Saturday's home opener is rapidly approaching, and our opponent will be the New England Revolution. While the Revs have historically done alright on their visits to RFK in the Steve Nicol era, they have only managed two draws and four losses in the 2008 and 2009 seasons (including Open Cup play). Their last win in our house was the painful, but somewhat unsurprising, 2007 Eastern Conference final.
We've covered New England once before during the preseason, but now that they've played a league game there's much more to say. A 1-0 loss at the Home Depot Center to a solid LA side isn't an awful result, and it illustrates several points about the Revs that are important to know. The tone surrounding DC United, after two poor seasons, stadium struggles, and a disastrous and humiliating 4-0 loss to open Curt Onalfo's tenure, is one of desperation. Bizarrely, game 2 of the 2010 campaign has already taken on the air of a "must-win." If you think that's just angry fan talk, here's a quote from Santino Quaranta:
I think for the fans, for our families, for everybody at the club, we have to do well this weekend.
Obviously, the best way to soothe a furious fanbase and rebuild the team's damaged confidence is to go out on what figures to be a lovely Saturday evening and thrash New England. How will that happen? What does New England bring to the table in terms of threatening to get a result? My two cents are after the jump.
Shalrie Joseph did not travel with New England and is out: This is a big let-off for DC, since Joseph is -- in my opinion, at least -- the single most important player to his squad in MLS. Most teams can replace their big name with a moderately similar player (e.g. Houston bringing on El Gordo Landin for Ching Thursday night) or by changing their approach (Columbus and LA, for example, go physical and focus on grinding games out when Schelotto and Donovan are unavailable). The Revs can't do either of these, as Joseph has no slightly-lower-quality stand-in and the Revs already play a fairly simple, pragmatic style.
So what will Steve Nicol do? Given that New England has very few options of any kind to play central midfield, it is virtually certain that Senegalese newcomer Joseph Niouky (who made his MLS debut last week in LA) will continue as Joseph's replacement. After watching the Revs lose 1-0 in their opener, I can't say that Niouky is a player that worries me. He does have some gifts, including decent stamina and a respectable ability to switch the point of attack. However, his overall skill set appears to be very raw, particularly his first touch. He will probably grow into an MLS-quality starter, but that day is some time off. If United can get after him and apply pressure whenever he and/or Pat Phelan are on the ball, we should control central midfield.
The Revs could be weak on the left: While New England's right side features possible future national teamer Kevin Alston and the ever-improving Sainey Nyassi, their left flank may end up being more vulnerable. Darrius Barnes is questionable with a hip flexor strain, and if he sits out, Cory Gibbs will have to play center back alongside Emmanuel Osei. This would leave the Revs needing to choose between a left wing of either Chris Tierney and Kenny Mansally (at left back and left midfield, respectively) or rookie Seth Sinovic and Tierney.
Sinovic showed signs of promise last week despite being a conversion project (he was a midfielder at Creighton). However, he appears to be a long-term project rather than someone who can step in right away. Meanwhile, Tierney is rather similar to Marc Burch. Both are a bit slow for a wide position in MLS, and both are excellent crossers. Tierney lacks Burch's hard edge and powerful shot, but otherwise there's not that large a difference between the two. Regular readers will know this means that I don't think that highly of Tierney. If Mansally is used instead, he's a tricky player to defend due to his speed and willingness to run at people, but he can often be a defensive liability.
In any case, Curt Onalfo has to get his selection at right midfield correct to exploit what should be a weak spot for New England. Given the likely choices there, I'd say the best option (assuming the Quaranta-as-central-midfielder experiment will be continuing for some time) is Boyzzz Khumalo. Khumalo brings plenty of energy, and will test the speed and discipline of anyone up against him. I'm not saying Khumalo is going to be brilliant, but I do think that Tierney's speed and Sinovic's newness to left back will give Khumalo an easier time to create opportunities than anyone else we're likely to use at that position.
We will get set pieces: Several Revolution players are prone to giving away more fouls than they should. Osei, Phelan, and Nyassi are particularly prone to giving away freekicks in bad spots, while Niouky's rawness and Alston's occasionally rash tackling also give us reason to hope for lots of chances from set plays. DC scored several times from corners and set pieces in the preaseason, and it appears safe to say that we could finally be a regular threat from them for the first time since the Marco Etcheverry era.
Furthering this point, New England's only goal against in LA came after Edson Buddle was unmarked as he headed in Landon Donovan's freekick last week. This wasn't a fluke; LA had several free headers throughout the game. If United can continue the decent service and aggressive runs in the box, we should be able to conjure up some real chances on dead balls.
Depth is a big concern for New England: It seems odd to highlight another team's lack of depth given our own thin roster, but that's where we are. In fact, if the Revs' injury report is to be believed, they may not even have a full 18 man squad. If that's the case, let's all hope DC can play the game at a high pace and tax the legs of New England's healthy players. Not only will an open game generally suit our purposes more than New England (as they'll be looking to bog the game down and make it more of a scrap than a spectacle), but it will serve to tire their starters. Onalfo will have the luxury of having a more skilled bench than Nicol, and it seems safe to assume that he'll want to take advantage.
The rhythm of the game is ours if we want it: No matter who starts for New England, there are no players that can be trusted to always maintain possession anywhere in their midfield or front line. The result of this is that a possession advantage should be ours for the taking. This ties into the above bit about depth. If we're playing well, we should be able to put the Revs on their heels from kickoff onward. That doesn't guarantee a win, but it should at the very least allow us to be the team that controls the game.
Nicol had to do a lot of coaching last week: One of the things that I noticed about New England's loss at LA was that Nicol was shouting instructions and/or bringing people in for a word repeatedly. This points to a team that is young and is struggling to figure things out for themselves. The high pace that I pointed to when talking about depth will also help us exploit what looks like a big weakness for the Revs. When you're faced with players that can't make the right decisions on their own, the best thing to do is give them a lot to think about.
Counter attacks will be a problem: No matter how well we do everything else, there's no denying that New England has a lot of speed available. Kheli Dube, Nyassi, and Mansally are all as fast or faster than anyone likely to start for us. The Revs may struggle to play the appropriate long through balls or lobs over our back line to maximize that threat. However, when you have that kind of speed in multiple spots, any ball that goes past our back four is a potential breakaway waiting to happen. Troy Perkins and our defenders will have to be very aware of this threat, and our forwards will have to do a good job of hassling Revolution defenders to make sure they aren't getting time to turn a rushed clearance into a calibrated long pass. Finally, we have to avoid the dumb midfield turnovers that plagued us last year. Nothing springs a quick counter faster than a hospital ball in midfield, and you'd better believe that New England will be hoping and praying for a few easily-manufactured chances.
Ultimately, what I saw out of New England last week was what I'll expect of them any time they're without big names like Joseph, Twellman, and Reis. Their aim is going to be to make the game a slog, and they'll hope that their fast players can exploit a mistake. If this game goes New England's way, we won't just be mad that we dropped points, because the game that will have resulted will have been 90 minutes of ugliness.
In years past, this would have been a classic "trap" game for United, given our vulnerability to speed and our penchant for having 60% possession and getting few shots and no goals. Those are demons that need to be exorcised. The best way to cope with a team that so clearly wants to turn the game into a grind is to get at them from kickoff. Don't let them gain confidence, and don't let them settle into a rhythm of disruption. Soccer discussions often focus on attacking rhythm, but defending has it's own beat. If we let New England settle in, they'll start to believe that they can keep us at bay, and their energies will start to move more and more towards finding a way to steal a goal. What is most vital tonight is to never let the Revs get comfortable, and to always have them worrying about conceding a goal.