Remember June? No? Well, you should. First of all, it was only a month ago, and more importantly for the purposes of this piece, it was also D.C. United's best month in 2013. An extraordinarily low bar, to be sure, but in a season where we're racing to the bottom, June was the one month where we were just a mediocre MLS team: 3W-1D-3L, and a shocking +1 goal difference. It speaks to how bad this season is going that United scored more goals in June (eight) than in March, April, May, and July combined (seven).
Please take a second to let that fact wash over you. Pour yourself a shot if you need it. I understand.
Thanks for pulling yourself off the floor/out of the depths of despair. The reason I bring this up is that June brought us two games against the New England Revolution, and United did not lose either one. In early June, we went up 95 and managed to play to a fair 0-0 draw at Gillette Stadium; in late June, we traveled just as far up 270 to Fortress Soccerplex for the Open Cup quarterfinals and deservedly won 3-1. Other than the first twenty minutes of that latter game's second half, we can actually safely say that the playoff-chasing Revs have not outplayed us.
That's downright strange, because the Revs can actually play. This isn't Steve Nicol's "Dempsey/Twellman/Ralston, you handle the soccer. Everyone else, kick someone and/or bunker" side, despite the presence of Jay Heaps - the player who most represented everything wrong about those New England sides - on the sidelines. They're in the playoff race on merit.
At every turn, Heaps has chosen players based on their technical ability first and foremost. Youngster Scott Caldwell has taken over the lone defensive midfield role despite being the most attack-minded of the three players vying for the job. Saer Sene and Diego Fagundez - both originally said to be forwards upon their MLS arrival - are manning the wide midfield roles. Rookie Andrew Farrell has been told to overlap regularly from right back. Chris Tierney's ability to cross and keep possession has kept him on the field at left back, despite his lack of speed. In other words, Heaps is betting big on keeping the ball on the ground, stringing together passing, and winning via skill with the ball.
Oddly enough, this has worked in United's favor. More pragmatic teams who are willing to adjust their game have beaten United up and taken our lunch money over and over again. Houston? Columbus? Both are more than willing to play on the counter or look for set pieces, and both have won all their games against us. Portland bailed on their normally attractive style at RFK to essentially impersonate the Dynamo, and it worked like a charm. Chicago? They've sliced us up with long through balls in both meetings.
The Revs, meanwhile, have fully committed to playing their game regardless of the opponent, the weather, or who they have available. Even last week's conservative line-up in Columbus was more about resting players and getting more defensively strong players on the field, rather than altering how the Revs play. In terms of approach, the idea was the same: Keep the ball on the ground whenever possible, and look to use skill to break teams down rather than simply playing long.
Speaking of which, last week's rotated Revs team worked like a charm, with Jose Goncalves heading in a 91st minute game-winner and Diego Fagundez piling on in the 94th. Fagundez subbed into the game in the second half, and fellow sub Lee Nguyen got the assist on both goals. That said, there's no reason to expect Heaps to keep that team in place; instead, his 4141 will, for the most part, be his best eleven:
The most vital of these absences is certainly Agudelo, whose ability with the ball and intelligence without it make him a far more threatening lone striker than anyone else on the Revolution roster. That said, Dimitry Imbongo caused United some problems in the Open Cup thanks to his strength and a referee who was all too willing to forgive jersey-grabbing and hockey-style shoulder checks. Imbongo's going to do that stuff regardless of the referee, so United's defenders should be ready to deal with having someone aggressively initiating contact at all times. If Imbongo isn't given the start, Chad Barrett pretty much does the same thing, but with more of a chip on his shoulder and less size.
McCarthy was replaced by AJ Soares, and there's no reason to expect anyone else at center back if "Macca" is indeed left at home. Soares doesn't really fit into the 2013 Revs thanks to his lack of comfort with the ball at his feet, but he is pretty good at coming up with blocked shots and winning physical challenges. United should focus on making this more about his decision-making and anticipation, and less about his ability to dive in for some emergency defending. Really, United fans should think of Soares an angrier Julius James.
At left back, Tierney's move to midfield last week opened up a spot for Darrius Barnes. However, I think the Revs might give a game to Kevin Alston, who has returned from the IR after undergoing treatment for a form of leukemia. It's a pretty amazing story, and since Alston is a Silver Spring native, a return at RFK to play the worst team in MLS really seems like the ideal way to get him back on the field. If he's not fit enough to start, Barnes will continue at left back. With Barnes, there's less of an attacking threat in the run of play, but he does boast the best long throw-in in MLS. Any throw-in within 45 yards of United's goal is comfortably within his range, so the Black-and-Red need to be alert to something that has cost us more than once this season.
