This week, to preview D.C. United's game against Sporting Kansas City, I exchanged questions with Andy Edwards, the man in charge over at our sister blog The Daily Wiz. Here's what he had to say about his Sporks - my answers to his questions about United are farther down the page.
Questions for The Daily Wiz
1. Any truth to the rumor that it was the loss of Lance Armstrong's Livestrong line of dietary supplements that caused Sporting's languishing attack to start the season?
Negative. I believe that was solely down to teams being too afraid to actually come out and play against Sporting, and SKC still not being quite sure how to cope with it.
1a. More seriously, outside of the second half in Philadelphia and last week against Montreal, the Sporks haven't generated much offense, or really much danger at all. What's the reason for this dry spell, and what changed for KC last weekend?
It's pretty simple, like I said above, Montreal came to play against Sporting, not to sit back and defend for 90 minutes in hopes of getting a point for a 0-0 draw (see: Fire, Chicago; Revolution, New England the two prior weeks). That might be giving a bit too much credit to Montreal, though, because they were only forced to play an open, attacking game once Sporting scored 5 minutes into the game.
That opened up acres of space for Benny Feilhaber in the midfield, and Graham Zusi and Claudio Bieler behind the Impact backline. The struggles to score came from opponents packing 8 or 9 defenders behind the ball and crowding out the Sporting midfield. Quite simply, there was little to no space for Feilhaber, Zusi, Paulo Nagamura and Oriol Rosell to pass the ball north and south through a crowded midfield and backline, so they resorted to the strategy of 2011 and 2011 - get the ball wide and cross, and repeat process. Without Kei Kamara in the box, and at times CJ Sapong, Sporting don't have the size and targets to play for the cross anymore.
2. Last season, the book on Kansas City's attack was that they were a side that could create chances but didn't have anybody to consistently put them away. Claudio Bieler was brought in this winter to address that lack of a reliable finisher. Is he he answer you guys have been looking for?
Bieler has been great. He's exactly "that player" that everyone wanted. He's been nothing short of that, but what we will find out is if it really was that player that Sporting needed. He's gonna score goals - probably 15 of them - this year, and he'll certainly up the shots on target perecntage that was pretty poor last year (a lot due to Kamara's three-point shooter's mentality).
The question that's still to be answered is, will he pay off in those games where teams are ultra-defensive (i.e. Houston Dynamo in the playoffs at Sporting Park the last two years). Sporting were going to be a playoff team with or without Bieler, so he'll be judge, at least in my opinion, more rightly so on what he does in the "big" games at the business end of the season.
3. Sporting's defense is really where their identity lies, pressuring very high up the field for big stretches of the game and allowing only 3 goals through 5 games this year. What's their weakness, and if you were game planning against them, how would you attack Besler, Collin & Co.?
The high pressure, in-your-face, wear-you-down mentality has kind of gone just a little bit this year with Roger Espinoza making the jump to the Premier League. Nagamura has slotted into his starting spot pretty well, but he's obviously a much different player. Whereas last year Sporting defended from front to back with the heavy pressuring starting all the way at the forward line, it's now a bit more of a conservative approach where they look to defend with possession, keeping you from being on the ball.
As for the back line itself, it's as reliable as ever. Matt Besler came back from national team duty against Mexico and rolled that confidence into another great performance, if not short on work, against Montreal. The big key for the defense this week, though, was undoubtedly getting Chance Myers back from injury. For one, he's a very good defensive rightback - one of the best in the league - and two, he's vital to the attack through the width he provides on the right side, which frees Zusi and Sapong to tuck inside along Bieler and Feilhaber. When Myers is in the lineup for Sporting, they're infinitely more dangerous in that regard.
Questions for B&RU
1. D.C. has obviously had some struggles to open 2013, going 1-2-1 and failing to win away from home yet. It's always important to the result against Sporting how teams come into Sporting Park to play. How much does D.C.'s style and gameplan differ on the road versus playing at home?
You're not going to like this answer - and quite a few D.C. fans don't like it, either: Ben Olsen's road tactics differ pretty dramatically from his tactics in the friendly confines of RFK Stadium. In United's last game, a 2-1 loss at home against Columbus, Olsen played a system based on a 4-4-2 diamond with Dwayne De Rosario sitting in behind two out-and-out strikers and ahead of Perry Kitchen, who was covering the defensive midfield solo. On the road this Friday, I would be shocked if Benny ran out anything other than his 4-2-3-1, essentially dropping one of the two forwards in favor of a partner for Kitchen deep in midfield. The goal for the first hour will be to avoid conceding and maybe poach something on the counter or on a set piece. Once we get deeper into the game, Olsen will see where things stand and whether United is sturdy enough in the back to hazard a shift to something more attacking.
2. Chris Pontius and Dwayne De Rosario are as good a duo of attacking midfielders as it gets in MLS, but they've struggled to score in 2013. Perhaps a striker in the box - maybe a Cladio Bieler type - seems to be missing for D.C. Is there a guy on the roster that looks at all likely to complete what could really be a very dangerous D.C. attack?
United's problems in the attack this year have been pretty manifold. The team hasn't been able to hold possession, but they haven't been able to generate dangerous chances by playing more direct, either. Some of it is on striker Lionard Pajoy, whose valuable hold up play and defensive pressure from last season appears not to have joined the team this year, but a lot of it is on the guys you mentioned - Pontius and DeRo - along with the rest of the midfield, who haven't been able to give the striker(s) enough service.Luckily, we got a glimpse of what the future might hold in our last game, when young designated player Rafael (Gladiador if you're nasty) turned the
Argentine Brazilian hoss that is Glauber and unleashed a 35-yard guided missile to beat Andy Gruenebaum. Many (if not most) fans of the Black-and-Red are hoping the 20-year-old Brazilian will get the start on Friday and relegate Pajoy, who is averaging a measly one shot on goal per game, to the role of late game lead-defending substitute.
3. For me, Matt Besler is the centerpiece, the lynchpin, of the Sporting defense; the guy that when he goes missing, everything could fall apart rather easily. I'm also quite high on the D.C. defensive unit this year, but there doesn't seem to be the one "star" player that stands out for the group. If they're going to struggle to score goals, which it seems they will, are they good enough at the back to keep them in, and win, games?
Oh, there's a superstar in United's defense, and he's the guy in the off-colored shirt: goalkeeper Bill Hamid. He's already been named MLS player of the week once this year, and he's made 20 saves through four games and securing two clean sheets with an 83% save percentage (tied for second in the league) after leading the league in the stat last season. He's the biggest reason United salvaged a scoreless draw against New York and didn't lose by more against the Crew. As long as Hamid is in the net - and we're not counting on having him past the end of this year, such is his talent - United will have at least a chance to bring home the points against anyone and in any building.
As for field players, keep your eye on Dejan Jakovic. Brandon McDonald is the organizer in the back line and generally reads the game better than any of D.C.'s other defenders, but Jakovic - who missed the Columbus game while on international duty with Canada - has elite speed for an MLS center back, can pick attackers' pockets on the run and has a knack for being in the right place to make a game-saving tackle or block. His speed and recovery ability (along with Hamid's shot-stopping) allows United's other defenders to play less conservatively, going for interceptions or getting stuck in rather than standing off.