DC United will host the New England Revolution for another round of US Open Cup qualifying tonight at the Maryland SoccerPlex. For United, this will be the second of a potential three game qualifying process to get into the Open Cup proper; New England, thanks to their higher finish in the 2010 MLS standings, got a bye to this stage. DC will be eager to get revenge for a frustrating loss a few weeks ago against a Revolution team that has changed quite a bit since then by adding US national team midfielder Benny Feilhaber and Danish striker Rajko Lekic. New England, meanwhile, would simply like to avoid a loss in their first USOC-related game after going out at the first hurdle in both 2009 (to the Harrisburg City Islanders) and 2010 (to the New York Red Bulls in the first stage of MLS qualifying).
Both Ben Olsen and Steve Nicol will be cycling some reserves into their teams due to a short gap between games. For Olsen, the concern is how to get results in this match and on the road against the Houston Dynamo just three days later. Nicol's worry will be that his club is coming off of a similar three-day gap between games after a 3-2 triumph over
the Kansas City Wiz Wizards Sporting Kansas City. In this department, United might have a slight advantage: Olsen has started a league-high 22 players thus far in MLS play; that means United's reserves have more real action thus far. On the other hand, New England's injury list over the past couple of seasons has been astounding, so young players that have been there for a year or two have had to log some serious minutes in MLS as well.
So, what should DC be looking for out of New England tonight?
Predicting the exact starting eleven for these early Open Cup qualifiers can be tricky, but I'm fairly confident this will be close to the mark:
Lots of question marks, I know, but they can be explained. Darrius Barnes is listed at right back, as the Revs have used him in a wide role when he's played this season. This is partially due to their improved center back depth, but is also related to a lack of right backs other than Kevin Alston. If Nicol wants to use Barnes centrally, we could see left-footer Chris Tierney or rookie winger Ryan Kinne play right back instead. On the other flank, Tierney will start unless he's at right back, in which case former United trialist Otto Loewy would likely get the nod.
Centrally, it seems a near certainty that Ryan Cochrane and his mustache will start. Alongside him is a bit less predictable, as both AJ Soares and Franco Coria went 90 minutes against the Sporks. I'm listing Soares as the starter because Coria had a hamstring complaint a few weeks back, but as we already covered, Barnes is also a possibility.
In central midfield, Nicol has confirmed that Ousmane Dabo will definitely play from the start tonight. Dabo has not played for the Revs yet due to a nagging injury, but has big-time experience in Serie A (mostly with Lazio), the Premier League, and in Ligue 1 as well as three caps for France. He may be 34, but he's likely to function as the class of New England's midfield tonight. DC will have to fluster him to disrupt the Revs' rhythm.
Pat Phelan may play alongside Dabo if he can get over a headache that kept him out of New England's last game. Phelan is well-known for wearing the same kind of headgear that former United players Alecko Eskandarian and Josh Gros wore, so this headache is no minor concern for him. If Phelan is held out for another game, we could see any one of rookie Stephen McCarthy (who has started every Revs match thus far in 2011), Andrew Sousa (another rookie who has spent most of the season dealing with a back ailment), or the versatile Tierney.
The wings are also a bit tricky thanks to a Marko Perovic's newly-sprained knee. If Perovic were healthy, Kenny Mansally - often a thorn in our side - would be a sure starter on the left. However, with Perovic in doubt, Mansally is probably in line for a start on the weekend, which means Nicol will need to find a new left midfielder. Sainey Nyassi has seen time on the left this season after being displaced by Zak Boggs on the right, so look for him to line up on that side. Right midfield will be a toss-up between Nigerian teenager Michael Augustine and Kinne, though if Perovic's injury isn't too serious, we could see Nyassi on the right instead. There is also an outside possibility that Kheli Dube is deployed as a winger, though I think we're much more likely to see him start up top.
