Earlier this season, I used this space to say that playing at Real Salt Lake would be the toughest game of DC United's season. The Black-and-Red managed to scrape out an acrimonious 1-1 draw best remembered for a penalty kick awarded thanks to a Charlie Davies dive (along with a string of other dubious decisions against both teams by Terry Vaughn).
However, what also needs to be remembered from that game is that United, playing at altitude against one of the best teams in MLS, stepped up its game. We often lament this young team's habit of playing down to their opponents, but the flip side is that we've often played up when facing the real contenders. United is unbeaten against LA (should have won the away game) and Dallas (robbed by Kevin Hartman at home), and respectably split the season series with Seattle.
Against RSL, United hit the woodwork twice through Chris Pontius, had a goal called back for offside (Party Boy again), and only conceded against a potent offense via a penalty kick. The draw may have required conning the referee, but DC earned a point on the night by playing RSL fairly close to even. We defended well without having to bunker, had adequate possession against the best team in MLS at that part of the game, and created our fair share of chances.
Things are naturally different today, over three months later. RSL was still in a funk over the twin blows of losing the CONCACAF Champions League final and then seeing Javier Morales suffer a horrible injury soon thereafter. The Utah-based side also had to play that night without Alvaro Saborio and Will Johnson due to the Gold Cup as well. Tonight, however, both will be available and - more importantly - RSL is on a roll right now, and remain the final team with any hope of catching the Los Angeles Galaxy in the Supporters Shield race. In other words, tonight is potentially just as difficult a game as our trip out to the Wasatch Front was in June.
Jason Kreis has stuck to a 4312 formation, regardless of the absence of key players or even their midseason mediocrity (5-6-6 in 17 games before winning their last five), so there's no reason to expect anything else at RFK tonight:
Despite playing mid-week, there aren't many question marks in the RSL line-up. At left back, Chris Wingert appears poised to return to action after missing a few games with a fractured wrist. With Tony Beltran unavailable due to an adductor strain, Kreis has no other natural options at the position if Wingert is somehow not fit to play. Chris Schuler has deputized there recently, but he's very much a center back filling in because there are no other choices. In other words, expect Wingert; hopefully Andy Najar can take advantage of any rust he shows. Perhaps Najar will approach this match-up with a chip on his shoulder; the last time the two clubs met, Wingert launched himself towards Najar in a ridiculous, knee-high, studs-up tackle that Najar was fortunately agile enough to hurdle (the corner flag at Rio Tinto Stadium was not so lucky).
Elsewhere, right midfield could go to several players, but that's nothing new for an RSL side that rotates players out of that position based on fitness, form, and match-ups. Andy Williams played 68 minutes there at
Red Bull Arena before being replaced by Arturo Alvarez; both could play, but I'm guessing we'll see Ned Grabavoy return to the starting line-up after several weeks as a sub due to a nagging injury. Grabavoy is more defensively responsible than the rest of Kreis's options in the role, and also tends to pinch inside (something that would be a problem for RSL if Chris Pontius were fit).
The attacking midfield role will likely go to teenager Luis Gil, the player that finally seized the opportunity after Kreis essentially gave anyone remotely capable of playing the role an audition. Gil only appeared as a sub at NYRB, replacing Collen Warner late, but that was probably more about distributing minutes than it was about Warner pushing Gil to the bench. Williams could also feature in this role, but the most likely outcome is Gil continuing as the #10.
The biggest current story for RSL right now isn't even that five-game winning streak - note that three of those games were played on the road, including at Seattle - or even that their 3-1 win over the New York Red Bulls put them in the playoffs. It's the return of club's most skillful player, Morales, who has been cleared to play.
It's not that Morales is going to come back and be the potential Best XI player he is at his best; dude has been out for months with a severe injury and was only allowed to resume jogging a couple of weeks ago. If you're going to have to face Morales, this is probably the time to do it. The problem for United will be the emotional lift his return provides for a very tight-knit RSL squad. Few teams in MLS are as close off the field as RSL is, and make no mistake: That sort of thing matters quite a bit. Given that both clubs are coming off a mid-week game, Morales appearing on the bench (much less actually entering the game) will likely provide whatever positive vibes and energy RSL needs to overcome playing twice on the road in four days.
