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And You Thought We Were Weak At Center Back Before!

Devon McTavish is the likely choice to fill in for the suspended Julius James against the red-hot Colorado Rapids.
Devon McTavish is the likely choice to fill in for the suspended Julius James against the red-hot Colorado Rapids.

All year long, DC United has been struggling to keep goals off the board. Under Curt Onalfo, the problem was a combination of both individual mistakes and collective breakdowns. Since Ben Olsen has come in, the collective breakdowns have happened less often - in fact, we're no longer the worst statistical defense in MLS; Houston, Philadelphia, and New England are all worse. Unfortunately, the individual mistakes are still looming over us. With United's offense barely able to muster one goal for every five good chances, our 1v1 defending has to be more or less flawless for us to get results.

It's unlikely that any of this is news to you. What you may not know, however, is that we're set to lose our best defender, Julius James, for the next two matches. The yellow card James picked up in the 89th minute against Houston (you know, the one that lead to the bizarre decision by referee Alex Prus - following discussions with fourth official Landis Wiley - to send off Ben Olsen and Dominic Kinnear, which means that we'll be without Olsen Saturday) put him over the yellow card limit on the season, so he is unavailable for selection for our visit against the Colorado Rapids. James will also be missing for the October 9th home match against the San Jose Earthquakes, as he will be called up by the Trinidad and Tobago national team.

That's not all. Dejan Jakovic will also miss that game against San Jose due to a call up from the Canadian national team. Combined with the club's current injury situation, it makes picking a coherent squad in our current 442 a truly daunting task in both games.

Here's a list of every single player on our roster who has logged minutes at center back in their MLS career. The players in italics are unavailable due to either injury or suspension:

Julius James
Juan Manuel Pena
Marc Burch
Dejan Jakovic
Jed Zayner
Barry Rice
Devon McTavish
Clyde Simms

On pure numbers, that's not so awful. Out of eight possible center backs, we have four healthy (well, semi-healthy if you count Simms) guys to choose from. However, of those four, only Jakovic is a true center back. Of the rest of that group, Zayner filled in with Columbus once or twice after starting those games at right back, McTavish struggled in the role throughout 2008 and is clearly more of a utility player, and Simms has repeatedly shown us that he's a one-position player. Add in the fact that Jakovic has been the main culprit on two absolutely critical goals in our last two games (Donovan's first against LA and Cameron's header this past weekend), and one starts to feel a bit nervous about facing Colorado.

Oh, that's right, we're playing at Colorado, a venue that has been a house of horrors for us in both good and bad times. Our last win in the Centennial State came in 1999, or when Andy Najar was six years old. To make matters worse, the Rapids have been outstanding at home in recent weeks. In winning each of their last five home matches, Gary Smith's team has scored 14 goals and conceded just once (and that goal came with the Rapids up 4-0 in the 90th minute this past Wednesday night). Colorado's current form may well be the best in franchise history, and that includes their scratching, clawing run to the 1997 MLS Cup final.

In spite of all that, Olsen and his assistants have a chance here to use this game as a learning tool, if nothing else. For Jakovic, the bar is set pretty low. If he can simply avoid any gaffes that lead directly to us conceding a goal, he will have made progress after his past two performances. If he can marshal a truly makeshift back four and contribute to a performance in which we are not completely blown out, all the better. He could certainly use the confidence boost.

Alongside Jakovic, I would imagine Olsen will select McTavish, who has played more games in MLS as a center back than Simms and Zayner combined, and is also probably the closest thing we have to someone with the athletic gifts to deal with the power of Conor Casey and the speed of both Omar Cummings and Macoumba Kandji. That would mean a recall for Graye at right back, which I'm fine with.

Personally, this seems like an easy decision to me, and not just for the reasons I list above. Zayner is our only option at left back at the moment (unless we want to send Graye out there again and completely break him mentally), and Simms shouldn't play with his injury unless he absolutely has to. If we stay with the 442, McTavish is pretty much the only way to go. Looking for the silver lining, this is a good opportunity for McTavish to bolster his claims for a spot on the roster next year.

There is, of course, the option of leaving the 442 behind for this game and trying a 3412. That move was already attempted once by a team visiting Commerce City, and it had disastrous results. While part of me wants to note that the Revs lost that night more because their attempts at possession (the key part of the plan) were woeful, the rest of me looks at the back three we'd have to field (McTavish-Jakovic-Zayner) and realizes that, for it to work, we'd have to maintain something like 75% of the possession. At altitude, against the central midfield combination of Pablo Mastroeni and Jeff Larentowicz, that simply isn't going to happen.

United should go into this game and swing for the fences. We're not going to beat Colorado 1-0, barring a very early red card against the Rapids. Personally, I'm of the opinion that our only hope to overcome what will be a flimsy back four is to outscore Colorado in a shootout. Obviously the odds of that, given our awful finishing, are about the same as the chances of you winning the next Powerball drawing (side note: If you do win, I can think of a certain soccer club that needs investors). However absurd the idea of DC scoring 3-4 goals on anyone is, we should go into Saturday's game accepting the idea that it will most likely take that kind of scoring outburst for us to get any kind of result. If we pour forward throughout the game, create chances, and endure more wasteful finishing, so be it. It's not like we have anything to lose. As the ancient Spartan saying goes, "With your shield, or on it."

As for the game after this one, where James and Jakovic will be out...uh, does anyone out there know a good center back? I'm not even kidding.