For D.C. United, the US Open Cup was supposed to be a respite. Instead, the 0-0 draw against the Richmond Kickers that ended with the Black-and-Red moving on via penalty kicks was a reminder of many of the things we've been doing wrong all year. The defense more or less held up against Richmond's attacks - not that there were many of them, and Joe Willis was forced into a couple tricky saves - but the offense was as dull and slow as ever. The break we wanted from our struggles became just another reminder that we're bad.
You know who else is bad? The Chicago Fire, tomorrow's opponent. While we've been wallowing in the muck of this awful season, Chicago has been only a tiny bit better than United. The Fire have managed two different four-game winless streaks (both times going 0W-1D-3L) and have been shut out six different times. In fact, if you take away their strangest result - a 3-1 win over the New York Red Bulls that looks like a clear outlier - Chicago averages just 0.40 goals per game, shockingly worse than United's own 0.50.
What happened to the Fire team that made a furious push for a playoff spot come up just short last season? The main issue is that Frank Klopas embarked on yet another attempt to remodel his team just a few months after doing so to turn a poor team into the side on a hot streak last fall. It's hard to figure out why Klopas did this, as other than the retirement of Pavel Pardo, he had few issues to deal with on a team that had built a lot of confidence up for 2013.
Chicago replaced Pardo with Jeff Larentowicz, who is not at all the same kind of player but is still an MLS starter with plenty of playoff appearances on his resume. After that enforced move, though, Klopas really lost his way. Alvaro Fernandez, who never quite met expectations, was loaned out to a Qatari club and has been replaced by Joel Lindpere. Dominic Oduro was traded to Columbus for serial disappointment Dilly Duka and the rights to Robbie Rogers, a deal which until very recently appeared to be the height of foolishness. Maicon Santos was picked up from United in the Re-Entry draft/process/event/kerfuffle.
The moves have not panned out. Larentowicz has always been better paired with another holding midfielder, something Klopas has only recently come to grips with. Lindpere is making Drunk Uncle Hans Backe look like he might have been more competent than previously thought; the Estonian midfielder has made no impact in either direction for Chicago, both in his preferred central role and the job he's better at out on the left. Duka has been Duka: All sizzle, no steak. Santos has done alright when he's played, but a) he has been stuck subbing into games while Klopas gives DP Sherjill MacDonald a chance to actually earn his salary and b) our former #29 has been injured a couple of times already.
Their recent 1-1 draw at Real Salt Lake looks pretty good on a resume, but the reality was that Chicago had no right to get anything out of that game. Sean Johnson was superb throughout, the Fire could have easily been down a couple of goals at halftime, and later Robbie Findley missed with an empty net gaping. Johnson also touched a Javier Morales free kick onto the crossbar. It was the kind of game that, if played again nine more times, would have been won every time by RSL.
That's not the only piece of good fortune for Chicago of late. When I said the Oduro-Duka trade looked dumb until recently, I was of course referring to the fact that Chicago just became accidental alchemists. Their pursuit of Rogers was doomed from the start, but the former Maryland Terrapin's return to soccer (on the condition that he play for the LA Galaxy) allowed the Fire to turn a pipe dream into a real one, as they traded the rights to Rogers for Mike Magee.
Magee has done well for years as the Galaxy player that benefits from all the attention teams give to Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan, and some petulant, scissor-tackling Englishman. When the stars saw double-teams, the guy they'd trust with the ball was Magee, who also seemed to come up bigger when the pressure got higher.
However, early this season Magee proved he can do more than just benefit from LA's star power. With Landon Donovan taking a vacation for his mental health, Beckham retiring, and Robbie Keane getting injured, the Galaxy needed someone to make teams pay in the attack. Magee responded by jumping atop the MLS goalscoring charts in the opening months of the season, even as teams knew that his high soccer IQ and sharp finishing were the main threat from the Galaxy. He'll need to keep doing the same in Chicago, where he instantly becomes their best player.
In terms of formation, Chicago moves back and forth between a 442 and a 4411; everything is determined by where Klopas wants Chris Rolfe to play. In the Open Cup, Klopas went with a diamond midfield featuring Duka and Nyarko wide and Alex as the top point, but that was likely in an effort to break down a bunkering USL-Pro opponent. In league play, Klopas seems to see Alex as merely a utility offensive sub rather than a player worth building a formation around.
Given the lack of a defensive reason to play Rolfe in the hole - we don't have a defensive midfielder who also dictates possession for us - and the likely lack of size up top for Chicago, I think we're probably going to see more of a 442 than not:
The main issue is on the wings and up front. Magee will start, but could end up on either wing if MacDonald is fit enough to play more than a few minutes (his recovery from an illness has been slow). I instead expect Duka to be the man to lose his starting job, with Patrick Nyarko and Lindpere getting the nod instead. We could also see Nyarko up top and Magee in the midfield, but Nyarko has always been more effective as a winger. Santos could also return, as he's been upgraded to "questionable," but he's been out for weeks with knee and shoulder problems and seems unlikely to have more than 15 minutes in him.
