DC United has a fine opportunity to make it three games without a loss this Saturday night, when the banged-up Colorado Rapids visit RFK. Wait...haven't we done this before? Thanks to a quirk in the MLS schedule, we'll already be done our season series against the defending champs less than a third of the way through the season.
The Rapids come to town with some issues that date back to their 4-1 win over us on April 3rd. Since our capitulation in Commerce City, the Rapids have won just once - thanks in part to a disastrous error from Houston Dynamo goalkeeper Tally Hall. In that 1-2-3 (W-T-L) stretch, the Rapids have managed just three goals.
Colorado's offensive shortcomings can be traced back to injuries on the front line. Conor Casey pulled his hamstring playing against United, and will only be making his return - as a sub or starter - tomorrow night. Omar Cummings, meanwhile, has struggled with several injuries and will miss out due to an ankle sprain. Macoumba Kandji is still a long way away from playing after tearing his ACL on the play that ended up winning the 2010 MLS Cup for the Rapids. Caleb Folan, whose best game in MLS came against United, will also be out with a groin strain picked up early in the recent, dour 0-0 draw between the Rapids and the New England Revolution. On the night, Gary Smith was forced to start a team that looked more like an early-round US Open Cup lineup than what you'd see in league play.
So what can United expect from a very different-looking Rapids team?
Here's how we should expect the Rapids to start the game:
The question marks are all fairly straightforward choices for Smith. In the back, Tyrone Marshall has had a recent run of games as the Rapids have tried to change their fortunes amidst this run of injuries. If he retains his place, I'd expect Drew Moor to play left back, with Scott Palguta going to the bench. However, given DC's emphasis on speed, I think Smith would prefer having Moor and Marvell Wynne reunited in central defense. Palguta, who is not exactly a speedster, could also be replaced by former starter Anthony Wallace in an effort to negate Andy Najar's pace.
At right midfield, Smith will have to choose between Wells Thompson and Sanna Nyassi. Nyassi has recently been out with a back injury, but is listed as probable as this is being written. Given Colorado's offensive struggles, he might be welcomed back into the fold over Thompson, whose ability in the attack is somewhat limited. Jamie Smith was held out against the Revolution, but that was likely down to the fact that he's an older player and the turf at Gillette Stadium is arguably the worst surface in MLS. He should be expected to start on the left, and provide much of Colorado's invention going forward.
Up top, Quincy Amarikwa will replace Cummings as the speed option, while Casey looks somewhat likely to get the start after a long layoff. That is by no means guaranteed, however; Casey's status will probably be determined as close to kickoff as possible. If Casey is restricted to a substitute's role, the starter will be Andre Akpan.
Who? Akpan may not be a familiar name, but he's a very energetic player who has looked more confident since scoring for the Rapids in an Open Cup qualifier. Against the Revs, he had a "shoot on sight" mentality after replacing Folan in the 30th minute. If Akpan starts, he's not a like-for-like replacement for Casey; instead, he will lead the line with speed and by looking to run at defenders. In that regard, he's like a lesser version of Charlie Davies than he is a replacement for Casey or Folan. It should also be mentioned that the Rapids use their reserve team intelligently, so Amarikwa and Akpan have played tons of games together over the past few seasons. They might not be stars, but they won't be unfamiliar or awkward either.
The Rapids that beat us 4-1 were feeling confident, playing smoothly, and had replaced Conor Casey with the rather similar Caleb Folan. The current Rapids team looks disjointed, attacking in spurts rather than through sustained play. Against New England, I was struck by how often Colorado would have one person trying to run an attack all by himself; the player with the ball was putting on the blinders, and the rest of the team would more or less sit back and watch rather than get involved and give the guy an option.
If Casey returns, it's vital for United to counter his physical play by fighting fire with fire. Getting after Casey will disrupt his ability to hold the ball, which in turn will not give the Colorado midfield time to advance forward. If we can cut off that supply line, we should be able to defend the Rapids comfortably, just as New England did. Colorado's central midfield receives a lot of praise, but they aren't creative players. If the Rapids are having to rely on Pablo Mastroeni to be a playmaker going forward, we're probably looking at a positive result.
Attacking the Rapids might be a bit more difficult. Smith is fully aware of the club's offensive struggles, and against the Revs he embraced the idea of grinding the game out and escaping with a road point. At RFK, there's plenty of reason to expect to see that same approach. If Palguta or Wallace start at left back, that's where United should focus their attacks. Najar, Davies, and Josh Wolff are all faster than Palguta, while Wallace can be caught out of position rather easily by smarter players.
A big key for United will be for Dax McCarty and his central midfield partner - Clyde Simms or Stephen King - to spray the ball to the wings quickly when we're in possession. Mastroeni and Jeff Larentowicz are the best in MLS as far as defending from central midfield, so the best way around that is to try to avoid attacking down the middle too often. Colorado has a strong defensive foundation, so you have to get at the wings. Plays like the goals we scored against Seattle are tailor-made both for this United team and for causing problems for the Rapids.
In the end, even Casey's return won't fix everything for Colorado. They're lacking in confidence and can be very one-dimensional in the attack without both Casey and Cummings. It seems unlikely that Casey will be at 100%, and DC's recent defensive play should be much stronger than the team that just handed goals out last month. This is by no means an easy game - they're the defending champs, after all - but considering the venue and the current form of both teams, there's every reason to expect DC to take three points if we continue to play like we have been of late.