the fact that he's only listed as 5'9" and 165 lbs (oddly, this might sell him short an inch of height, but either way that's small for a defender in MLS). If we're lucky enough to see Mitchell, his positioning is very suspect and should be preyed upon constantly.
We should also make sure we supply our wide midfielders frequently. Harvey can be beaten 1v1 and may be caught out of position trying to attack. On the right, Reo-Coker lacks the lateral quickness as well as the speed that Lee has, and thus should be attacked with speed rather than intricate combinations (which he has the soccer IQ to figure out). If you find yourself thinking "Haven't thought of (insert DC winger) in a while," United is doing it all wrong.
Just as set pieces are a worry defensively, they could be fruitful for the Black-and-Red at the other end of the field. Knighton isn't a decisive or physically imposing goalkeeper, and there's a mentality issue with some Vancouver players. The same flaws that make Reo-Coker so important to the mindset of this team are also things he can't help his teammates with when it comes to marking up. Some players lack the focus necessary to stay marked tightly, while others lack the "take it personal" mindset that good defensive teams have. United can win the box by attacking corners and free kicks more vigorously than we've been doing this season. It's not about service or the type of runs, but rather the conviction put into those runs that counts here.
This game could well end up being a high-scoring affair. Vancouver's attack is carrying them to good results recently, and that's happening in spite of a defense that is banged up and flawed. United is showing signs of life going forward and is improving defensively, but we haven't improved so much that a shutout should be expected here. Assuming recent form holds, both attacks will be better than the defense they're facing.
That being the case, United really needs to make sure to win the midfield. That's how we can cut down on the opportunities for that deadly front three, and would also allow us more cracks at the weak Whitecaps defense. It will require a lot of work on short rest, but some intelligence with our use of the ball can cut down on how much out-and-out running United needs to put in.
With Vancouver having conceded four goals in the first twenty minutes of their previous three games, the start of this match is huge. The Whitecaps are bleeding early goals right now, and United has been doing that at home all season. Both teams will have a reason to get tired late (short rest for us, long trip for them), and being behind when that fatigue hits means that a comeback is probably not in the cards.