Think back to what you were doing July 10th, 1999. I most likely spent the day either goofing off or putting metal wall panel clips into boxes (mindless summer job in the manufacturing section of my mom's office). I had different, regrettable hair, braces, and could easily run 5 miles due to the volume of soccer I was playing. That evening, my dad and I went to RFK Stadium. The opponent that night, as it is tonight, was the Colorado Rapids, and they escaped with a 2-1 victory.
A Rapids win at RFK has not happened since that night, almost eleven years ago. Of the eleven occasions Colorado has paid us a visit since then, United has won seven and drawn four. Even during the miserable years under Rongen and Hudson, RFK has been a house of horrors for Colorado. Gary Smith's first game in charge as interim head coach was a 3-0 loss here in 2008, and last year Colorado fell 3-1.
Still, United has rarely had a more difficult seven-game spell in its history than how we've opened 2010. Even in our only win, it seemed as much like our opponents lost the game more than anything else. While the current Rapids team is no world-beater, they certainly have their strengths.
Beyond the jump, I'll take a look at what those strengths are, how to best combat them, and what weak spots are available for United in the quest to keep the streak alive.
Colorado has been mostly sticking with the same eleven players, but uses them in different ways depending on being home or away and on their opponent. One regular, right back Kosuke Kimura, is out with an ankle stress fracture, but he was already in a fight for his spot (with left back Danny Earls; Smith has been willing to field Drew Moor on either side of the back four depending on whether the Japanese or the Irishman are in form). In a 442, they line up:
In this formation, Ballouchy drifts centrally from time to time, while Omar Cummings is free to roam the field in search of seams to exploit with his speed. Wells Thompson has kept his starting role on the left ahead of the more skillful Colin Clark through hard work and fighting spirit, something Smith prizes. Centrally, Pablo Mastroeni has been getting forward more often than he ever has in his MLS career, and has looked very good shooting from long range. His central midfield partner, Jeff Larentowicz, was already well known for his ability to crush the ball on free kicks, so Bill Hamid will have to be very aware whenever the Rapids are within 30 yards of goal.
There is also an equal chance that Smith could opt for a 4231, which would look like this:
The main difference here is that the Rapids would support their already impressive central midfield with an extra man. The down side, however, is that Ballouchy is known for not working that hard defensively, so this formation seems kind of pointless. It takes Cummings away from goal and forces the offense to rely on Ballouchy to be the creative fulcrum, which is usually a positive for opposing teams. The one situation it does work in is when the opposing left back has a poor game, because then Cummings can create chances all game long. Rodney Wallace has been a little better lately, but Smith may have seen that early-season footage. If so, he'll be giving long consideration to using Cummings as a right winger.
In either case, both formations are hard to break down in midfield. While they lack a player capable of dictating the rhythm of the game, they're very adept at stopping their opponents from ever settling into a groove. The result is that most games featuring Colorado tend to be exhibitions where will power, athleticism, and the ability to avoid silly mistakes determine the winner more often than not. We don't necessarily have to win the midfield battle (hard to ever do that when you have our current midfield), but we do have to be able to battle Pablo and co. to a draw to limit the number of times Cummings and Casey get the ball in good spots.
Up top, no matter how the Rapids play, we all know that Casey and Cummings are a big threat. They work well together, and Casey's ability to hold the ball and win headers is a big part of what Colorado does going forward. With Dejan Jakovic still out injured, we are lacking in center backs that have any chance of physically battling with Casey. The focus to shut him down has to be on winning the second balls when he heads things down, and on quickly doubling him when the ball is at his feet to prevent him from linking up with anyone else. It's just a matter of focus and thinking quickly throughout the game.
Unfortunately, stopping Casey is the easy part. It's Cummings that worries me, since he pairs tremendous speed with a highly developed sense of how to find gaps in defenses. Cummings had no fewer than 12 assists last year and generally was a constant source of worry for every defense he faced. It's hard enough for MLS defenders to cope with a guy whose off-the-ball runs are smart, but when he's also as fast as Cummings is, it's a potential disaster. Every United defender will need to be constantly aware of where Cummings is, and both Clyde Simms and Kurt Morsink will also have to be alert when he drops off into the area beneath Casey. The idea is to force him to have to play back passes instead of letting him find Casey or have looks at goal himself. Sounds easy, but unfortunately it will require our defenders to play above and beyond their recent displays.
