Since the beginning of May, D.C. United has lost just once in eleven league matches. In that stretch of the schedule, DC has played LA away, Seattle, Dallas twice, Philadelphia, Real Salt Lake away, and New York away. Ten of those eleven games have come against teams that are ahead of us in the standings (all of whom would be playoff teams if the season ended today). While there have been some frustrating ties over that spell that should have been wins, United is only outside the playoffs via tiebreakers (and has games in hand) despite having just gone through MLS's version of the gauntlet.
It stands to reason that it's all downhill from here, right? I mean, if we've gotten most of our matches against MLS's top 6 teams out of the way, we should be approaching the soft part of the schedule. Well ... not so fast. The thing about our schedule appearing easy over the next month - facing each of the worst five teams in the league, four of which are at home - is that those teams are already having to shift into a playoff mentality. Tonight's opponent, the New England Revolution, is already talking about playing for their jobs. The Revs come to town starting up a three-game road trip, and they're essentially treating it like their last stand.
Boxing fans might be familiar with seeing a fighter who is clearly outclassed and is running out of time to win a decision. Eventually, the fight gets to a point where the losing boxer will start throwing haymakers in the hopes of scoring a knockout. This is the situation D.C. is facing tonight; the Revs are desperate, and desperate teams can be very dangerous. New England may not look like a talented bunch, but it's very rare that we have an easy night against them. While this is a game that United should win, it's not going to be anything we can take for granted.
Follow along for more on the Revs:
Steve Nicol will likely go with a very defensive 4141, in part because he has very few other options:
Shalrie Joseph and Ryan Cochrane will return from suspension, but they will not be joined by Benny Feilhaber, who very foolishly got sent off for an avoidable collision with Carlos Ruiz (who, predictably, rolled on the ground grabbing at an ankle that was never touched). This will undoubtedly make the Revolution a stronger and more responsible defensive unit, and better on set pieces, but without Feilhaber they will have trouble keeping possession.
As with any struggling team, there are question marks. At right midfield, the choice is between Sainey Nyassi and Zak Boggs. Boggs replaced Nyassi at halftime against Philly, but that was due to a formation switch we'll get to in a second. To simplify the choice Steve Nicol faces, Nyassi is faster, more skillful, and has better attacking ideas, but is utterly inconsistent. Boggs is reliable and certainly more responsible defensively, but offers nothing special going forward. With Feilhaber out and a midfield that lacks creativity, I think Nicol has little option but to play Nyassi and hope for the best.
On the left side, Nicol will likely have to choose two players from Chris Tierney, Darrius Barnes, and Kenny Mansally. Tierney and Mansally got the starts on Saturday against Philly, but a halftime switch to a 352 (the Revs were 2-0 down) saw Mansally become the second forward, with Tierney moving to left midfield.
When the pressure is on, Nicol always errs on the side of caution, so I think he'll choose Barnes at left back and Tierney at left midfield, holding Mansally in reserve. Barnes can keep up with Andy Najar, which is something the slower Tierney is simply not capable of doing. Meanwhile, United has been shaky all season on crosses, and that's what Tierney does best, so expect to see him in the midfield. Mansally, who has 2 goals and 1 assist in his last two appearances against us, will very likely see time off the bench if the Revs find themselves trailing.
The idea of getting a lead on New England provides a convenient way to transition to what is probably the key for D.C. tonight. The Revs are running very low on confidence, and the best way to take advantage of that is to jump all over them right at the beginning of the game. An aggressive start from United will force the Revs to start thinking about their loss to the Union - where they were down 2-0 after just 24 minutes - all over again. The worst thing D.C. could do would be to feel their way into the game, as that would let the Revs start to build up some belief in themselves.
The best way to achieve that will be to get after the New England defense. Barnes may be able to keep up with Najar, but he's not a natural left back; there will be positioning issues and gaps to be exploited in his vicinity. Down the middle, meanwhile, Ryan Cochrane is the ideal player for United's attackers to face; we're small and fast, while he's slow and lacks agility. Charlie Davies should position himself just off Cochrane's shoulder at all times, while our midfielders should all be looking to play CD9 in behind the defense early.
Defensively, the Revs do offer players capable of causing problems, no matter their dire play of late. Joseph is a huge factor here, providing a little bit of everything. When the Revs need to keep possession, they mostly look to Joseph to set the tempo. Joseph is also the team's playmaker in the absence of Feilhaber, and his ability in the air makes him arguably their best scoring threat. To bottle Joseph up, it's more important to eliminate his options than to prevent people from passing to him; Joseph can do a lot, but he doesn't have the ability to conjure up magic with the ball at his feet. If Joseph has no choices, he will likely opt to pass backward to keep the ball, and that's where we can force a turnover.
Running up front by himself is Danish-Serbian striker Rajko Lekic, who has not exactly set MLS on fire. The problem for Lekic is that he's almost always isolated; the Revolution midfield is usually so defensive-minded that they have to cover 20 or so extra yards to get forward in support, and that extra couple seconds is the difference between a coherent attack and a turnover. There's also the fact that Lekic is more of a goal poacher than a target man comfortable with holding the ball up. He simply lacks the mindset to stay up front alone and take the bumps and bruises that come with playing with your back to goal. Finally, Lekic can be quite temperamental. It's very important that United's defense keeps a level head, because Lekic takes out his frustrations on opponents just as much as his teammates or the refs; he's an equal-opportunity type of guy.
Most of New England's attacking impetus comes down the flanks, via an early ball out of the midfield. Perry Kitchen and Daniel Woolard will need to be ready for this, because it's going to happen all night. For Woolard, it's not just about forcing Nyassi into blind alleys; he'll also have to be aware of the potential for Kevin Alston to overlap. Kitchen, on the other hand, will likely have a very different problem on his hands; Tierney prefers to play early crosses or switch the point of attack. Kitchen looked excellent against Dallas because he was so quick to close Brek Shea and Jackson down. The threat is different this time, but if Kitchen steps to Tierney early every time, Tierney will never have a moment to set up his crosses, which will effectively neutralize him.
New England visits RFK lacking a goalscorer, low on creativity in the midfield, with issues defensively, and almost devoid of self-belief. If D.C. can seize on those weaknesses from the start, we're in position to win this game and even cut into our poor goal differential. However, that will require playing the Revs as if they were LA, Dallas, or Seattle. If we take the field and treat this game as already being won, we open the door up to another disappointing home result against a team that we should have beaten.
The perception from the team and the fans is that we have a playoff side. Playoff teams win this game every single time. A ruthless, focused D.C. team should absolutely get three points here. The loose, slipshod United we saw against San Jose and Houston at home could easily tie or even lose this game. It may not seem like it, but this is a big mental challenge for a young team that has yet to prove it can consistently impose on inferior opponents.