Ben Olsen's first game in charge of D.C. United couldn't be easier, at least if the standings can be trusted. Our hosts tonight, the New England Revolution, sit in 15th place overall in MLS (behind the Philadelphia Union on goal differential). They have the third-worst offense in MLS, as well as being tied for the third-worst defense. After years of somehow accumulating points despite an injury situation that, year after year, is the worst in the league - perhaps it's the turf at Gillette? - Steve Nicol has not yet found the combination of smoke and mirrors to make it work in 2010.
Or has he? Since a 5-0 thrashing at the hands of Real Salt Lake on July 2nd, the Revs have quietly put together a six game unbeaten streak in all competitions. While most MLS managers facing an injury list that never ends would view participating in the Superliga as a hassle at best, Nicol consistently manages to use the tournament as a springboard for the second half of the MLS campaign. This year has been no different, as New England won its group (for the third year in a row) and advanced to the final after getting past Puebla on penalty kicks, despite having to list both backup goalkeepers in his squads just to have a full group of seven players available (and even then, in two games the Revs had a short bench; against Monarcas Morelia, they had just two available field players to go with the pair of keepers).
Those results, combined with a 2-0 win over LA - a game that appeared to be a blip for the Galaxy, but may have actually been a prediction of things to come - and a fortuitous 1-1 draw at Philadelphia, have the Revs in the best form of their 2010 season. That said, anyone that's only three points ahead of us at this point can't be that good, right? Was this Revolution team underachieving or overachieving in July? Read on to find out what makes New England tick, and how United might just have a shot tonight.
While the big news on United's side was obviously the end of Curt Onalfo's tenure, the Revs also made headlines in the build up to tonight's MLS equivalent of the NFL "Toilet Bowl". In their Superliga semifinal against Puebla, arguably the two hardest-to-replace players on New England's roster both picked up injuries that will see them watching the game from the stands. Attacking midfielder Marko Perovic (calf strain) and right back Kevin Alston (hamstring strain) will join the legion of injured Revolution players, likely leaving New England with just fourteen field players available. Perovic had completed his MLS adjustment period and was on fire before his injury, scoring four goals and assisting another during the Revolution's unbeaten run. To further emphasize the importance of Perovic, it should be noted that the Revs only scored seven goals in those six games; it is safe to say that, in recent weeks, Perovic was the Revolution offense.
Meanwhile, Alston is not only arguably the best right back in MLS, but also the only natural right back on the entire New England roster. The Revolution back four was the major factor in their recent successes, as they have allowed just two goals since the RSL debacle. Now, however, Nicol will have to juggle his squad once again to fill the hole. When Alston limped off against Puebla, Nicol brought on Pat Phelan in central defense and shifted normal first-choice center back Emmanuel Osei to the right side. However, what we'll likely see tonight is Osei staying in the middle, with Nicol choosing between the normally left-sided duo of Chris Tierney and Seth Sinovic to fill Alston's shoes.
Here, then, are my two best guesses at the New England starting lineup:
With the above group, there's the possibility that Phelan sits the bench in favor of Joseph Niouky, who acquitted himself well against Puebla and who may just have the fresher legs. Here's the other way I could see this shaking out:
That second group would mirror Nicol's adjustment against Puebla, while simultaneously keeping Khano Smith off the field. Normally that's a good move, but Smith hasn't played much this year and Nicol will probably be tempted to use someone that isn't exhausted and/or on the verge of having a minor injury become a major one. Plus, Smith has enough speed to pursue Andy Najar, something that Tierney is too slow for. I also have my doubts as to whether Nicol will want to break up his center back pairing when so few goals are getting in.
With the likely Revolution team out of the way, let's move on to the keys of the game for United:
1. Play at a fast, but controlled, pace. Games on turf tend to be hectic affairs, and D.C. will enter the game as the healthier (how unusual is that?) and better-rested side. This is a banged-up and tired New England team, and the best way for United to take advantage will be to push the pace of the game. Our players need to be looking to move the ball forward, make aggressive runs, get stuck into their tackles, and generally make the game difficult from both a physical angle and in terms of testing the stamina of the Revolution. The Revs will be starting weary players, and they'll have a short bench as well, and tired players make mistakes.
That said, we can't go out there at 100mph, careening around without purpose. Teams that fire their coach tend to get a boost in the next game as players realize they could be the next one out the door. However, you don't want to let that desperation take over your ability to think. Ben Olsen has a tricky task on his hands tonight: He needs to get his charges playing at a high speed and with intensity and aggression, but they must remain calm enough to think and keep their focus on execution when the time comes.
