We like to think of D.C. United as a pretty young team. Six regulars are 23 or younger, including our 22 year old starting goalkeeper Bill Hamid and our 21 year old starting defensive midfielder Perry Kitchen. Of the eleven that Ben Olsen would choose right now with everyone healthy, over half have not yet hit the prime years of their career. It's been a miserable season, but there is some tiny amount of solace that the current squad is full of guys that haven't yet peaked as players.
Of course, that doesn't excuse being dead last in a league where the New England Revolution have a real shot at a playoff spot. The Revs start two rookies, a teenager, and a 20 year old, and in all likelihood their front six tomorrow will feature no one over the age of 26. If it weren't for captain Jose Goncalves, veteran Chris Tierney, and the even more veteran-y Matt Reis in goal, you'd be forgiven for thinking that this could be a college team that somehow talked their way into playing a season in the pros.
The difference between these two young teams, of course, is quality. MLSsoccer.com's 24 Under 24 series just named Juan Agudelo and Andrew Farrell the sixth- and ninth-best young players in MLS, respectively. With five spots remaining, it wouldn't be a surprise at all to see midfield dynamo Kelyn Rowe also land in the top 10 (by the time you read this, it probably will have already happened), while it seems fair to suspect that defensive midfielder Scott Caldwell likely ended up just barely on the outside looking in.
Still, United has perhaps looked better against New England than against any other team. The 3-1 victory for the Black-and-Red over the Revs in the Open Cup was arguably United's best performance of the season (bar the first 15 minutes of the second half), and we also saw what is likely the best road game United has put together in MLS play. That's a low bar, and the 0-0 draw at Gillette Stadium was less about quality ball movement than it was about limiting the home side, but nonetheless it was a showing that most MLS teams would be able to live with. Even our last meeting - a 2-1 home loss in which United took the lead - saw los Capitalinos control most of the game and only fail on the final ball (as opposed to some of our more shambolic losses on East Capitol St.).
The key has been the fact that United is actually rather comfortable dealing with the challenge the Revolution provide. The Revs like to possess the ball and string passes together, but they can sometimes struggle to break out of the middle of the field and engage their wingers. Meanwhile, the striker in their 4141 can be isolated with athletic, aggressive defending. The Revs are more built to hold the ball until one of their skillful players delivers a big play rather than break teams down as a group. United has struggled when facing teams moving in concert and playing quickly, but United's defense is athletic enough and brave enough to dive in front of long shots and block attempts to slalom through the back four on the dribble.
We shouldn't expect many surprises from Jay Heaps, whose commitment to keeping the ball on the ground and favoring technical players over athletes has left him with few other plans. No team in MLS is more likely to play the same style of game regardless of the venue and the opponent. No surprise: That also means a rather easy-to-predict starting eleven:
The big question is up top, where Agudelo returned from injury to play 19 minutes in last week's 3-2 loss in Chicago. If Agudelo is fit enough to play an hour, he'll definitely start. His skill on the ball and movement off it add a layer to the New England attack that no one else on the roster even comes close to providing. Essentially, the other candidates (Dimitry Imbongo or Chad Barrett) are artisans, while Agudelo is an artist.
Of course, that raises an odd issue for United. While most other teams are far worse against Agudelo than they are against the powerful but crude Imbongo or the hard-working but limited Barrett, United has actually done it the other way around. Ethan White basically put Agudelo in his pocket up in Massachusetts, driving the soon-to-be Stoke City striker to react with visible frustration. On the other hand, Imbongo's physicality caused some real issues in the Open Cup and at RFK a few weeks ago. We can all hope for Barrett, but in reality it'll either be Agudelo or Imbongo.
At center back, Stephen McCarthy and AJ Soares have traded the job back and forth all season. Soares was recently the starter, but a hamstring injury saw McCarthy get the start at Toyota Park. Still, Soares was fit enough to take a spot on the bench, making it plausible that he'll be 90 minutes fit this week.
They're two rather different players. McCarthy is taller, slower, and more composed (rather fitting, considering he entered MLS as a defensive midfielder). Soares, on the other hand, is stronger and faster but has issues with his positioning and his decision-making. To make things brief, Soares is the guy for Heaps if he wants more athleticism, physicality, or a generally more chippy game. If he'd prefer to keep this game under control emotionally or expects a more cerebral challenge, he'll go with McCarthy.
In either case, the way to beat the Revolution back four is to spread them out and make them do more individual defending than working as a unit. Goncalves has done an excellent job of keeping them organized, but the fact is that he's surrounded by two flawed CB partners, a slow left back in Chris Tierney, and a rookie in Farrell. There are options, in other words, if United can keep the ball moving effectively through the midfield.