At some point recently, Fabian Espindola stopped drifting wide so often and started playing in a more central position. Perhaps Kreis told him to do this as a way to help Gil out; it could also just be something Espindola figured out on his own, or in conjunction with Saborio. In any case, he's been in excellent form of late, and his hard-running, pesky style is just as dangerous down the middle as it is out wide. Not only will United's central players all need to be constantly aware of Espindola's hard-to-track runs off the ball, but they need to be very careful with the ball. Espindola works very hard, and as Tim Ream learned last week, a loose touch or poorly-hit pass is just as welcome for Espindola as a through ball or cross from a teammate.
RSL's narrow diamond is designed to help their technically superior players get closer together and work combinations to break opponents down, but it also does quite a good job of hiding a flaw in the squad Kreis has put together: They're not that fast as a group. They're not obviously slow like Chivas USA, and there are guys like Jamison Olave and Espindola in there, but RSL's possession game is so effective in part because it covers up a weakness while also playing to their strengths.
United would do well to take advantage of this by looking to counter whenever they can force a turnover. However, that doesn't mean just launching long balls the moment we get possession; "looking to counter" means exactly that. Give a look up, see if the counter is available. If we do catch RSL unprepared, then guys like Davies, Najar, and even Josh Wolff - whose elusiveness can make him look faster than he is - can punish a team that is heavily reliant on Olave's recovery speed defensively. If the counter isn't on, however, the last thing we need to do is throw a hopeful ball forward. Patience is key if RSL is ready after a turnover.
Speaking of patience, that's also what United will need to have defensively. RSL is outstanding at knocking the ball around and essentially waiting for teams to make a defensive mistake. In a lot of instances, MLS players can simply be overeager to win the ball back. The nature of MLS play is usually hectic, so slower spells of play are unfamiliar and thus set off alarm bells (we see this all the time in CCL play, especially against Mexican clubs). Every DC player needs to avoid impulsively charging in after an RSL player; this breaks the team shape, and RSL's players are good enough at passing out of pressure that we'd be inviting a quick combination attacking the newly vacated space.
That's not to say United should sit deep. Inviting RSL onto you allows a dangerous team too much time with the ball and too many looks at goal. It might take them an hour to get the goal, but said goal is inevitable, and RSL is a nightmare to have to come back against.
In attack, United would do well to use Davies in a role similar to the one Espindola filled earlier this season. If CD9 can drift towards either wing, he'd find a favorable speed match-up while also squaring off with the lesser parts of the Real back four. Wingert and Robbie Russell are good players, but they're not Olave or Nat Borchers good; I don't think either would be entirely comfortable dealing with Davies, especially if Davies is willing to function at least part of the time as a set-up man playing high up the wing. On a team like ours, where it took 27 games to score on a header, a player getting behind the defense and cutting into the box looking for a low cross is one of our most dangerous options.
Another key will be not relying too much on Dwayne De Rosario. After De Ro's brilliant performance at Chivas USA - maybe I'm in the minority, but I thought he deserved as much or more praise than Pontius got in that match - he has been mostly smothered by both the Seattle Sounders (playing a narrow four-man midfield like RSL will) and by the Goats (who switched to a 4141 mostly to prevent De Ro from tearing them apart again). Our other attacking players will have to do more off the ball as well as with their own passing; Davies, Wolff, and Santino Quaranta are all going to have to step up in that regard. Giving RSL more than one problem will serve to free De Ro up to continue his MVP-caliber play; relying on him to do it all alone will essentially reduce our hopes to set pieces or RSL mistakes (neither of which are at all likely to pan out).
Bottom line: RSL is as good as any team in MLS, but United is capable of playing at their level. The question, as always, is whether this young group can play up to a top-notch opponent. We've done it before, home and away, and after
losing drawing against Chivas, three points would be enormous in our pursuit of a playoff spot. However, it will require a performance that would go amongst our very best in 2011; anything less than that, and RSL will find enough chances to take a draw or even a win of their own back home with them.