Let's get this out of the way: Despite Friday's fear mongering, tonight's game is a must-win for D.C. United.
It's not a must-win in terms of the standings, thanks in part to some help from the Chicago Fire - 2-1 victors over the 6th place Columbus Crew - and the New England Revolution (who held the New York Red Bulls to a 1-1 draw). With four games remaining, we're not yet at do-or-die time. It's not even about "making a statement," whatever that might mean.
So why is it a must-win? Simple: Playoff teams beat their opponent when a) their opponent is on a cross-country road trip, b) their opponent is closer to being the worst team in MLS than they are to being even a marginal playoff team, and c) their opponent is in the midst of a terrible run of on-field results and off-field news.
"Sweep the leg" has been a running joke on this blog for almost as long as Black and Red United has existed. I don't know if there has ever been a game that we've had the privilege of writing about that requires that line of thinking any more than this one. Chivas USA is having trouble in every section of the field, their coach is potentially on his last legs, they're just coming off an ownership change that was nowhere near as encouraging as ours, and they haven't won in eight games. This is not the time for mercy.
As sometimes happens with struggling teams, Robin Fraser has tried several different looks for his side. While 442 and 4132 have been his choice most of the time, he's also trotted out 4141 and 4231 from time to time. Tonight, however, I don't think he has many options beyond a 4132:
Straight away, the defensive question marks should jump out. Raushawn McKenzie and John Valencia have essentially been handing the starting job alongside Danny Califf back and forth like a ticking time bomb, so calling a starter there is basically a coin toss. Valencia did start their previous game, for what that's worth.
The bigger absence is right back James Riley, who is apparently suspended. It's hard to say why, because Riley played the full 90 and walked off the field like any other guy that didn't get sent off does at the end of Wednesday's 1-0 loss in Columbus. For no obvious reason, and with no clarifying announcement, the league has suspended the one player Chivas doesn't really have a replacement for. Hooray MLS!
My guess is that utility man Ben Zemanski will step in, but it's (theoretically) possible that a natural center back like Valencia or Bobby Burling could get the call instead.
At left back, Ante Jazic is pretty stable as the #1, with Jorge Villafana backing him up. However, with the Goats essentially playing out their schedule and the 36 year old Jazic having spent the recent international break going 90 minutes twice for Canada, there's always a chance that Fraser decides to give Villafana a start for the experience.
In the midfield, Oswaldo Minda is also suspended (for the third time this season!) due to yellow card accumulation, which along with Zemanski's likely spot-duty at right back removes the option of an empty bucket 442. That will leave United killer Shalrie Joseph in a deep role behind a more attacking trio. Tristan Bowen isn't going to develop without games, so I give him the edge on the right side. However, Fraser could slide Nick LaBrocca to that spot and bring in gritty forward Alejandro Moreno in a central midfield role that he's now played pretty often in the past few years. It would be rather bizarre given that Chivas has promising young players that need games, but Fraser also may be fighting for his job right now.
The TV coverage of their loss in Columbus repeatedly called their formation on the night a 433, but it was anything but. The reality was that Chivas played a 451 (depending on how you split your particular hairs, you could call it a 4411, a 41311, or a 41131) with Ryan Smith - normally a mercurial left winger - in a free role between the midfield and lone striker Moreno. Personally, I saw that as an instance of squad rotation given that Chivas was playing three games in a week and had a cross-country trip to account for. It's not totally off the table, but I'd be surprised to see it again because Fraser doesn't seem to trust Smith and because any Chivas formation that leaves Juan Agudelo on the bench is clearly flawed.
Going forward, we'll be facing a team missing their main ballwinner as well as their stalwart right back. That should mean more time and space than usual for Branko Boskovic (assuming he gets another start), and obviously there's a very favorable mismatch for Chris Pontius or Nick DeLeon down our left side attacking a player that will be unfamiliar with his role on the night.
If you want to sweep the leg, these are the things you seize on and exploit all game long. United should be relentless in attacking down the left - as opposed to how we essentially gave a sluggish Florian Lechner the night off against the Revs - and should also find Boskovic throughout the game. Joseph is not as dynamic as he used to be, while Bowen and Miller Bolanos are attack-minded players that might not play as narrowly as required without the endless running and physicality of Minda.
On top of that, Chivas doesn't have a fast team, particularly in the defensive positions. United should have an advantage when it comes to speed, so guys like Pontius, DeLeon, and Andy Najar should be effective if they can isolate anyone 1v1. On the other hand, size is not a problem for the Goats, so pumping crosses in or playing an aerial game would probably be a mistake.
Defensively, United will need to be very aware of Bolanos. The young Ecuadorian struggled to get into games for the first half of the season, but has now become the sole bright spot for Chivas not named Dan Kennedy. Unlike the "soft" rep plenty of South American players get stuck with - oftentimes unfairly - Bolanos is a tough, competitive player who has plenty of skill with the ball at his feet. In many ways, he resembles DeLeon: Skilled, versatile, tough enough to stand up to the physical play we see in MLS, but also occasionally guilty of holding onto the ball for too long.
If United can shut down Bolanos (which will require alert play from all right-sided and central players, plus strong communication and working as a unit rather than trying to stop him 1v1), the already weak Chivas attack will wither to little beyond long balls and set pieces. That said, Casey Townsend is a hard-working, opportunistic striker; a few poor touches or clearances like the ones Bill Hamid had in Philadelphia, and we could find ourselves down 1-0 for no good reason. We need to be clean on the ball, because Chivas knows they will need to hunt for freebies given their problems creating their own chances.
There are plenty of reasons that this one could become a trap game. United played a local rival on Thursday night, so there's the "we're tired" claim. We've scrapped and fought for two wins out of two games without Dwayne De Rosario, so some players could start to think we're good enough to deal without De Ro without 100% effort or focus. It's a Western Conference opponent, so the points aren't quite as important. Saturday-Thursday-Sunday is an odd set-up, even if you take tired legs out of the equation; it's just an unusual week for an MLS side.
All of those things are true, but they're also entirely unacceptable lines of thinking for professionals on a playoff team. The idea should be the opposite: This is the easiest game, so therefore we should go out and make it easy on ourselves by controlling things from the start. Remember how fun it was to knock the ball around against a tired, unhappy Montreal Impact?
Chivas is a team lacking in confidence and motivation. The way you take advantage of that is by starting the game well. Putting the Goats under immediate pressure with and without the ball is a good start (that's another thing we didn't do enough of against the Revs), as is playing with confidence and with speed of thought. If Chivas comes into this game and sees a buzzing, positive United, they're going to start thinking "Ugh, this again? It's just the same as (insert recent defeat)." Teams that think like that crumble, and when your opponent crumbles you should have no problems. In other words: Strike first! Strike hard! No mercy!