Amidst the gloom that has moved into the DC region - both in terms of weather and in terms of the local soccer team's hopes - D.C. United has been handed one piece of good news: The New England Revolution have found it tough to play their best soccer against the Black-and-Red. United has gone 2-1-1 against the Revs over the past 2 seasons, and the draw came at Gillette Stadium.
Here's how United can keep that streak of positive results going and advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals:
The Revs fly into the attack very quickly after the ball turns over. Their principle strength is their commitment and ability when it comes to shifting into the offensive side of the game. United was pretty poor in that regard against Columbus. The good news is that New England doesn't stretch teams out horizontally as much as the Crew; the bad news is that they charge into the attacking third even faster than United's last opponent.
There are several things United can do to make sure the Revs aren't getting the sort of game they want. First and most obvious, United needs to avoid any unforced turnovers. That's something every team emphasizes, but the Revs punish that sort of problem more than your normal MLS team. Secondly, United needs to be smart about getting bodies in the way very early after turning the ball over. If the Black-and-Red can't win the ball back immediately, they need to at least prevent vertical passes. New England needs to be forced into a slower build-up, and the best way to do that is to delay them just as they find themselves with the ball.
Finally, DC may need to dole out some tactical fouls in the middle third. It's far more preferable to simply force the Revs to play a more patient game, but there are going to be times that someone from DC needs to obstruct a run or bundle someone over. The key here is to avoid getting in trouble with Mark Geiger, who has become increasingly unpredictable over the years. United needs to spread the fouls out through their team, and they also can't just foul Lee Nguyen or Kelyn Rowe over and over again without someone ending up in the book.
Make it hard to press
Against NYCFC, the Revs did a very good job of pressing in packs during the first half. It wasn't about a wholesale high press like the Red Bulls are known for, but rather a selective - but very intense - attempt to win the ball back. This was most common along the flanks, where the Revs could use the touchline as something akin to an extra man. NYCFC was more susceptible to that sort of thing given that their technicians on the night were nearly all in the spine of their team.
United's wide players have enough quality on the ball to make the Revs pay for any over-commitment, but they'll have to be very sharp. That means clean first touches throughout, of course, but in these conditions it also means being able to do something low-risk within one or two touches. The Revs will be looking for moments where the ball surprises someone with a skip off the wet surface (or, if it gets really ugly, when the ball dies in a puddle). United has to see that danger and avoid being caught out, because that selective pressure plays straight into New England's quick transition.
Draw the center backs out
The Revs started the season defending like clowns spilling out of a tiny car, but that first impression has given way to a more respectable and organized unit. However, the Revs still don't really have a comfortable balance in central defense. Jose Goncalves and Andrew Farrell both default towards stepping high to snuff things out. United's forwards need to be beating those two to the ball and looking to play a one-touch ball towards a runner. That last part is a concern for me, because United has not been great at moving effectively to set this sort of look up. However, this is something Chris Pontius brings to the table, and no matter who starts at forward, there needs to be both a striker showing to the ball and some options coming from underneath.
This may be the best way to get in behind the New England back four, and there are numbers pointing towards that suspicion: Per WhoScored, only Sporting KC has given up a higher percentage of shots from central positions than New England:
It's worth mentioning that the same data for shot locations for (instead of shots against) has United in 2nd place overall in MLS. This is a very nice pair of facts from a United perspective.
Win the mental battle
United has seen a Revs meltdown this season, with two of New England's four most experienced players (Lee Nguyen and Chris Tierney) getting red cards. Neither was a DOGSO sort of tactical choice, either. Tierney went in knee-high for a ball with obvious carelessness, while Nguyen threw an elbow just 6 minutes later to get himself a second yellow card.
For all of United's rep as a mean, possibly even dirty team, the numbers bear out a side that's good at avoiding cards based on indiscipline. United had just 1 red card all year long (tied with Seattle for the fewest in MLS), and only Portland had fewer yellows. They need to walk a fine line tonight in being a bit provocative without getting in trouble themselves. The Revolution have several hotheads in their ranks (namely Jermaine Jones and Jose Goncalves), and in general they seem like a team that could spin out and lose focus on what's on the line.
Be the better set piece team at both ends
With Tierney taking the corners and serving in the longer free kicks and Nguyen the main threat to curl a shot around the wall, New England is a very strong threat from set pieces. They finished just one goal behind United (though strangely, they scored just one road set piece goal all season).
With an all-day downpour accompanied by potentially gusty winds, set pieces are going to look inviting to both teams. This should be an advantage for United, who has the stronger roster in terms of winning balls in the air and the better goalkeeper when it comes to claiming crosses. However, the Revs have more consistent service, so defensively United is going to have to be dialed in on every single dead ball.
At the other end, the Revs don't have a dominant aerial figure. Goncalves has a tendency to lose track of his man in these situations, and Andrew Farrell is probably not going to enjoy marking someone like Bobby Boswell or Steve Birnbaum. Secondary targets like Chris Pontius and Perry Kitchen may end up being marked by someone like Teal Bunbury, a forward/winger who likely hasn't spent much time honing his defending inside the penalty area skills.