2. Pay extra attention to positioning. With Clyde Simms out with a calf strain, our back four will be exposed more often than usual. Even if likely replacement Stephen King does well in what is an unfamiliar role (in the dual holding midfielder formations that King has found himself in throughout his MLS career, he's always been the more attack-minded of the two), he will need a lot of help in combating Shalrie Joseph. That means the back four will to show discipline in maintaining proper spacing both amongst each other and between them and the midfield. This will prove vitally important, as the Revs will be looking to attack those gaps with the speed of Gambian duo Sainey Nyassi and Kenny Mansally.
3. Attack Osei. Referring to Osei as "erratic" is like calling the sun "hot." Among other things, Osei is prone to dallying on the ball, making ill-advised passes, lunging into tackles recklessly, and has had issues communicating with Matt Reis for years now. While the loss of Alston to injury makes the right flank an obvious weak spot, going there exclusively will become very predictable. Given that predictability is one of the main weaknesses in the DC attack, I'd like to see us try and work right up the middle at Osei. With the comfort Pablo Hernandez and Branko Boskovic have shown in playing short combination passes, there's a good chance we could see Osei dragged out of position by something as simple as a standard one-two. With quick ball movement and sharp runs off the ball, we could easily open New England up straight down the center of the field. This is also worth trying because of the potentially dead legs in the Revolution central midfield; it seems likely that they won't be able to offer 90 minutes of consistent aid to their center backs if we force them to cover enough ground.
4. The two sides of Tierney. If Tierney plays right back, we have the potential to create quite a bit on our left wing. Tierney is very much left-footed, and we've seen how much one-footed players can struggle when placed on their weaker side (see: Jordan Graye). It's also important to note that Tierney is, for a wide player in MLS, rather slow. Santino Quaranta (assuming he continues to start at left midfield) will have a speed advantage running at Tierney, and it will be vitally important to actually run at him. When Quaranta receives the first pass out of our defensive end, he often favors holding it long enough to get the opposition to fully shift to his flank, and then switches the point of attack with a long ball to the other flank. Tonight, if he's up against Tierney, he needs to mix things up and force Tierney into some footraces.
On the other side of the coin, Tierney has a deadly accurate left foot. With Perovic unavailable, Tierney will likely take the free kicks for the Revs; the difference is that Perovic likes to shoot, while Tierney likes to serve balls up for headers. Given the fact that Joseph has scored on headers in two of the last three United-Revolution matches, this should be something our players are all too aware of. Tierney also needs to be closed down in the run of play, because if he's given time he will be able to pick out runners from virtually anywhere in our half. When you're dealing with someone that can cross accurately (something of a rarity in MLS, as Steve Davis rightly points out), you have to contest every attempt. If Tierney's going to get crosses off, it has to be with a defender in so close that there's no angle to both hook the ball around his marker and still put the ball in a dangerous spot. Giving him even a small amount of space to cross the ball will put us in severe danger, so this has to be a priority.
5. Contain Nyassi. Nyassi is faster than Marc Burch. That's perhaps the understatement of the year. New England will surely look to isolate their livewire winger against a guy who has played all of one competitive game in 2010 as often as possible. While it will be important for King and Boskovic to bottle up Joseph and minimize the number of times he has time to pick out a pass, we have to accept that it'll be borderline impossible to keep the Revs from finding Nyassi with room to run at some point. The key in these situations is to maintain discipline. Burch will need to make sure that, if he goes in for a tackle, it's a tackle he wins. He'll also need to do an excellent job of playing the angles. In a straight line, Nyassi will win the race every time, but if Burch can anticipate where Nyassi wants to go, he can cut him off and force Nyassi to go to Plan B. Given that Nyassi's Plan B is usually an aimless cross or a negative pass, this would be the preferred outcome.
Ultimately, this is a game that we have every chance to win, no matter our numerous current issues. New England is about as depleted as an MLS team ever is, they're coming off a short rest, and they'll be without key players. Meanwhile, our players have every reason to be playing for their lives tonight. I doubt Olsen will be trying to reinvent the wheel given his newness to the coaching profession, but you can bet that he'll be fielding a team full of motivated, energetic players. If those players can also show a little skill and some smarts, they should be able to get the best of a bombed out and depleted (NSFW?) New England team. I realize that being a United fan and expecting anything other than defeat seems silly, but when I look at the Revs, I see a team that will have a hard time giving an honest effort over 90 minutes. They're just too beat up right now to maintain their favorable run, and the combination of their fitness issues and the energy boost that usually accompanies teams under new management should see this one go in our favor.
Before you ask: Yes, it's weird feeling something approaching confidence heading into a game.