I have good news, D.C. United fans. Since we're re-living 2010 (save the "say, this Najar kid is going to be special" feel-good factor), I'm sure we're going to win this game in
not Denver Commerce City against the Colorado Rapids, and that the goal will come from much-maligned striker Lionard Pajoy. Why? Because that's what happened in 2010: We went to Colorado and won 1-0 thanks to a goal by Danny Allsopp. You've probably blocked this out of your memory because 2010 was horrible, but it did happen. So, rejoice! This one's in the bag!
Silly nonsense aside, the Rapids have been very much a peaks-and-valleys team in 2013. They started 0W-2D-3L before a 5W-2D-1L stretch - during which they only conceded three goals! - revitalized Colorado's hopes. That defensive solidity promptly vanished, as the Rapids took just 1 point from 4 matches while giving up 9 goals (2 or more in every game). Even the impressive win in Montreal that snapped the streak was a 4-3 barnburner rather than the 1-0 or 2-0 games that they succeeded with in their previous run of good form.
Unfortunately, United appears to be arriving as the Rapids are moving towards a peak again. That 4-3 victory was followed by a 2-0 win over the New York Red Bulls on July 4th, a game in which the Rapids were able to make NYRB - with Thierry Henry and Fabian Espindola starting - look a lot like us in Seattle. In fact, the Metros looked even worse, because no one took on the Chris Pontius "I want to win so bad I'll try to do it by myself" role.
The erratic form is in rather large part due to injuries. The preseason was brutal for the Rapids, with many attackers going down with issues that required surgery. Some players didn't even get to play in the preseason, like 2012 leading scorer Jaime Castrillon (who had offseason microfracture surgery). At times, the Rapids midfield was one injury away from being forced to revert into the 424 of a bygone era.
Even players who seemed just fine suffered bizarre issues. Just four minutes into their third game of the season, starting goalkeeper Matt Pickens broke his arm after being accidentally headbutted by Kwame Watson-Siriboe (Pickens had punched away a corner kick just as Watson-Siriboe arrived to head it). Who breaks their arm via headbutt? It was that kind of spring for the Rapids.
That injury, however, brings us to why Colorado didn't go flying off the rails. The guys down Oscar Pareja's bench were ready mentally and skillful enough to win games. Pickens was replaced by Clint Irwin, who coming into the season was, like most MLS 3rd stringers, just a name on a roster rather than a known quantity. Irwin wasn't even supposed to be backing up Pickens, but Steward Ceus was away with the Haitian national team at the time.
Irwin's performance since then is the best example of the young and unheralded depth on Colorado's roster actually turning out to be starting-quality. Guys like Academy product Shane O'Neill and former MLS journeyman Nathan Sturgis were forced into the starting lineup by injuries elsewhere, but they've seized the opportunity with both hands.
Another fascinating development in Colorado has been seeing Pareja stick with the possession game even after a disappointing 2012 and the slew of injuries robbing him of many of his most skilled players. Pareja may be more committed to his preferred style of play - built around keeping the ball on the ground and relying on a three-man central midfield at all times - than anyone in MLS. Teams like Portland have made a big public show of their supposed decision to play a certain kind of soccer, but they still have an element of pragmatism about them (see: Portland's classic English 442 at RFK). Pareja's Rapids may make tweaks here and there to adjust to opponents, but the fundamental way they go about the game remains the same no matter who the opponent is and who is available to play. Depending on how you see it, he's either admirably principled or naive.
Those tweaks are broadly between 433 and 4231, but the personnel chosen means a different version of a given formation. For example, their 4231 featuring Martin Rivero as the attacking central midfielder might be their most dangerous lineup going forward, as Rivero (fortunately carrying an injury that makes him questionable to play and doubtful to start) has the vision and skill to get more out of guys like Atiba Harris.
However, on Wednesday they played their most conservative 4231, with Dillon Powers - much more of a #8 than Rivero - playing a higher role and Nick LaBrocca playing as a left winger. LaBrocca was playing from (rather than on) the left, moving inside to make room for the overlaps of indefatigable left back Chris Klute. The idea appeared to be to rob NYRB of width by forcing both Metro wide men to help deal with as many as four Rapids players at once.
