To preview this weekend's game against the Portland Timbers, we caught up with Stumptown Footy's Michael Orr to get the low-down on the team from the Rose City.
Questions For Stumptown Footy
B&RU: A slow start after a run to the conference finals is a familiar story to D.C. United fans. Has there being any questioning of Caleb Porter yet, and how much do you put the blame on him so far?
SF: For the most part it's all still In Caleb We Trust around here, though some cracks are starting to form in that foundation. So far players have been mostly to blame (Pa Modou Kah and Norberto Paparatto in particular) and Porter has not shied away from blaming his players while extolling his set up. That may start to ring hollow if results don't come soon, but for now, Porter absolutely still has the fans' support.
That said, his assessment seems mostly accurate. Where the blame does lie with Porter is in his doubling down on his system (for more, see next question). It's true that injuries to Rodney Wallace and Steve Zakuani have prevented the Timbers from having the ideal group of players, or at least most similar to last season, the set up itself isn't the reason for the slow start. Where Porter might deserve some culpability is if results continue to elude Portland and he refuses to change the overall system to fit with his personnel instead of trying to move pieces in and out of the line-up, as he's done so far.
B&RU: How badly do the Timbers miss Ryan Johnson (or at least a player like him)?
SF: Ryan Johnson's absence has been a much bigger absence than was expected, at least outside of the Timbers' offices. Though rarely spectacular, it turns out Johnson was quite a good fit for the forward playing above the midfield three of Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri and either Wallace or Kalif Alhassan. Though it must be remembered that Johnson was benched in favor of Maximiliano Urruti and Jose Valencia down the stretch last season, only reappearing in the playoffs. Gaston Fernandez is a decent striker, though he is more of a poacher than a lead-the-line guy. It's quickly become easy mythologize the greatness of Ryan Johnson, but to date, the combination of Fernandez and Urruti simply has not given Porter the kind of attacking options that we saw so often in 2013.
B&RU: The trio of centerbacks have been mixed-and-matched freely throughout the season. What do each of Futty Danso, Pa Modou Kah, and Norberto Paparatto bring, and what is your preferred pairing?
SF: There is no good answer to this question. For anyone who watched the Timbers' 2012 season, to suggest that Futty Danso is the best, most stable option in center defense in 2014 is a stunner. And yet, Paparatto has had a terrible time adjusting and made some downright terrible decisions before Porter finally pulled the plug several weeks ago. Kah, who seesawed between reckless (usually when playing alongside Andrew Jean-Baptiste) and solid (usually alongside Futty) last year, has been guilty of ball-watching far too many times already in 2014. If not for Paparatto being the only other option, Kah would surely be on the bench by now. None of the three are particularly good on defensive set pieces with Kah ranking as the worst of the bunch. It's possible Paparatto could replace Kah this weekend but the Argentine was so poor when he played earlier in the year that another Great Wall of Gambia is likely to feature against DC.
B&RU: Projected XI?
GK - Donovan Ricketts
LB - Michael Harrington
CB - Futty Danso
CB - Pa Kah
RB - Jack Jewsbury
CM - Diego Chara
CM - Will Johnson
LM - Darlington Nagbe
ACM - Diego Valeri
RM - Kalif Alhassan
F - Gaston Fernandez
SF: Portland 2 - DC United 1
Question for Black and Red United
SF: After a slow start, DC United has come to life over the past month and are now unbeaten in their last five. What's changed to lift United from what looked like a continuation of last year's doldrums?
B&RU: For once, it has actually been roster construction and then patience that has started to life D.C. United out of their doldrums, plus a possibly well timed injury. The back line of Christian, Jeff Parke, Bobby Boswell, and Sean Franklin is brand new from last year's version, and Parke and Boswell especially are finally learning each other's preferences and becoming a true unit. The attacking four of Eddie Johnson, Fabian Espindola, Chris Rolfe, and Nick DeLeon returns only DeLeon, and Rolfe was a late addition after the season began.
The possibly fortuitous injury was to Luis Silva, which took him out of central midfield and put Davy Arnaud there in his place. Silva is more a pure number 10, whereas Arnaud's industry has taken some of the burden off of Perry Kitchen and helped to harass other team's midfields. Whereas last year we were all waiting for a team that just wasn't good enough to get better, this years team actually did need some time.
SF: This may be impossible, but, Eddie Johnson: explain.
B&RU: I know, right? In the recent tradition of D.C. United forward, Johnson has actually performed well at many of the unnoticed things that forwards need to do, like hold-up play and pulling defenders out of position. And he got his first points of the season against FC Dallas, pulling wide and swinging a nice cross for Fabian Espindola to put away. But the goalscoring touch just hasn't been there yet. With Jeff Parke and Bobby Boswell, D.C. United is already a much better team on set pieces than it has been in the past few years, but EJ was supposed to provide headed goals on a semi-regular basis. I don't think its going to affect his World Cup standing, and I still think that the goals will come, but it has moved past curious into the slightly worrying.
SF: Though they did get a nice draw at Columbus Crew two weeks ago, United's run of good results have all been home games. Any worry that a cross-country trip will derail that momentum?
B&RU: There is always that worry, especially against a team that has a notable home-field advantage and one that is getting desperate for a win. But this is where we learn what kind of team D.C. United is this year, and perhaps what kind of coach Ben Olsen actually is. This team is different than the one that lost 1-0 to Toronto FC at BMO Field, but even still I would be more than happy with a road point in Portland.
SF: Expected XI?
GK: Bill Hamid
CB: Jeff Parke
CB: Bobby Boswell
RB: Sean Franklin
LM: Chris Rolfe
CM: Davy Arnaud
CM: Perry Kitchen
RM: Nick DeLeon
FW: Fabian Espindola
FW: Eddie Johnson
SF: Known Injuries/Absences?
B&RU: Both Eddie Johnson and Sean Franklin picked up knocks in the FC Dallas game, but neither are listed in the injury report. Should either not be able to go, they would likely be replaced by Conor Doyle and Chris Korb, respectively. Other than that, Chris Pontius is out with a long-term injury.
B&RU: I will predict a 1-1 draw.