Didn't we just play Chivas USA? Indeed we did. DC United's 3-0 road win over the Goats propelled United into a playoff spot and drew raves for the quality of our deadly counterattack. Unfortunately, there was another major talking point from that game: the potentially season-ending fractured tibia suffered by Chris Pontius.
Covered up by all that was the fact that the 3-0 scoreline was somewhat flattering over 90 minutes. Plenty can be said for jumping out to a 2-0 lead against a Chivas team that plays too slow to be very good at playing from behind, but it also must be said that DC went very flat for a long spell before Charlie Davies completed his hat trick. Chivas ended the game with 63% of possession and, per MLSsoccer.com, bombarded the DC area with 29 crosses. That the Goats were almost totally ineffective with what we gave them isn't the point; it's the fact that a sharper opponent would have made this a much different game. Going up 2-0 is great, but the game doesn't end immediately.
Robin Fraser also appeared to learn quite a bit from this game, making five changes to the Chivas starting line-up for their visit to Chicago this past weekend. Facing a Fire team that is something of a poor man's version of the current United, Fraser added speed wherever he could in an effort to give his otherwise glacial team a fighting chance. The result - a 3-2 loss on the road - was closer, but the nature of the game was arguably worse for Chivas. Chicago raced out to a 2-0 lead just like we did, but then played 53 minutes down a man due to a red card for Cory Gibbs. Chivas eventually made the pressure tell with two goals in two minutes midway through the second half, but Chicago would all too predictably win the game on a counterattacking goal by speedster Dominic Oduro.
So, how does this impact tonight's game?
Given that Fraser made so many changes and still found his team bleeding goals, this is a tough line-up to call.
The biggest news is that Heath Pearce has been upgraded to probable, and will likely start in central defense. Pearce is the organizer for the Goats, and both United and Chicago showed how awful the Chivas back four is without him putting the pieces in place. It also helps that Pearce is faster than the other candidates for the job; he can't keep up with Davies but he's fast enough that, by taking the correct angle, he can lower the danger when DC goes over the top.
Right back has been a revolving door for weeks with Chivas, but the best option for tonight's game is probably the athletic, combative Michael Lahoud (who also happens to be a northern Virginia product). Zarek Valentin might also get a start, especially if the versatile Lahoud is deployed elsewhere. In either case, we're talking about players that are not that experienced; quick combination play and good movement off the ball would be particularly effective down our left wing as a result.
Further forward, Simon Elliott will likely play even though he is clearly a huge defensive liability. Fraser has placed too much trust in his old LA Galaxy teammate - yes, Elliott is that old - and rather naively believes that Elliott's contributions to the possession game are worth his inability to cover ground with anything approaching quickness. Dwayne De Rosario found plenty of space at the HDC, and he'll likely find the same amount of room tonight. This is an athletic mismatch just begs to be exploited.
The wings are more of a question mark for the Goats. Marcos Mondaini went 90 minutes against Chicago, but tends to fade in and out of games. Chivas may opt to play Lahoud there (with Valentin at right back), or could also bring back Blair Gavin, who would pinch inside rather than stay wide.
On the left, it's really a crapshoot. Justin Braun played there against Chicago, but you could easily see Laurent Courtois, Jorge Flores, or even Lahoud out there. Courtois is clearly the most skillful option, but is defensively soft and is clearly not there fitness-wise; he'll play, but most likely as a sub at the hour mark. Flores has been off-form for weeks now, but is the most natural left midfielder of the group. If Lahoud is stationed out there, look for him to mostly focus on harassing Andy Najar. Such a move would signal a very defensive mentality from Chivas; given their need for a win rather than a tie, this seems doubtful.
Speaking of Chivas needing three points, a look at the standings underlines the pressure the Goats are under. Fraser's side has just five games left in their season, and one of those is "away" against a rampant Galaxy side. A loss tonight means that Chivas will likely need to win all of their remaining games, which is highly unlikely. While they're obviously in dire straights, there's another side to this: Chivas is going to put everything into this game, because their playoffs essentially start tonight. I'm not sure this will be their smartest effort - desperation rarely leads to genius - but it will definitely be the most determined, hardest-working Chivas team this season.
Going forward, United will need to transition into the attack with quickness. Chivas can juggle their line-up all they want, but they're still not good about getting into defensive positions when they turn the ball over. It's a simple plan, but that's why Chivas is in the situation they're in. It would also behoove Davies to observe when Ante Jazic jumps into the attack from left back; that side of the field will be wide open if we can break up the play or head the inevitable Jazic cross clear.
Defensively, the key for DC will be patience. Chivas can keep the ball as well as anyone in MLS, but they lack players that can turn possession into danger. That said, if the connection between Clyde Simms, Ethan White, and Brandon McDonald is as shoddy as it was in Seattle, then Nick LaBrocca will probably have a great night. Being smart in that area of the field will be critical for United to get another shutout.
If it's Braun again on the left wing, Perry Kitchen will need to repeat the strong showings he had against the similarly imposing (but more skilled) Brek Shea. Playing a high line will also be a smart move, because Juan Pablo Angel and Alejandro Moreno are hardly fast enough to make us have to worry about the game being a track meet. That high line will also compress the space available for the Chivas possession game, meaning more turnovers and more chances to run at their back four. Offense and defense, as always, are connected.
As much as this piece makes it sound like we're essentially the worst nightmare for the Goats, the fact is that it's still going to require a big improvement over the unfocused showing we had in Seattle. I'd even say we need to play better tonight than we did against Chivas 11 days ago. The Goats are up against it but don't appear psychologically broken, so we should expect them to be at their best tonight. We need to match that level of desire and focus to take advantage of the inviting symmetry between what they do poorly and what we do well.