That didn't really work. While Klute and Harris (on the right) provided enough width to stretch the field out when Colorado attacked, Edson Buddle was stranded up top and the first 45 minutes were some of the most boring I've seen this season (and that includes our danger-free offense in 18 games now).
Pareja fixed the problem by going to a more traditional 433, dropping Powers deeper and pushing Honduran veteran Hendry Thomas into a bottom-point role while bringing in rookie speedster DeShorn Brown as a left forward. NYRB didn't respond until they were already down 1-0, and then continued not responding as the Rapids scored again and then closed the game out with ease. The formation change was also accompanied by a significant boost in tempo, as Colorado began looking forward first with all passes rather than being content with simply taking what they were being given.
I bring this up because it's what I expect to see from the start tonight. Colorado will be coming off of one less day of rest than United, and that's huge. Pareja is also going to be aware of the fact that, due to the altitude, any real chance of a DC result will be predicated upon entering the last half-hour with a lead. Colorado's more cautious selection against NYRB would have caused problems if the Red Bulls had shown any ability to attack coherently, and I expect the Rapids to learn from the mistake.
The asymmetry in the back is intentional, and we'll discuss Klute's constant runs forward later. The question marks are due to Wednesday's shock move to play O'Neill - only converted to center back this season, and doing well enough that the MLS punditocracy is racing to see who can lavish the most praise upon him - at right back. Things went well, as O'Neill rendered Jonny Steele anonymous, but the move still looks more like it's been made to accommodate a new center back pairing than anything else.
That pairing is Drew Moor and recent signing German Mera, who has quietly looked solid since receiving his ITC. My guess is that Moor has been the best partner for Mera in training, but he does have many more games at right back than O'Neill does. Marvell Wynne is also fit, and we could see him step in at right back given the short turnaround.
In central midfield, Sturgis and Powers could easily switch sides, but in either case Powers will play slightly higher up the field. Colorado might like to rotate someone in here, but Pareja doesn't appear to want to use LaBrocca in a central role, and other options like Kevin Harbottle (more of a natural winger) and Castrillon (who just goes wherever he wants regardless of what position you give him) are problematic. Jamie Smith came off the injury report recently, but since he didn't make the bench it's just as likely that the "accuracy not guaranteed" approach MLS has taken with said injury report is the real culprit here.
I came very close to listing Brown at center forward and Tony Cascio - recently out of the doghouse, and even more recently scoring the soccer equivalent of a buzzer-beater in Montreal - out on the left due to the short rest between games. Buddle went 77 minutes against NYRB, while Brown only came in at halftime. Cascio played just 19 minutes, surely leaving him with fresher legs.
The issue Pareja will have to choose between there is that Ethan White might be more comfortable coping with Brown's speed than Buddle's strength. In any case, two of those three will take these two roles, though Castrillon or the oft-forgotten Kamani Hill could theoretically start as well. By a slim margin, I expect Colorado to try to win the game in the first hour, then remove Buddle and leave us to try to press the game in thin air while pushing high, putting United at great risk of letting Brown get in behind on a counter. It's too tempting of a tactical device to voluntarily choose not to use.
Intriguingly, falling behind is not necessarily a disaster against Colorado. They've taken the lead in 13 games this season out of 19 played, but only 7 have been turned into wins. Sure, they've only lost once in such situations, but that still leaves just under 40% of those games as draws.
While a late comeback is pretty much off the table for United - altitude + worst offense ever, srsly - the Black-and-Red shouldn't lose hope in the first half. That's where this game will be won or lost (or tied, since 0-0 or 1-1 would frankly be entirely acceptable results for the side Ben Olsen will have available for this game), for both teams. Between us at altitude and the Rapids on short rest, a good start in the early stages is probably our only hope. NYRB showed what happens when you take the air out of the ball early against Colorado: They start forcing the game, you run out of gas as the game wears on, and you lose.
It will be intriguing to see how the Rapids face that lack of rest tactically. In Montreal, they high-pressed and put a ton into the game to get that win. At home against the Red Bulls, they played at a slower pace by choice and only really had to go hard for the first 25 minutes of the second half to bag three points.