Dube has seemingly regressed after a promising rookie season back in 2008, and is now probably the fifth-choice forward for the Revs. Despite his inconsistency, he will bring some speed and the outside possibility that today is one of his good days, which would mean a very tricky challenge for United's back four. Partnering him will probably be Serbian goal-poacher Ilija Stolica. Stolica was first-choice last season, but seems to have fallen behind Lekic and Zack Schilawski (not to mention Shalrie Joseph) as the club's preferred target forward. Still, Stolica is the kind of player that can be a ghost for 90 minutes only to pop up with a goal in stoppage time. Schilawski could also start here.
New England's early season play gained them a reputation of being a very defensive team, but their play against Kansas City points to a move towards a more appealing style. However, that transition is due to adding high-quality players like Feilhaber and Lekic; without them, and with reserves all over the field, it seems likely that Nicol will opt for caution (similar to what we saw the Philadelphia Union do on their visit to Boyds). My guess is that the Revs will try to keep the game boring and scrappy over the first hour, and then bring in bigger names off the bench to try and snatch a win. For United, this means it's of the utmost importance to keep the ball moving quickly and create danger early on. We don't necessarily need to score in the first five minutes, but we do need to take charge of this game early on and dictate the terms of how it will unfold.
I mentioned that New England may approach this game like the Union approached our previous USOC game, which worries me a bit. Philly made great use of long throw-ins against us; in fact, it was virtually their only source of offense throughout the 120 minutes. New England is even more dangerous in this regard thanks to Barnes, who possesses the best long throw this side of Stoke City's Rory Delap. It's all about trajectory and speed; Barnes can fire the ball in at nearly the speed of a corner kick. Considering how hard it was for us to deal with the slower, more lofted attempts from Sheanon Williams, this has to be a real concern for DC all night long.
The more ordinary type of set piece play is also a concern. Tierney is very accurate from both corners and serving deeper free kicks into the box, and has also notched a couple of goals shooting when in close. He doesn't have that much power, but he has enough accuracy to pick out a runner or curl the ball over the wall and into a corner. As such, DC will need to defend the right way - staying on their feet and out-thinking a Revs team that aside from Dabo might not have the highest soccer IQ - to avoid giving up set pieces, which we have struggled with in every game this season.
Going forward, United should certainly be able to create some chances. Barnes isn't a natural at right back, and Tierney's lack of speed should be a real focus for the Black-and-Red going forward. Despite his impressive facial hair, Cochrane has never impressed me due to his glacial speed and a tendency to lose focus at crucial moments, so we might be able to take advantage there too. Additionally, my memory of seeing Dabo play in Europe is that he's not exactly the world's hardest-working central midfielder, so our typical high-energy play could cause him problems. In goal, back up keeper Bobby Shuttleworth is a decent option, but he's not the kind of keeper that can stand on his head to win this one for New England.
Whoever plays in central midfield tonight for DC - it's up for debate - will need to get the ball wide early and often, especially if our starting forwards are Blake Brettschneider and Joseph Ngwenya. If Olsen is going to play two big, physical forwards, we should be able to create some dangerous chances by hooking in crosses on both flanks. That might appear to be the lumbering Cochrane's bread and butter, but there's more to winning headers than just being big and strong. Ngwenya and Brettschneider are both faster than him, and if our wide players can get around their outside backs and then play balls in quickly, Cochrane might not have a chance to close the gap in time. I'd also like to see us test Shuttleworth's decision-making; catching him in no man's land might lead to a cheap goal.
Overall, I like United's chances tonight, but I also worry that we could see a repeat of the game against the Union. Dominating possession and territory shouldn't be too much of a problem if we can get after Dabo, but our set piece defending is a recipe for trouble against this Revs team. I'm confident that we'll create enough chances to win the game, but someone is going to have to convert them. I don't see a United clean sheet as highly likely, so it's going to take two or three goals tonight to advance to the final stage of the byzantine USOC qualifying process, which would be at Kansas City for the winner tonight.