The Vancouver Whitecaps have not done well on the field in their expansion season. How bad have they been? They have the same number of points over 30 games as DC United did last season (and our worst-ever team also managed to win more often than this year's Whitecaps, who have just 4 wins in 2011). Vancouver has already had to change coaches, though Tom Soehn's move from a desk job to the bench has not really had any impact in terms of results. Big-name players like Jay DeMerit have come up short, and inconsistency has dogged even their best players.
All that said, tonight's opponent is better than they look on paper. Eric Hassli is capable of brilliance, and Davide Chiumiento is one of MLS's most technically gifted players. Camilo Sanvezzo, found after torching the Maltese league (yes, Malta has a league) and struggling in Korea's K-League, has 11 goals and routinely torments opponents despite drifting between forward and left midfield (side note: Makes you wonder how much better DC would have been in recent years if Soehn were in charge of our international scouting, as he was for Vancouver when these guys were signed). DeMerit may not be having a good first season in MLS, but this is still a guy that has played in the World Cup and in the Premier League.
Vancouver might have some big issues, but they're also capable of putting up goals and winning games; I'd rather be playing Toronto FC or get another shot at the New England Revolution, to be honest. They're also coming off a 3-0 win over Real Salt Lake, and this game involves playing on turf ("Polytan" might be the fanciest turf, but it's still turf) and flying across the continent. The Whitecaps would probably also like to get some measure of revenge for the 4-0 loss they suffered at RFK, a game that was closer than the scoreline would indicate. For United, this game is a bigger challenge than it might appear.
Soehn was always rather hard to predict when he was coaching United, and that has continued in Vancouver. His team has used numerous formations and, due to Chiumiento and Camilo both preferring positional freedom, even nailing down what formation they're playing once you see a team sheet is tricky. Throw in the fact that Soehn dropped four players (and was without Hassli due to suspension) and moved others into new positions for that win over RSL, and you have a starting line-up that is arguably the most difficult to pick in MLS. With that in mind:
Starting in the back, the only real question is on the right, where rookie utility man Jeb Brovsky has replaced the injured Jonathan Leathers. Brovsky is a good all-around athlete and has some potential to learn the position, but he is very much in the early stages of that process (his previous position was in central midfield, and he's been used in both wide midfield roles as well this year). It will be very tempting for Ben Olsen to play Andy Najar on the left for at least some of the game, because right back is by far the weakest spot on the field for the Whitecaps. Our issues at left midfield are obvious, and we can't let the Whitecaps off the hook by matching our problem position up with theirs, especially since switching Alain Rochat and Brovsky in response is highly unlikely.
Teenaged defensive midfielder Gershon Koffie is the only sure thing in Vancouver's midfield. John Thorrington is a much better player than Pete Vagenas, but is arguably the most injury-prone player in MLS (and is currently listed as "probable" with a groin strain). If he's fit to play, he'll start; otherwise, Vagenas will be in, which would be tremendous for United. Vagenas is a tidy player in possession, but can't cover anywhere near enough ground, and tends to be uncomfortable when games are high-paced or when the opponent applies high pressure.
On the right, Nizar Khalfan came in from the blue at right midfield, and helped his chances to continue with a wonderful goal. If Soehn wants to sit him for no good reason - United fans know this is always possible with Soehn - then Shea Salinas or Chiumiento will step in. Salinas has tremendous speed but is cursed with erratic technique and has tons to learn about how to move off the ball as well as defending properly. Chiumiento, meanwhile, is a defensive liability and offers little speed, but is one of the most purely skillful players in MLS. If he's on the right, he'll drift inside throughout.
Jordan Harvey didn't do much playing left midfield against RSL, so he's probably the odd man out with Hassli returning from suspension. Long Tan, in his first start since May, showed a lot of potential and will likely be rewarded with the other forward spot, which means Camilo will probably make the now-familiar trip back to left midfield (we'll discuss Camilo further in just a bit).
Earlier I said that our 4-0 win over Vancouver was deceptive; that also applies to the 3-0 win the Whitecaps posted in their last game against an RSL team that, due to suspensions, injuries, and national team duty, were fielding arguably 6 players that were reserves, playing out of position, or both. Throw in Collen Warner's red card - a ridiculous decision that also gave the Whitecaps a penalty kick just before halftime - and our own experience with the RSL reserves, and that 3-0 is not as impressive as it looks on the surface.
