Let's flash back to late April for a second. On the 21st, D.C. United lost 3-2 at home to the Philadelphia Union thanks mostly to a simply horrendous show of defending in the first half. Since then, we've alternated between similar defensive failings and games where our inability to convert (or even create) is the problem. In either case, we suck.
The day before that horror show, the New England Revolution were also being humiliated by an Atlantic coast rival, as the New York Red Bulls pummeled them 4-1 at Unprepared For Snow Arena. The Revs gave up two goals in the first 10 minutes and two in the last 10, with only a Brandon Barklage own goal offering them any solace. It was a disaster.
Here's the difference: Since then, the Revs have moved some starters around, emphasized their skill on the ball over hard work or speed, and are suddenly red hot. In the ensuing seven games, the Revs are 4W-2D-1L, a spell in which they've given up just three goals. They will enter tonight's game with a 305 minute shutout streak. Last weekend, on national television, they steamrolled the two-time defending MLS Cup champion LA Galaxy by a score of 5-0. They have the best defense in MLS, only conceding 9 goals in 13 matches (or a pace to let up just 24 goals over an entire season...and that's including the NYRB disaster).
In other words, we're like Charlie Murphy hitting the basketball court against Prince and, er, The Revolution. No one is talking about the Revs right now, just like no one knew that "this cat could ball." Of course, the bad news is that getting embarrassed here won't result in a brilliant comedy skit years later, and we won't have the honor of losing to a genius like Prince. No one's going to serve us pancakes if the Revs end up with a landslide victory.
Where was I? Oh, right. The Revs have accomplished this with almost the same roster they had last year. What they gained with #1 overall pick Andrew Farrell only makes up for what they lost when normal starting fullback Kevin Alston was diagnosed with leukemia. Aside from the arrival of center back Jose Goncalves and the recent trade for Juan Agudelo, this is essentially the same roster that was out of the playoff hunt before summer was over last year.
Guys like Saer Sene and AJ Soares have missed games due to injury. Matt Reis missed weeks of training to be with his family after his father-in-law was badly injured in the Boston Marathon bombings. The defensive midfield position in the 4141 that Jay Heaps prefers has been a revolving door all season long for various reasons. In other words, the Revs haven't even gotten the breaks off the field, and they're still making it work.
Speaking of their formation, the Revs told NBC Sports that they were calling it a 433 against LA. That's not really an indicator of how they set up, but rather how the players they selected think of themselves. Sene and Diego Fagundez would likely call themselves forwards, but they were very much playing wide midfield roles. Heaps has found a way to fit two playmaking attacking midfielders into a midfield that also has lifelong forwards playing as wingers without becoming a horrible defense in the exchange:
How does that work? The Revs emphasize their use of the ball, the skill they have throughout their midfield, and the speed of the wingers to push higher up the field and force teams into playing cautiously. They aren't killing teams with possession, but they can if you let them, and what possession they do have is being economically turned into chances thanks to Lee Nguyen's ability to pull the strings.
That's in contrast to their old use of the same formation, where Heaps would play either Fagundez or utility man Ryan Guy on the right and have Nguyen play from the left. The idea was that Nguyen's lack of speed and disinterested defending were liabilities in the middle, so he had to play on the wing. In the middle, Toja would be partnered with a box-to-box type that emphasized energy over skill. This is a very common idea in MLS, to the point that FC Dallas even tried to play David Ferreira out there in the preseason until they came to their senses. It's not just MLS, either; this is an international trend.
It wasn't working in New England, though, so Heaps went the other way. He figured Nguyen is his key man, so the team should be built to his strengths in terms of style and approach, rather than built to accommodate him. Nguyen started to get a lot more touches by being in the center of the field, and the Revs suddenly got a lot more inventive going forward. By adding attack-first players on the wings rather than trying to replace the lost central grit with hard-running wide men, Heaps has essentially doubled down on Nguyen and Toja being able to win the midfield with skill and smarts, as they now have more weapons to attack with than before.
As for the question marks, many of them are not really a big deal. Sene and Fagundez will start unless they get hurt in the warm-up or ate spoiled food for breakfast; it's just a matter of which wing they're occupying at kickoff. They'll switch for 15-20 minute spells throughout, so it almost doesn't matter.
At center back, Stephen McCarthy should maintain his spot despite AJ Soares apparently returning from an injury. Soares had been first choice in the past, but McCarthy has been in form and is better on the ball (further helping the Revs emphasize skill). Soares is big on macho stand-offs - he has, more than once, thumped his chest on the field a la Tarzan - and brave (but reactive) defending, which isn't as good a fit for New England. McCarthy's anticipation and calm way of going about his business - he was a defensive midfielder until last year - compliments the rest of the team in a way that Soares doesn't. Unless Heaps has no understanding of why his changes have worked, McCarthy should continue as the starter.
Defensive midfield has been a toss-up all year. Former United stalwart Clyde Simms has six starts, former Premier League man Kalifa Cisse has the same, and Homegrown signing Scott Caldwell has five. Out of the group, Caldwell's 515 minutes played on the season is tops, with Simms on 495 and Cisse on 456. It really has been a role evenly shared between the three, with a few uses of a 4231 with two of this trio sprinkled in. Tonight, Simms is out with an MCL sprain, so it's a two-man race. Since Caldwell has started the last two games, I'm guessing he'll retain his spot, but rotation here has happened for no apparent reason more than once in 2013.
