D.C. United hits the road this week with hopes of getting back on track in a stadium where they've never really had much success. Will this time be different? Which United team will show up? We exchanged three questions with Denz of RSL Soapbox to dig deeper into the matchup.
B&RU: Give us a quick breakdown on what regular starters will be missing from the lineup for Real Salt Lake, and who will take their places.
Denz: Well RSL will still be missing Alvaro Saborio and Arturo Alvarez who have squads that have advanced in Gold Cup action, Will Johnson will be back but after a couple of busy weeks with the Canadian National team I am not sure if he will be in the 18 but expect he will, I don't expect that he will be starting XI. We have seen a mix of guys filling in for Will, but I think you might just see that role filled again this weekend by Luis Gil, who got his first start last week at Philadelphia. This being a home match (where RSL usually is a bit more offensive minded) also opens the door for Nelson Gonzalez to step back into the mix, and of course there is always the option of bringing in Collen Warner in an outside role as well as playing as the attacking midfielder role.
Of course injuries still have a large impact as RSL still is looking for who (if anyone) can fill in for Javier Morales, so far it has been a mix with Collen Warner getting a couple starts and in our match with Philly we had Andy Williams move into that role. The injury to Paulo Jr., who would have been a top choice to fill in up top for our Gold Cup call ups is still out with a hamstring injury and has just started running at practice session, the team is hoping that he might be back the start of July. So that means again that it is likely you will see Jean Alexandre start up top with Fabian Espindola, but there is a chance that Artur Aghasyan might get a shot at more minutes but I have to believe that will still be coming off the bench.
If I had to pick a starting XI it would be, Rimando, Wingert, Olave, Borchers, Beltran, Grabavoy, Beckerman, Williams, Gonzalez, Espindola, and Alexandre
B&RU: RSL has just two wins in its last eight matches since crashing out of the CONCACAF Champions League final. Are you worried?
Denz: Not really, I had a feeling that no matter what happened in the Champions League that there would be a huge drop for several weeks. Playing that many intense matches that early in the year was going to take both a physical and mental toll on the team, so when you combine that with the pressure of representing the league and the agony of losing your first match in over 2 years at home, you have to expect it to take a huge toll. Then two weeks later to see the offensive leader and the creative force behind a majority of your offense get injured so badly, and you have another trauma that simply was agonizing for the players to try and overcome.
Denz: I knew that the end of May and start of June would be tough as well with Gold Cup call ups, then when you combine it with the injuries and our situation at forward did have me wondering what would Jason do to kick start the scoring for RSL. It was going to be a huge test of our bench, and to be honest I thought we would see a couple of guys step up by now to take full advantage of the minutes with the first team and so far they have held their own but I don't think anyone has established themselves as a "must play" guy.
The real reason I don't worry is that MLS is a marathon, and not a sprint. I know that gets said all the time but it really is true and when you start your season with matches in February it becomes even more true, The next 6 week will be a tough test for RSL as they play 9 matches, but with a majority of them at home they should be able to get results going back in their favor.
B&RU: RSL has given up just seven goals in 12 matches, which is by far the best in the league. Is that sustainable?
Denz: I say yes, you have two of the MLS defender of the year finalists at centerback, you have a keeper who should have been the Keeper of the year last year, and a team that understands defense is played by everyone (my most impressive play last week was Fabian Espindola running 50 yards after a set piece to break up a Philly counter attack). Last year the team only gave up 20 goals all season, and while with 4 additional matches I doubt they will be able to repeat that number I would expect RSL to allow fewer than 25 goals to be scored against them this year.
I believe it has been the attention to detail on defense that has been the difference maker for RSL, in 2009 we allowed 35 goals and had to make the playoffs on the last day of the season. In 2010 we had the best defense with just 20 goals allowed and on the last day of the season we were fighting for the Supporters' Shield. After giving up multiple goals in 2 of our last 4 matches, I expect the team will make it a real focus on Saturday.
Denz: D.C. United have found themselves improved over last year, and perhaps no team has had a tougher schedule over the last 8 matches. After the big losses to New York and Houston the team seemed to have rallied and improved until last week. What happened?
B&RU: After shutting out the Los Angeles Galaxy and giving up only four goals total in their past five matches, it became evident against the San Jose Earthquakes that United's backline had been overachieving a bit. United's defense features three players - Bill Hamid, Perry Kitchen, and Ethan White - who aren't even old enough to have graduated college yet. They're prone to occasional mental mistakes, and they're going to have a few games like last Saturday. Kitchen and White are supposed to be physical players, but they were out-physicalled that day by Steven Lenhart, and he earned a hat trick because of it. This team isn't good enough to routinely put up clean sheets against the top teams in the Western Conference, and they're not bad enough to routinely give up four goals per game either. The mean is somewhere in between.
Denz: This year it seems the offense is improved over last year, but again D.C. United find themselves at the bottom of the league in goals allowed. Is it more than the injuries that are causing the issues?
B&RU: The injuries certainly haven't helped. Jed Zayner was supposed to be our full-time right back, but hasn't been fit since pulling a hamstring Week 1. The backline's most recent run of success saw Kitchen move out to the right, but as soon as he got comfortable there, he had to move back inside to fill in for the departure of Dejan Jakovic, who had planned on joining Canada for the Gold Cup, but wound up sitting out injured instead. No one should be surprised to see a backline that has sometimes contained three rookies be inconsistent. But they're young and will continue to grow together, communicate better, and improve. The potential is definitely there.
Denz: What is up with Charlie Davies? He has shown he can be a game changer but on-again-off-again injury issues really seem to have hampered his ability to make a huge impact on the team. Is he fit enough to start playing major minutes, or should we expect him to play sporadically?
B&RU: Davies actually seems to be able to make the biggest impact coming off the bench. With veteran Josh Wolff and surprising rookie Blake Brettschneider in good form, that's okay. The minor injuries for Davies have been somewhat exaggerated. Ben Olsen has chosen to take it easy with Davies and rest him at any sign of weakness. He should be set to start on Saturday night, but the team is still in a bit of an identity crisis offensively. Do they bypass the midfield to get Davies the ball in space? Or do they let their all-star nominated wingers Andy Najar and Chris Pontius do work on the outside? Finding the right blend might be the key for D.C. this year.