The 2011 DC United season will officially begin tomorrow night, with the Columbus Crew coming to RFK Stadium for a 7:30pm kickoff. There is, for the first time in a couple of seasons, a real buzz around United. This can probably be chalked up to a combination of big signings, like Charlie Davies and new captain Dax McCarty, and some innovative efforts away from the field to get the team more attention. It's quite a contrast to last season, when DCU put all of its eggs in the Caleb Porter basket only to be rejected, settled on well-known Plan B Curt Onalfo, made bland signings, and promptly underachieved even with lowered expectations.
Obviously United has undergone a tremendous amount of change, but we're not the only ones. Columbus has been in upheaval throughout the offseason, as (under pressure?) head coach Robert Warzycha completed his unpopular attempts to dismantle the aging side that won the double in 2008 and also picked up a 2009 Supporters Shield. Out went Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Frankie Hejduk, Brian Carroll, and others, and the names that replace them are not nearly as well-known. While the Crew side that Sigi Schmid built around Schelotto could be relied on to play with at least some style, Warzycha appears to prefer hard work, defensive solidity, and an attack that is much less about aesthetics than it is about harassing defenders and capitalizing on mistakes.
So, what can the Black-and-Red expect out of the new-look Crew?
Let's start with Warzycha's likely starting eleven:
As you can see, there are some positions that are up in the air. Starting in the back, there is a significant chance that former United defender Julius James, a player that many of us would have rather kept. This is a big shock, as presumptive starter Andy Iro had an outstanding game for the Crew in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal against Real Salt Lake and has been talked up as a potential second-choice captain after Chad Marshall. James will have earned his spot the hard way, coming into camp late on and potentially unseating a player who looked poised for a strong season.
Left back is also a position with a couple potential starters. While Josh Gardner manned that spot in both games against RSL, he struggled to stay connected with the rest of the back four and didn't get forward effectively either. However, Gardner was only signed this season as depth, and is more of a left midfielder than a left back anyway. Shaun Francis, among the fastest players in MLS, will get most of the starts this season, but is questionable as he continues to recover from a hamstring strain suffered weeks ago. If Francis can't go, look for rookie utility player Rich Balchan to fill in at left back. Balchan will be more responsible than Gardner, though he will offer very little going forward.
Against RSL, Columbus played a 4132, with rookie Cole Grossman playing as an anchor role deep in the midfield throughout. While Grossman looks like a decent pick-up for the Crew, my expectation is for new signing Dejan Rusmir to get the start instead. Rusmir only sat out against RSL because he had not yet formally signed with Columbus. After spending the entire preseason with them, however, he should be plenty familiar with his teammates. Rusmir is said to be capable of playing both the pure defensive role and as a box-to-box central player, and supposedly embraces a physical style of play.
The final question mark is on the wing, as there have been rumors throughout the preseason that young Dilly Duka could potentially get starts over Robbie Rogers if the former Maryland Terrapin can't become a consistent danger to opposing defenses. This situation has puzzled me a little bit, because Duka has never impressed me when playing amongst grown men. He made his name with some strong displays on the USA under-20 national team, but in MLS he tends to struggle to make any impact. Rogers is often charged with drifting out of games in a similar fashion, but he at least can point to times where he was among the most dangerous players in Crew yellow.
As for the rest of the formation, it looks like Will Hesmer (shoulder surgery) and Chad Marshall (concussion) have reached full fitness and will be able to start. Columbus is a strong defensive unit, and beating these two may be United's biggest problem Saturday. Chilean newcomer Sebastian Miranda reminds me quite a bit of local product and LA Galaxy defender A.J. DeLaGarza. Both are a bit undersized, but they pair good speed and jumping ability with hard-nosed, intelligent defense. In other words, he's a solid player that won't be easily beaten.
The midfield is where DC should be able to find an advantage. Aside from the issues on one flank (Eddie Gaven will start, but Warzycha treats all of his wingers as entirely interchangeable, so it could be Gaven on the left and Rogers/Duka on the right to start) and at defensive midfield, Warzycha has handed a ton of responsibility to Emmanuel Ekpo in central midfield. Ekpo is a dynamic presence and has game-breaking ability, but often struggles with consistency. He's also a bit lacking as a passer, both in terms of vision and in terms of the technical ability to make the kind of incisive passes you need from central midfield. The resulting group will be less focused on trying to outpossess United, and more about simply turning the game into a ragged, scrappy affair.
As much as I might believe DCU can (and really, really should) win the midfield, there is real danger for the Black-and-Red from the Crew forwards. Newly-minted Designated Player Andres Mendoza, having dipped his toe in the MLS waters last season, is now 100% fit and will more or less serve as the replacement for Schelotto. "El Condor" may not look like the most intense player at first, but he does most of the simple things extremely well. His style of play is not as audacious or as obviously skillful as that of Schelotto, but he has a very consistent first touch and is very intelligent in how he finds his teammates with uncomplicated, but precise, passes. He's also a fairly sharp finisher, and gets his nickname due to his leaping ability.
Partnering Mendoza is Emilio Renteria, another player that concerns me. Renteria is a bundle of energy who chases down every play, challenges for every loose ball, and generally can be called "hard to play against." That approach even carries over to Renteria's shooting, which sees him strike every shot as hard as he can. While that sometimes leads to him hitting Row Z, it also means that anything he keeps down will be very difficult to stop. Expect Renteria to run himself into the ground before being replaced around the 70th minute by Jeff Cunningham (or, possibly, rookie Justin Meram).
When I think of Renteria, and the very direct style of Columbus in general, I'm reminded of the second goal United conceded against Toronto FC in the recent Carolina Challenge Cup. On the play, Maicon Santos chased down a long clearance by Stefan Frei. Despite winning the footrace relatively comfortably, Perry Kitchen hesitated between playing a pass back to Pat Onstad, putting the ball out of play, or trying to touch the ball to the side so he could turn upfield. Santos seized the moment, muscling Kitchen off the ball to present himself with a 1v1 that he duly slotted underneath Onstad.
Renteria is more physical and harder-working than Santos, and Columbus also plays a much more direct style than Aron Winter's TFC. What worries me is that our young back four will be put under lots of pressure by Columbus, who will often bypass the midfield when they have the ball in favor of forcing our defenders to go win 1v1 battles in uncomfortable locations. Pair that with the Crew's tendency to pressure high up the field when they don't have the ball, and you have a Columbus team that will be looking to create the majority of their chances on our mistakes. For DC to open the season with a win, it's going to take a largely mistake-free effort in our defensive third.
As for how to best attack Hesmer's goal, the best approach is likely to focus on keeping the ball on the ground. United's new-found team speed is higher than that of Columbus, so quick movement and smart combinations will lead to chances. I also like Andy Najar's chances of having a good outing, no matter who ends up at left back for the Crew. Francis has enough speed to match Najar, but is not the most sound 1v1 defender you'll ever see. Balchan, meanwhile, will be left in the dust if he ever ends up isolated against Najar. In either case, that avenue of attack should pay dividends.
To sum up, United has a real opportunity to start the season off on the right foot. The Crew midfield is one DC should be able to outpossess and outfox, and we have an attack that can cause their back four real problems. However, Columbus will look at us and think mostly the same thing thanks to our lack of experience in the back. Intriguingly, I think both teams will match strength with strength (our attack vs their defense) and weakness with weakness (our defense vs their attack). For United to grab three points, the keys will be to avoid calamitous defensive mistakes and reward ourselves for what will likely be a game we dominate in terms of possession and territory.