I mentioned the defensive strength of the Revs, who have eight shutouts on the year. Much of the credit should go to Goncalves, who has organized a group that has changed repeatedly over the course of the season while having no steady defensive midfielder in front of him and a young goalkeeper (Bobby Shuttleworth) behind him. Attacking players like Claudio Bieler and Diego Valeri will probably hog the Newcomer of the Year votes in a few months, but Goncalves deserves every bit as much consideration as the brains behind MLS's stingiest defense.
How on earth is MLS's worst offense supposed to create anything against this group? It might help to actually make them physically defend (i.e. 1v1 down the wings or battling for balls in the air). The Revs are so good at anticipating that they don't get tested in real challenges that often. With slow-for-a-fullback Chris Tierney on the left, United should have a clear idea of going after him with speed regularly and forcing him to either risk stepping up to close space or stand off and let our attackers face goal.
Testing Farrell on the right would also be nice, but it requires a different method. Farrell is rightly being compared to Marvell Wynne due to his recovery speed, but he's physically more imposing and is (a lot) better on the ball than Wynne was as a rookie. Farrell's issues are going to be things like timing and positioning; he's only a rookie, after all. The idea should be to trick Farrell into moving out of position, and then use the gap to get in behind. However, once United is going down the left side, the ball has to be served quickly due to Farrell's outstanding recovery speed.
On Filibuster this week, Steve Stoehr from The Bent Musket noted that a high energy, high pressure game could well disrupt the otherwise harmonious Revolution attack. There's probably something to that, for a variety of reasons. First of all, the Revs are lacking in size and strength in the midfield, and unless Cisse starts they'll have a significant lack of steel centrally. Second, on the worst surface in MLS, it should be easier to force turnovers and errant passes than it would be on a nice grass field. It's no coincidence that the teams that have effectively hassled the Revs during this run of form have mostly gotten decent results (LA excepted, as their 70 minutes of playing New England even were undone when they melted down after Nguyen controversially put the Revs up 2-0).
Some of those teams, like Real Salt Lake and the Portland Timbers, have the quality to play the Revs at their own game while pressuring. We don't really have that these days, so most likely we'll have to make this an ugly game and throw New England off their stride rather than try to play them toe-to-toe. If United can't play the kind of soccer the Revs are capable of, the way to get something out of this game is to prevent the Revs from playing that kind of soccer as well.
Defensively, United is going to have to suffocate Nguyen whenever possible. That's not too hard in isolated moments due to his lack of speed, but he has a knack of eventually finding space. That job has gotten easier with how stretched teams are having to defend Sene and Fagundez down the wings. It's of the utmost importance that our central midfielders all chip in to make sure that Nguyen isn't getting time to create, because he will turn that time into chances for others. Even when he doesn't get the assist - the team leader, Kelyn Rowe, probably won't even start - Nguyen usually sets his teammates up to play the cross that becomes a goal, or plays a pass that turns into chaos in the box that ends in a goal.
From the wings, both Sene and Fagundez like to come in from their wide spots (like most forwards pushed into the midfield do) and go to goal. Fagundez has goals in four straight games, most of which are a product of either a) making a slashing run between a fullback and a center back or b) cutting in to isolate a defender and then beating him on the dribble. Organization and communication are keys to prevent the gaps from inviting those runs and to stop players from being 1v1 against a player who just can't stop scoring right now.
Sene is a similar threat, having scored 11 goals last season. However, he prefers to go around fullbacks and then cut in rather than slash through the defense. The same ideas would work, though: If Sene does round either fullback, an organized defense should have someone in place to cover Sene and force him to turn back or run out of room. An additional threat with Sene is that he's probably the best long-range threat the Revs have. He's an awkward player to deal with, because if you stand off him he'll do that, but if you step in on him you risk him dancing around your tackle and charging forward. Sometimes it's easier said than done.
Finally, Juan Agudelo's movement and ability to hold play up has been important given that he's been alone up top of late. Agudelo has the combination of first touch and strength that allows him to corral the ball and prevent being pushed off of it while waiting for help. However, he seems less adept at manufacturing his own looks, so United should focus on cutting off his options to pass back to Nguyen or Toja, as well as getting men between Agudelo and both wingers. Again, it's easier said than done, but that's why the Revs are winning games. It will be easier to stop Agudelo from combining with others than it will to deny him service, especially since the Revs focus what few long balls they play down the wings for Sene and Fagundez to chase instead of having Agudelo battle it out with center backs in the air.
Psychologically, United might face the most difficult challenge of all. Our players have to believe that they can go on the road against a team that never gives up goals and get a positive result out of it. It's a sort of willful self-deception that every bad team has to make in order to start climbing out of the pit they've dug. If United shows up thinking "Well, no one has scored on the Revs in weeks, and we couldn't even score on Richmond," the game is already lost before the whistle blows.
This is going to be a very stern test for los Capitalinos. The Revs are flying high right now, and their basic idea - to pull defenses out of position with good movement, accurate passing, and the vision of Nguyen and Toja - unfortunately dovetails with our tendency to defend by scrambling rather than anticipating. Our wastefulness in possession, if it continues today, will only feed them more chances to attack. And of course, it's MLS's least productive offense facing the toughest defense to breach.
All that said, this is not some unbeatable juggernaut. The Revs are young, they've only very recently settled on a starting line-up, and their central midfield consists of two playmakers who don't like to defend and, most likely, a rookie with 8 professional appearances. If United can prevent the Revs from dictating the terms of the game and instead make it into a scrappy battle of wills, things might actually go our way. All their attacking weapons will start to look like a liability if the game becomes more about bite than ability. It's not entertaining to have to play this way, but it would be suicidal to try and out-soccer this Revolution team, and we've already lost enough this season.