Down the right side, Chris Pontius is well set up to have some success. Farrell is a ridiculous all-around athlete, so beating him 1v1 can be troublesome. However, Party Boy's preference to cut inside will test Farrell and either McCarthy or Soares on a decision-making front first and foremost. With Soares erratic mentally and McCarthy just too slow, Pontius should look to dip inside and run at the right-center back all game long. Farrell will have some complicated decisions to make in how to help without leaving the flank wide open, and that's how you expose his inexperience without emphasizing his physical gifts.
Nick DeLeon is perhaps not the fastest winger, but on the other flank he should be fast enough to get past Tierney. At the Soccerplex, DeLeon repeatedly beat Darrius Barnes on the dribble. Barnes isn't as smart a player as Tierney is, but he's probably more difficult to dribble past given his long legs and his higher top speed. DeLeon needs to drag Tierney out towards the touchline and force him to defend 1v1 whenever possible. That will force Tierney out of his comfort zone, as the former Virginia Cavalier would prefer to stay narrow and defend as one of the group rather than go it alone.
When the Revs are on the ball, staying compact is vital. New England's wingers both prefer to cut inside, with Diego Fagundez looking to dribble in behind and Saer Sene trying to set himself up for his dangerous, knuckling long range shots. Their central midfield is perfectly at ease knocking the ball around, but they can be restricted to harmless possession if there's nowhere to go.
The threats are actually an interesting contrast. Rowe - five goals in his last five games - and Sene are dangerous threats to shoot from outside the box. United can't run the risk of letting these two have space between the lines; as Rowe has said, that's been important to his recent hot streak. United's central midfield can't allow big gaps between the lines, and our center backs will have to be alert to step up as well. With Sene, it would also help to force him to stay wide and play as a conventional winger. Sene is an unconventional, awkward player, so making him play a traditional role will reduce his impact.
On the other hand, Lee Nguyen and Fagundez prefer to emphasize close control, quick passing combinations, and getting in behind. Nguyen is slow and small, so United will need to stay in his face at all times. Nguyen excels when he has time and space, and he's smart enough to rip United apart unless we make his night tough.
Fagundez is faster and more elusive, using his quickness and dribbling ability to slash through teams off the wing. Despite being just 18, Fagundez is New England's leading scorer. Most of his goals come on moves when he beats a defender and then plays a combination inside the 18 yard box. Despite the fact that his game is different from Sene's, the solution is still the same. If Fagundez is kept wide and forced to hit crosses rather than make runs into the box, he's probably not going to be a major factor.
I mentioned how much success White had against Agudelo back in June, and it was in part because White was not far removed from simply man-marking Agudelo. By staying tight and being the more agile player, White forced Agudelo to spend most of the game with his back to goal. We don't need to deploy White as a strict man-marker to make that happen, especially since this time Dejan Jakovic will be on the field as well. I'd also expect Agudelo to roam more this time given how difficult his night was against White, so Jakovic has to be up to the task of preventing Agudelo from facing goal. If he's running in behind or able to dribble 1v1 at a center back, we're in trouble; if he's playing the ball backward, we're OK.
On set pieces, the Revs don't have many good targets. Soares is fairly dangerous, and Imbongo is a handful if he's on the field, but after that the quick players are too small and the big players aren't fast enough to get to too many contested free kicks. However, the quality of service from Tierney and Nguyen means that there may be some uncontested headers if United fails to stay alert or struggles to read the flight of the ball. Those are things we've seen this DC side have issues with all year, so a sharper performance in that regard could be key.
Psychologically, New England is going to be tough to predict. They were extremely unlucky in Chicago, where they had a perfectly good goal taken away just after halftime with the score 2-1. If that goal had stood, one can't help but suspect that the fragile Fire would have collapsed to defeat. Later, Chicago equalized with Juan Luis Anangono clearly offside and clearly involved in the play. The 3-2 Fire win saw Chicago vault into the final playoff spot in the East; the Revs had held that spot before kickoff.
It could be that New England will focus their anger and turn in a top-notch performance. It could also be that they're still lingering over last week's misfortune, and they aren't ready to focus on United. It's hard to say what young teams will do under pressure, and make no mistake: The Revs need to win this game. After all, their playoff hopes in a tight Eastern conference will take a big hit if they can't win their easiest remaining fixture. A loss or tie here will probably need to be made up for in far tougher circumstances (say, at Red Bull Arena or Stade Saputo, both of which the Revs have to visit).
As such, United needs to turn our total lack of pressure or expectation into a blessing. United has nothing to lose, so why not get out on the front foot and put the Revs into some tricky spots? Applying pressure upfield, and sustained attacking possession will make it more likely that the Revs are unsure of themselves, rather than focused on righting last week's injustice.
Ultimately, this is a chance for United to build on the progress we saw between the depressing 1-0 loss to Chivas USA and the 2-2 draw against the Galaxy. Last week showed what United is capable of once they shook off an admittedly horrific start, and the previous three games against the Revs have proven that we don't have to be afraid of New England. However, United is going to have to be quick and disciplined all over the field to dictate how the Revs play rather than letting them play the game they'd prefer.