Still, it must be noted that the Whitecaps did deserve their victory. Referee Chris Penso might have given them numerous gifts, but Vancouver was stronger from the opening kickoff. Soehn's side restricted RSL to harmless possession in their own end by defending as a unit instead of as a group of individuals, and their attack took advantage of a Real back four using both Chris Wingert and Chris Schuler out of position. In other words, it was a positive outing for a Vancouver team that has had issues with confidence and playing as a cohesive group all season.
Defensively, DC's main worries will be Hassli and Camilo, who are both able to create goals out of nothing. With Hassli, it will be important for Ethan White and Brandon McDonald (especially McDonald, as Hassli prefers playing slightly to the right of center and often comes up against the left-center back of his opponent) to body up and not get pushed around. If Hassli is forced to play with his back to goal, he will be reduced to a set-up man rather than the player taking the majority of the shots. It will also help if United's defenders and midfielders can deny him any reasonable service; the less looks Hassli has at goal, the more likely United is to win the game.
Where Hassli thrives on the physical side of the game, Camilo prefers to be elusive. Whether playing up front or at left midfield, Camilo will look to get into the United box on the dribble whenever he has the ball. Unlike Chris Pontius, who loves to cut inside early, Camilo prefers to stay wide and attack the right back 1v1 in an attempt to get into the 18 yard box nearer to the endline. This puts players in a difficult spot, and it's no coincidence that Camilo has won numerous penalties throughout the season (it also should be noted that Camilo will hit the deck with ease under any contact; he's not a diver per se, but he frequently embellishes contact). Perry Kitchen will need to be at his best to shut down Vancouver's leading scorer.
Set pieces will also be an issue for United. While DeMerit and Rochat don't have particularly intimidating size - both are roughly 6' tall - they are both brave, determined, and have the right "take it personal" attitude on attacking free kicks. Mitchell gives them a bit more height, and there's the obvious menace from Hassli if he plays. Furthermore, both Chiumiento and Camilo provide excellent service, and both have also scored direct from free kicks this season. In other words, fouling near our 18 yard box will be very hazardous, and given Vancouver's tendency to struggle at scoring "normal" (read: not spectacular or from the penalty spot) goals, probably not necessary. Patient 1v1 defending, paired with good work at hunting in packs and forcing players into low-percentage decisions, will give DC a real chance at getting a shutout.
Intriguingly, the Whitecaps are about as bad defending free kicks as they are good at the other end of the field. There are numerous players who, through either youth or simple lack of focus, can be taken advantage of in such situations. The more experienced players like DeMerit and Rochat usually take care of the biggest threats, but poor marking elsewhere leads to headers by less likely players and/or scrambles where anything can happen. Najar's delivery on corners has been pretty good this season, so look for some of our secondary targets (Kitchen, Daniel Woolard, and possibly Santino Quaranta come to mind) to get their chances. With Dwayne De Rosario resting after he went 90 minutes in Toronto for Canada less than 24 hours ago, we will need to find goals, and set pieces could be a big help for us in that department.
In the attack, United will need to throw multiple looks at a Whitecaps back four that has played just one game together. Movement is going to be very important; Josh Wolff's ability to drop off the front line and create will be particularly important with De Ro out. An unfamiliar back four usually struggles with communication and an instinctual understanding of their fellow defenders, so Wolff's cleverness with and without the ball will be crucial. It will also be important for Charlie Davies to run in different channels and attack different angles throughout. If United is predictable in its runs and passes, it will mitigate Vancouver's lack of familiarity.
Finally, it will be important for United to apply high pressure as a team. Brovsky, new center back Carlyle Mitchell, Koffie, and even DeMerit can be rather uncomfortable with the ball, and nothing will deflate a team with fragile confidence faster than avoidable turnovers that lead to goals or chances for their opponent. That psychological side of the game is huge: As Josh Wolff told Craig Stouffer, "...when they lose their way in a game, they really lose their way."
In other words, it's time to once again sweep the leg. Playoff teams beat the worst team in the league at this stage of the season in any venue. There are simply no excuses here. While a loss or draw will not kill United's playoff dream, it will mean that we need to win three straight, and all against teams that are either also fighting for their lives (Chicago and Portland) or that are jockeying for a conference title (Kansas City). United can't have any excuses tonight. We're missing De Ro and Dejan Jakovic? Doesn't matter. We're on the road, and on turf? Doesn't matter. If the MLS playoffs are a roller coaster, this game is the sign out front that says "You must be this tall to ride."