On short rest again, but also facing a weak opponent that suffers against high-pressure teams, the choice comes with a problem no matter what Pareja elects to do. If his team wants to high-press but doesn't have the legs, United might have a spacious midfield to take advantage of on counters. If they sit back and play slow again, United needs to go full throttle to grab the early goal that we will almost certainly need to avoid defeat.
Countering at speed worked for Portland a few weeks ago (a 3-0 Timbers win), and since United won't have Dwayne De Rosario and Nick DeLeon again, we can't really be counted on to succeed via possession. While the capital club can't purely play on the break, trying to break the Rapids down with our available player would be a mistake. United will need to pick and choose between when to go and when to hold as a group. Fortunately, we will have some speed on the field, even if our fastest player has also been an offensive black hole.
The Rapids can collectively be fairly rash when tackling around the area, so getting into the box - and not just to pull that same damn stepover that everyone sees coming, Sainey Nyassi - and forcing defenders to make a tackle could see United win a penalty kick. Yes, we all want goals from the run of play, but when you only have eight on the season, you are a beggar and you forfeit your right to being picky.
Mentally, United needs to be aware that Thomas loves to provoke his opponents into losing focus and retaliating. He would have been suspended for this match if he had picked up a booking against NYRB, and he did his very best to get one (particularly in the first half), but unfortunately he'll be available tomorrow night to leave some extra in his tackles and run his mouth after plays. Getting caught up in that sort of thing would be a mistake, and Thomas doesn't cope well when his opponents don't fall for his schtick.
Defensively, we're going to have to hold a somewhat deeper line due to the threat of Brown and Harris (Cascio as well) getting in behind with their speed. The problem is that that deeper line means more time for the central midfield to circulate the ball, and more of a gap to cover when they go long for Harris to nod the ball down. Winning those second balls and ensuring that Colorado's midfield is always under pressure - which means staying organized enough that it's not just our two central midfielders doing all the work - will help cut down on the looks the Rapids get going at our goal. In particular, forcing them to play through the conservative Thomas rather than Powers will help gum up the works.
The other thing to worry about is something I touched on earlier: Klute's overlapping runs. Klute isn't an Andy Najar-style dribbling threat. Rather, he keeps things simple and times his runs well, so that his speed carries him up the wing in moments where he won't have a defender to beat until he's within 25-30 yards of the endline. He's actually a bit like a faster Chris Korb, but the Rapids are better at forcing teams to play narrow (thus opening up the lanes for Klute's runs forward).
United is going to need Nyassi and our forwards - Casey Townsend would be useful, given his work rate and tendency to drift right anyway - to combine in keeping Klute at home. The idea is to have someone occupying him defensively as often as possible, while also being ready to a) push out there quickly if we turn the ball over and b) force him into an alley in the midfield rather than trying to do so when he's in full flight nearer to our goal.
The Rapids don't get much hype as a set piece team, but they've been dangerous. Since breaking through as a starter back on May 4th, Sturgis has 4 goals in 10 games thanks to his knack for pouncing on the scrambles the Rapids often create on corner kicks. He's not the only target, either: Moor always seems to get three goals a season, Harris and Buddle are big attacking players, and Powers has also chipped in a couple too.
A big key is that Pareja loves for his players to make hard, slashing runs at the near post. The delivery from corners hasn't been great, but it's usually a driven ball met by someone running at full speed, and that can cause chaos. It's not rocket science, and it's not a KC or Houston-style constant threat, but the Rapids often pile up corners and eventually create danger.
Simply put, United needs to obstruct those hard runs. If no one's arriving at the near post on that sort of play, most of these Colorado set piece goals don't happen. It's not a complicated task - basically, just get in the way of someone - but it's going to take focus, strength, and the determination to not get pushed aside or picked by a Rapids player.
This game doesn't set up favorably for United due to our anemic offense and the inevitable altitude issues. Pareja potentially can set up a very advantageous situation to turn 1-0 into 2-0 if we have to chase the game in the Rockies. As such, it's of the utmost importance that Los Capitalinos get off to a good start and find a goal while we still have our legs (especially given Colorado's potential for starting slowly coming off their more recent game). We might not have much of a chance, but who on earth thought we'd win this fixture back in 2010?