As the MLS playoff race progresses, the stakes get higher with every passing game. Sometimes, though, you catch a break. DC United's 3-2 loss at the Philadelphia Union was mitigated ever so slightly by the knowledge that the Black-and-Red have played fewer games than anyone in MLS, but the bigger stroke of good fortune for us came after a slew of Eastern Conference teams - the Houston Dynamo, Chicago Fire, New York Red Bulls, and Sporting Kansas City - all tied their games yesterday.
Sure, it could have gone better. Maybe Thierry Henry doesn't score in the 88th minute for NYRB, and it would have been nice if the San Jose Earthquakes had closed things out rather than letting Teal Bunbury pull the Sporks level just moments after the Quakes had taken the lead. At this time of year, however, you take what you can get. If the fates want to have everyone tie, that still means teams are leaving two points on the table.
All the talk of good fortune doesn't matter a bit, however, if United fails to take advantage and gain three points when everyone else is only getting one. Today's game against the Columbus Crew is even bigger than Thursday's visit to Philly, for both teams. The fading Crew having won in six matches, while United is still on the outside looking in when it comes to actual points (forget points-per-game; there's nothing guaranteeing that we maintain that rate). Both teams are desperate to win this game; a win for United would vault us over the Crew and into 3rd place in the East, while also guaranteeing a head-to-head tiebreaker advantage over Columbus (and it could very well come down to that kind of thing).
Robert Warzycha has had some good news (the likely return of Eddie Gaven from a nearly two-month absence due to a contusion to his Achilles) and some bad (Robbie Rogers picked up a hamstring strain midweek against the Sporks). Given the Crew's awful defensive record of late (16 goals conceded in 6 games), I expect Warzycha to start with an anchor midfielder in a 4132:
There aren't too many question marks, but then that's because Warzycha just doesn't have many arrows in his quiver. With Rogers out, Dilly Duka will likely switch to the left wing, opening up right midfield for Gaven. The defensive midfield role will either be taken by Danny O'Rourke (probable with a knee problem; O'Rourke had offseason knee surgery and has been struggling for fitness ever since) or rookie Rich Balchan (questionable with an adductor strain). If Gaven is only fit to play as a sub, expect Duka to be on the right and either Bernardo Anor or former United trialist Josh Gardner at left midfield.
Warzycha could go for more of an empty bucket if he chooses the fully fit Kevin Burns instead of O'Rourke or Balchan. The reasn the formation changes with Burns is that Warzycha doesn't trust Burns alone in the anchor role, and usually asks Emmanuel Ekpo to drop deeper and help him out.
There is the slight possibility that Warzycha opts for Tommy Heinemann up front for Emilio Renteria due to the midweek game and Renteria's persistent tendency to have muscular problems. Heinemann reminds me of former Crew striker Steven Lenhart, and not just because both could use a haircut. Both are big, physically aggressive players that tend to irritate the hell out of opposing defenders, and both have been accused of diving or feigning injury. Heinemann would present a tricky problem for a United defense that is clearly vulnerable to long balls, but if I were Warzycha I'd choose the vastly more skillful and mobile Renteria if at all possible (especially after watching Sebastian Le Toux rely on his speed and work rate more than his size to torch DCU on Thursday).
The Crew defense, as was mentioned earlier, is really struggling at the moment. Chad Marshall hasn't really lived up to his lofty reputation all season, and of late has looked jaded and unfocused. We know all about Julius James; tremendous athlete, brave and determined, but not the best in terms of anticipation and positioning. Next to James is Shaun Francis, who is as fast as any player in MLS but is very much still learning how to be a left back (and missed most of this season due to injury).
All three of these players can be exploited, particularly the left-side duo of Francis and James. Andy Najar is in superb form at the moment, and this is a big game for him. United will need him to deliver, and the weakest spots for the Crew are right where Najar would want them to be. If DC does well, it will be because Najar and others attacked the weak half of the Columbus defense.
Marshall, meanwhile, looks worn down of late; it was his rather lazy defending that ended up with him needlessly fouling in the box to give Sporting a penalty on Wednesday. That wasn't an isolated incident; Marshall's lateral movement has always been his weak point, and recently it has stood out more and more. Charlie Davies and Josh Wolff have the quickness to make this work to our advantage, both in the box and further upfield if someone's looking to play a through ball.
Defensively, it is of the utmost importance to be focused and work as a unit. United's problems against Philadelphia were not against complicated, intricate attacks; they were against long balls from guys like Amobi Okugo and Danny Califf (neither player is known for being particularly accurate with their long-range passing). Columbus will have noted that; I fully expect Marshall, right back Sebastian Miranda, and Ekpo to all look to play those types of balls throughout the match. Barring perfect passes, the only way such a strategy works is if players make individual mistakes or fail to communicate. It's very simple, but then we have to prove to Columbus and ourselves that we can deal with it.
Andres Mendoza is also going to be a problem as well. Mendoza is very good at dropping off the front line once the attack has started. This delays his run, and his late arrival usually causes chaos. The back four will need to be very aware of this, and both Clyde Simms and Stephen King will have to do a better job of helping out in this regard than they did against the Union. On the other hand, Mendoza can get frustrated very easily, and when he does he essentially jogs around sulking. If United can cause him problems early, Mendoza could fade from the game all on his own.
Both teams come into the game with defensive problems; for Columbus it's dreadful form, while United is missing starters. That probably means that the victor this afternoon will be the team that puts up the most goals; this game doesn't have the look of a tense 1-0 midfield battle. That said, it's imperative that United slows Columbus down when the Crew want to attack; playing wide open has cost us at full strength, and with forwards like Mendoza and Renteria, it could easily do so again here. Getting behind the ball immediately after turnovers will be critical; personally, I'd like to see the more defensively responsible Santino Quaranta start over Austin Da Luz for precisely that reason.
Ultimately, this game is going to come down to whether either team can make the most of a bad defensive situation. Even a mediocre defensive showing by either team would be an improvement, and would probably be enough given the goal-scoring potential for both sides. Three points are there for the taking, but only if DC is ready to deliver on both sides of the ball.