Starting tonight, we get something that happens every year over in England, but is a relatively rare sight on these shores. DC United will face Real Salt Lake in back-to-back matches, with tonight's Open Cup qualifying match followed by a league game on Saturday night. The minor improvements by Los Capitalinos over the past couple games will be tested by a much more demanding opponent, with all due respect to vacationing AC Milan and a Chivas USA side that, in my book, is right there with Kansas City as the weakest team in MLS over the past month.
RSL did not start the season well, but they spent all May on fire. Five games played, five games won, and no fewer than fourteen (14) goals scored...yes, there's plenty of reason to worry that the defending MLS Cup champs will damage the slowly growing confidence within DC's young squad. RSL features a respectable defense behind the league's best midfield, and they've also got MLS's player of the month for May in Costa Rican striker Alvaro Saborio. Nervous? You should be, though I should mention that RSL has never won a USOC-related game on the road.
Beyond the jump, I'll try to decipher how Jason Kreis and his squad will approach the odd instance of two games in three days on the other side of the country.While FC Dallas mostly relied on reserves in our previous Open Cup qualifier, RSL may not have the option of mixing things up. Even if Kreis was considering it, yesterday's injury report will hold him back from doing so. RSL will be missing three or four players, all of whom would have been expected to log major minutes in at least one of the two games. Outside back Chris Wingert will miss out with a hamstring strain, as will left-sided Argentine Nelson Gonzalez. Andy Williams is listed as doubtful, meaning that he's probably not playing tonight's game (but might heal up enough to appear in the league match).
The biggest injury, though, is to my fellow Crofton Middle School graduate (class of 1996, what's up!) Kyle Beckerman. Beckerman has traveled with the RSL squad, but only to see a foot specialist in the DC area. This will almost certainly leave RSL to rely on Haitian Jean Alexandre in both games. Alexandre is a big, burly guy with a good engine, but his mental game and play on the ball both seem pretty raw.
I can't overstate the importance of defensive midfield to RSL's system; Beckerman's intelligent play and ability to make all his passes is the foundation of the possession game Kreis wants his team to play. Alexandre can't replicate either of those, so look for a slightly less attractive brand of soccer out of RSL. Alexandre will give the defenders behind him a less thoughtful option when they're in possession, which could result in more low-percentage long balls than Real normally plays. Similarly, if the Lakers need to pull the ball back and conserve possession, Alexandre may not be ideally placed for an easy back pass. These kinds of things slow passing teams down, and that's even before you consider the fact that Alexandre doesn't have Beckerman's passing ability or touch.
None of this should indicate that Alexandre is a poor player, though. He works hard and will tower over anyone in our midfield (really, over anyone in our lineup). We're probably going to be losing a lot of headers in central midfield whenever either keeper punts the ball clear, so being quicker to the second ball is going to be big. It'll also be vital to think fast enough on the ball to draw Alexandre into fouls instead of shoulder-to-shoulder challenges, because he's going to win those every time.
Let's take a moment to look at how I see RSL lining up for this one:
Defensively, the injury to Wingert leaves Kreis almost certain to play Robbie Russell and Tony Beltran in both games. Gonzalez has dabbled at left back, but he's also out. On the down side, that means we're getting arguably RSL's top choice outside backs (Beltran and Wingert have been trading left back between themselves all season). If you think the glass is half full, however, you'll note that this will tire them out for this weekend. Centrally, I'd be shocked if Jamison Olave plays. Olave has a chronic knee injury, and Kreis generally keeps him from playing on short rest. Rauwshan McKenzie is the most likely replacement for Olave. The other center back will be either normal starter Nat Borchers, or perhaps the slower David Horst if Kreis is putting all his eggs in the league match basket.
Ahead of them, I'm pretty certain that rookie Collen Warner will suit up on one flank or the other. As Ned Grabavoy is coming back from an injury, I suspect he'll start over Will Johnson as I see Kreis preferring to keep Johnson ready for 90 minutes of hard running on Saturday. In the attacking midfield role, I doubt we're getting any breaks. With Williams out, Kreis will have to choose between Javier Morales and teenager Luis Gil. Gil hasn't even been making the bench for RSL in the league, so I doubt Kreis will throw him into the deep end of the pool with a road start in a knockout game. Look for Morales to go either to halftime or the hour mark. If Kreis does go with Gil from the start, however, we'll know he's definitely punting on the Open Cup to focus on Saturday's league match.
Up top, Robbie Findley's inclusion on the US World Cup team leaves RSL with just three strikers. The bad news is that we're certain to see either Saborio or the shifty Fabian Espindola starting alongside Brazilian target man Pablo Campos. Campos isn't a terrifying goalscorer, but his hold-up play is decent and he gets involved in a fair number of chances for his teammates. It seems likely to me that Campos will go 90 minutes tonight, with Espindola partnering him over the first hour before making way for Saborio. However, we could also see Kreis double down on the strategy I outlined when discussing Morales, which would mean starting Saborio in an effort to end the game in the first half.
Ultimately, this will be a more reserved Real side than we usually see. I think the loss of Beckerman and the unfamiliar center back pairing will give Kreis a reason to hold back (something that we probably won't see Saturday against RSL's full team). That could play to our advantage, since it will give us the opportunity to set the tempo of the game and, perhaps, continue to gain in confidence during the early stages of the game. As always for us, it'll be vital to score first; we look closer to having that comeback mentality, but right now I'd say we're still a team that must score first (and in the first half) to win games.
I'm curious to see how Curt Onalfo approaches this game. Sending out a full JV team would endanger our burgeoning self-belief, but getting points on the weekend is probably more important to him. No matter who plays, I think the keys for us are to play quickly in midfield (forcing Alexandre and Warner to chase the game mentally) and attempt to force McKenzie (and possibly Horst) into doing a lot of defending. If we can channel our attacks at RSL's center backs, we might find some joy. Defensively, anyone that plays is going to have to be at their best since we'll almost certainly be seeing Morales, Espindola, and Saborio at some point. Given the unsettled situation in RSL's defensive midfield and central defense and our general inability to keep teams off the scoreboard, this game could be a barnburner.