The back four is settled, but that doesn't mean it's familiar. The Fire recently acquired Bakary Soumare from the Philadelphia Union after some arduous negotiations and were willing to slot him in from the start against RSL despite having just one training session with his new teammates. Soumare's arrival meant a return to right back for Jalil Anibaba, who initially played there only because the Fire wanted to get him on the field, natural position be damned. In the middle, meanwhile, Austin Berry has gone to right-center back from left-center, meaning that this one addition has caused two other players into positions they hadn't been playing in 2013.
That's good news for United, because this is a talented back four that will probably be very sturdy once they build an understanding. That won't happen in a week (even a busy week like this one, as the Fire also advanced in the Open Cup by knocking off the Charlotte Eagles). The positional nuance and timing that will eventually come aren't in place yet, and United can take advantage if, just once, we actually think fast and keep the ball moving without dallying. Unfamiliar defenses can be broken open when players take that extra second to figure out where they should be, and United needs to be sharp enough to seize those moments of uncertainty.
Going forward, Chicago has often looked a lot like the Black-and-Red. There's a lot of sideways and backward about this Fire side, and not a lot of forward. Their long ball options don't really exist, their one speedy attacker (Nyarko) can be painfully indirect at times, and the rest of the midfield is full of guys that want to win at keep-away drills rather than soccer. This is a huge break for DCU, as our ability to transition back to defending after turnovers is abysmal. A willingness to clog up the midfield and make the Chicago offense even slower will help reduce the pressure on our struggling (and banged up) back four.
One element that might help Chicago pick up the pace is the potential for timely overlapping runs by left back Gonzalo Segares. "Gonzo" is right up there with anyone for being a United killer over the years between his ability to score on set pieces and his knack for getting game-winning assists on us late in games. Segares stayed at home against RSL due to the immense pressure the Fire ended up being under, but against United it would be a (welcome) shock to see him repeat that.
For Segares, it's not often about quantity; it's about the quality of his runs forward. The Costa Rican usually chooses great moments to go forward and avoid detection, something whoever starts at right midfield (Sainey Nyassi?) needs to be vigilant about. That extra width could go a long way towards helping Chicago work their way forward.
I mentioned set pieces a moment ago, and the Fire present an interesting case. The delivery has been largely awful, which means their array of targets is going unused. The entire back four are all threats to score - Berry had 3 goals last year despite only playing two-thirds of the season - and Larentowicz has a cannon of a shot if that's the better option. Their goal against RSL came off of a long throw in from Anibaba, which is another issue United will need to sort out.
Magee is also worrying here due to his tremendous ability to sense where the ball will be earlier than other players. It's not about Magee winning the initial header; rather, it's about him anticipating where the loose ball will land before he deposits it in the back of the net.
An issue where United could take advantage is the lack of fight in this Fire team. Despite the presence of guys like Larentowicz and veteran Logan Pause, Chicago has struggled all season at winning second balls. In general, this is a group that you can out-battle, out-hustle, and out-fight. If you see DC players getting to early loose balls and winning some shoulder-to-shoulder challenges early, that's a very good sign. If we can't beat teams with our ability on the ball, we can still get a win based on pure desire.
This also comes through elsewhere. Rolfe, for example, usually shrinks away from the game the moment he's exposed to physical play and intense pressure. Elsewhere, guys like Lindpere and Duka have virtually no interest in helping defend (Lindpere used to, but unless someone comes up with a time machine it won't do him any good). This is not a particularly tough Chicago team, which is a departure from the past. The Fire used to be that team that gave us a tough time no matter what, but the current edition is a long way short in that department.
I know I emphasized playing quickly earlier, but it's so vital that I'm bringing it up again. Another plodding offensive showing like the ones we saw against Portland and Richmond would essentially throw away this winnable - yes, really - game. With Chicago struggling with tempo as well and fielding a new-look back four, simple stuff like playing one- or two-touch soccer rather than lingering on the ball will open up the field while also helping us dictate the terms of how this game will be played. If we're quick with the ball, we can set the Fire back on their heels and let them be the team thinking "here we go again."
Let's not beat around the bush: This game is probably going to be ugly. These are the two least-productive attacks in MLS by a wide margin. If you combined our six goals with Chicago's seven, you'd still only have enough goals to be joint-last in the Western Conference. As the road team, making the game sloppy is often our job (or at least, it's our job when we aren't capable of just winning by playing well). As the home team, Chicago is going to feel the pressure the longer this game goes scoreless; it'll be their fans getting restless if a run of one goal in four games threatens to become one in five.
Rather than being the apprehensive team aimlessly knocking the ball around while awaiting the inevitable mistake that our opponent seizes on, United should turn the tables. Let's let Chicago get nervous and start hiding from the game. Let's be the team with the discipline to know that the mistake for us to pounce on is coming as long as we stay solid and move the ball fast enough to rattle a team that has low confidence. Let's forget about our disappointing season and make this game about how much Chicago is struggling.