I'm including Sene as a starter thanks to the expectations of our friends over at The Bent Musket. There is talk of him struggling with a hip contusion, but it's more likely that we'll see him start and play 55-70 minutes. Barrett is probably the most likely replacement if Sene can't go, while Ryan Guy or Kelyn Rowe (with Juan Toja coming into the middle in the latter case) are also possibilities.
The real key to this game for United lies in the center of the field. In both previous games against New England, we've seen DC do a good job of compressing central midfield both vertically and horizontally. Forwards have checked back to help bother the anchor midfielder, wingers have pinched inside to mitigate the 3v2 numbers advantage the 4141 creates against our 442, and defenders have smartly stepped up into the midfield rather than foolishly stick with four men back against one striker.
As we established earlier, the Revs will play possession-based soccer regardless of what they're up against. They don't have the personnel or formation to play long ball, and they don't like to send their wingers 1v1 against fullbacks. On both sides, the preference is for the wide man to cut inside; Sene looks to shoot, while Fagundez prefers to combine with others to break into the box.
That means that this game will likely come down to whether United can once again suffocate the Revs in central midfield, or if New England can break that pressure with speed of thought and force us to step back. That extra space will free up more passing angles, and before you know it United will be unable to hold back the Revolution attack. Going forward, the news would be even worse: If we play narrow through the midfield to help the defense only to have the back four fail in this fashion, then our attack suffers from a lack of width. It will be a cat and mouse game, with the early stages of the match determining who gets what role.
As much as we've talked about the Revs in terms of style, their real strength is their ability to keep the ball out of their net. In goal, Bobby Shuttleworth has done an admirable job since taking the job from Matt Reis. Ahead of them, the back four has great leadership in the form of Goncalves, who isn't exactly surrounded by all-star caliber talent (Farrell and Caldwell might get there, but they're only 21 and 22 years old, respectively). The possession game is part of that. Like several teams in MLS - especially the Portland Timbers - the emphasis on possession is in part to help protect the individual defenders from seeing constant, high-tempo attacks. By slowing the pace down a bit and giving the defense mental breaks while the midfield knocks the ball around, the job is easier for guys like Soares.
I mentioned the importance of testing Soares mentally rather than physically. It would be very nice to see someone like Luis Silva try to get possession five or ten yards ahead of Soares in an attempt to draw him out of position. Finding a guy who lacks positional discipline at center back can cause disorganization to spread quickly if you can lure him too far in one direction or another. Goncalves isn't going to fall for things like that very often, but Soares can't get the voice in his head that says "chase the ball!!!!!!" to ever stop.
The other avenue of attack for United needs to be down the right, where Alston is sure to be rusty (or, with Barnes, we're simply facing a guy who isn't a natural left back). Ben Olsen should look to deploy Nick DeLeon at right midfield regardless of whether Chris Pontius is available to man the left wing, because Amish Sisqo's soccer IQ and skill on the dribble will have a greater impact going up against any of the potential Revolution left backs. This needs to be where we see United isolating players 1v1; Fagundez isn't particularly interested in defending, and the Revs don't have a lockdown left back anywhere on their roster.
Set pieces aren't a huge threat from New England, but they aren't harmless either; that Goncalves winner in Columbus I mentioned earlier was a back-post header from a corner kick (aided by a howler from Andy Gruenebaum, but whatever). The Revs don't have great size or aggression, but Nguyen and Tierney are both capable of very good service. If Toja plays, the Revs will also have a threat to score directly from free kicks (particularly those given away within 25 yards of goal and down the center of the field).
At the other end, this might actually be a way we can threaten the Revs. Our eventual game-winner in the Open Cup came on a corner kick headed in by Dwayne De Rosario (who is hardly at the top of any "biggest aerial threat in MLS" list). United will probably have a slight advantage in terms of physical strength, and we need to use it to our advantage. Any team that struggles to produce goals from the run of play should be very hungry when they get a corner kick or a set piece in the attacking third. "Want it more" is not really a valid tactic most of the time, but inside the 18 when the ball is flighted in, simple desire is a large part of success or failure.
Mentally, United might have a reason to feel confident here. The Revs haven't beaten us yet, and in a season that just repeatedly doles out punishment, seeing them should serve as a reminder that this United squad is capable of delivering results against teams that aren't a complete joke. Meanwhile, the Revs will have a hard time facing up to the fact that everyone else has no problem with DC while they have found us to be be a worthy adversary. For one night at least, the Black-and-Red should put aside the weight of this season and play with something approaching confidence, because to this point we've seen nothing in person from the Revs that says we should play this game with fear.