Colorado's weak point lies right behind that powerful central midfield. The back four is generally weak, foul-prone, and stands ahead of Matt Pickens, who has always struck me as a guy I'd be uncomfortable starting. He's prone to letting shots you'd expect him to save get in; maybe he's not as bad as Dario Sala, but he's still down near the bottom for MLS keepers. DC has shown a willingness to go for shots since the switch to the more, shall we say, blunt style of play we're currently using. That's good news, because against Pickens pretty much everything on frame has a chance to get in.
The back four, as I said, is not very strong. Earls may have Aston Villa on his resume, but he's still very young. We've faced him before during his time with the Rochester Rhinos, and I recall seeing him as a weak link to be exploited before 10 minutes were gone. He's not much better now. On the other side, Drew Moor has actually been capped at right back under Bob Bradley, but he hasn't been in the form that earned such acknowledgment in some time. Still, he's been fairly solid and is probably Colorado's best defender.
Centrally, the Marvell Wynne experiment has continued for reasons I don't quite understand. Wynne's speed is useful anywhere, but if he was too easily fooled by attackers as a right back, how is he going to succeed in a more cerebral role? Adam Cristman and Danny Allsopp should be licking their chops, because Wynne will probably make a couple big blunders tonight (a la Pablo Escobar for Kansas City in our 2-1 win last week). Exploiting such mistakes is key, because we still lack the creative chops to conjure up a ton of opportunities on our own. Wynne's partner is Julien Baudet, who brings a classic English approach to being a center back despite his Gallic origins. Fortunately for us, Baudet's not that good, so his attempts to kick lumps in everyone and generally bully forwards into submission usually just end up with free kicks being given and bookings being handed out. I'm going to guess that Baudet saw plenty of physical, hard-working forwards like ours during his time in League One, though, so perhaps the lack of trickery we play with right now will play into his hands.
Colorado's a fairly average MLS team. They have a glaring weakness, but do well enough elsewhere to keep that problem from dragging them down to the bottom of the standings. Intriguingly, though, the tables have turned in terms of how this game traditionally goes down. The Rapids are the team with the dangerous forwards and the awful defense, while we're the blue-collar bunch trying to grind out a result.
In my opinion, Curt Onalfo should be looking at making a couple tweaks to the team. First and foremost, I think we need to get much more out of our two wide positions. Boyzzz Khumalo has done alright just buzzing around and generally making opposing defenders have to put in a good shift to keep him quiet. However, on the left Cristian Castillo still looks uncomfortable dealing with the MLS approach to defending. Against Dallas, I noticed that he was putting in more work than usual off the ball, and it helped him somewhat. However, by the time the second half came, he had drifted back into his normal habits and essentially disappeared from the game. In my opinion, it's time to bring Brandon Barklage in at right midfield, switch Khumalo to the left, and let Castillo earn his spot the way Troy Perkins and Santino Quaranta are having to. Barklage may not be brilliant, but his feisty approach perfectly matches the way United is playing right now, and he's more likely to hook in a good cross from the run of play than Khumalo (who can't really cross that well) and Castillo (who never seems to get into a good crossing position in the first place).
Elsewhere, Steve Goff is expecting Juan Manuel Pena to return to the starting lineup after being rested in Dallas. While I don't necessarily mind that, I do worry about how he and Carey Talley would cope with Casey's strength and size, as well as the speed of Cummings. It seems like an athletic mismatch. I would have no problem at all if Onalfo kept Devon McTavish in the lineup, since he played rather well as a center back against Dallas. Perhaps the player to come out should be Talley, who lost Jeff Cunningham on the only goal of that game by falling for a very simple check back towards David Ferreira. Talley's been captaining the team, though, so I think that's unlikely.
This isn't going to be an easy game, but it's a game this team has to take. Remember what Shatz said about our mid-season schedule? Those tough games are not far off, and some teams on that list (San Jose and RSL) have improved since then. This team has 23 games left, and home matches against mid-level clubs simply have to be 3 points if we're going to have any reason for hope when the mooted reinforcements arrive in the summer transfer window. Colorado's a decent opponent, but at home we have to find a way to win. If Onalfo can draw another battling performance out of everyone from front to back, and our forwards manage to bury an early chance, I like our chances. However, it will require a strong performance from this limited group; a "B-" effort will not get us 3 points, because we're not good enough to get away with that.