Yesterday we took a look at what D.C. United could expect in terms of a lineup from LD Alajuelense, the suddenly troubled Costa Rican powerhouse. Today, we'll discuss how United should go about trying to win the game in front of them. This is our new format for scouting reports, which is a change from the Dostoevsky-length novels in the past.
On one hand, this is probably the best moment to be playing La Liga. They've got two suspended starters, and the word from Ryan Keefer - who is down in Costa Rica, if you needed a new target for envy - is that two more starters and an oft-used substitute are in doubt due to injury. They've fired a player for what is rumored to be public, harsh comments about his teammates. Their last three games include a disappointing draw to a bad team, an even more disappointing loss to a different bad team, and a flustered, frantic defeat against their archrivals Deportivo Saprissa.
However, none of that should indicate that United should expect an easy game. Alajuelense is still a very proud club that features talented players. They've got ten league matches under their collective belt, so they're going to be fitter and in a better rhythm than the Black-and-Red regardless of how much work was done to speed up preseason preparations. That's not Ben Olsen's fault; there's just nothing that can replace being in mid-season form, even if LDA isn't firing on all cylinders right now.
Just to further make sure that everyone has their feet on the ground, here's something I researched once this United-Alajuelense matchup was guaranteed:
That's a record any club would be proud of, and it's indicative of the task United faces despite being the #1 seed. The Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto has been chewing opponents up and spitting them out for years, and on top of that it's also a less-than-familiar turf surface rather than grass. It's not as fearsome of a venue as Saprissa's "Monster's Cave," and the days of Costa Rican fans throwing batteries and bags of urine are mostly gone, but the place is still a fortress as far as CCL goes.
I'm of the opinion that the first 30 minutes of tomorrow's game may be the most crucial period of this entire two-legged tie. United is going to face a team that sends numbers forward and seems in a hurry to attack; other than deep-lying playmaker Ariel Rodriguez, no one seems to want to hit the pause button. Despite losing 2-0 to Saprissa on Sunday, it's worth noting that LDA won a 4th minute penalty kick only for winger Alvaro Sanchez to waste it with a poor shot.
However, the really enticing fact for United is what happened as the game went on: Saprissa weathered the storm, and around 30 minutes in Alajuelense started to show signs of being stressed and nervous. They still attacked, but there was no organization to their moves. Everyone wanted to charge forward, and often there was no one available underneath. Rather than trying to pick the lock, LDA seemed to want to barge the door down.
The result of this harried, chaotic approach was that nearly every Saprissa counterattack looked dangerous, and in fact it's how they scored one of their goals. If United can maintain the defensive standards they met in 2014, they should be able to stand up to the aggression from Alajuelense. Last year, United showed a knack for countering, and that is probably a smart way to approach this game as well. If LDA's recent form is any indicator, the mistakes will come.
Specifically, I think there are two players that will be more guilty of these errors: Porfirio Lopez and Leonel Peralta. Those two are the left half of the Alajuelense back four, and they both have a Dejan Jakovic sort of comfort on the ball. That's good some of the time, but like Jakovic they can be too casual and end up giving the ball away.
United should try to cut the field in half vertically and force Alajuelense to play out of the back through these two. That means cutting off the passing lanes between Rodriguez and both right back Kenner Gutierrez and center back Jhonny Acosta. Nick DeLeon and Fabian Espindola are sharp enough players to sense when a careless pass is coming, and they should be looking to jump in to intercept the ball and spark a counter.
Going back to weathering the storm, United's main worry should be keeping the game in front of them. Alajuelense has plenty of speed, and it's when they get defenders turned towards their own goal that they can be really dangerous. Sanchez in particular is a threat in that regard, and we should expect him on the right wing if Johan Venegas - one of the starters Ryan is hearing is a doubt - is unavailable. Jose Ortiz is also pretty quick, and he's likely going to start up front.
Mitigating that speed threat will probably involve two methods from United: First and foremost, making the game a slower one will make it easier to predict where the runs and passes are coming from. If play is slow, it's also more predictable, and it will also force LDA out of the track meet style they've been using for a few weeks. Secondly, United is going to need to apply pressure on the ball in the midfield so that passes in behind aren't a common option, and when they are available they're difficult to complete with any accuracy.
Alajuelense's forward duo of Ortiz and Jonathan McDonald are very physically aggressive, so United's defenders need to be prepared for contact every time there's a ball to challenge for. Neither player is very big - McDonald is of average height, and Ortiz is only about 5'7" - but they go in hard every time. I wouldn't advocate play-acting, but making sure that the referee notices and calls the contact might be helpful. A yellow card would force both forwards to choose between either backing off or risking an expulsion.
When Alajuelense is in possession, the players to focus on are Rodriguez and Ronald Matarrita, who should be on the left. They're the players that LDA relies on to keep the ball moving. If United can effectively pressure them, La Liga will become even more chaotic than usual. DeLeon will be important in this regard, while Rodriguez needs to be harassed both by United's forwards and from the midfield as well. Rather than have one player carry the weight of making things tough for him, United needs to make him wonder where the pressure is coming from by mixing it up.
Going forward, Alajuelense is small at center back and should be very beatable in the air. If Chris Pontius gets the start, his ability to leap should cause Acosta and Lopez real problems. Furthermore, they'll be starting a backup goalkeeper, so crosses into the box should be tried regularly. Getting Taylor Kemp into the attack could be huge for United.
Finally, we come to set pieces, and they're a promising avenue for the Black-and-Red. LDA doesn't have many tall players and they're fielding a second-choice GK, so you probably aren't surprised to read that. It goes beyond those factors, however. Alajuelense has shown a tendency to be extraordinarily grabby in the box on corners, conceding a penalty kick to Saprissa and then continuing to pull shirts afterward. United did well on set pieces last year in part because their runs were both hard and hard to predict; keeping that up is a must both against a team like Alajuelense and in a fixture where we might only see 40-45% of possession.
Overall this looks like a promising match due to Alajuelense's flaws. However, United is still going to have to turn in a nearly flawless performance to make them count, and the opening half-hour is going to be a very tricky thing to manage. Last night's CCL games indicate how quickly things can go awry: Montreal was cruising at 2-0 until a free kick deflected off their wall and into their goal. CD Olimpia was leading 1-0 when one awkward header turned a goalkeeper's punt into a 1v1 breakaway that Herediano converted. Two-legged ties often hinge on one mistake, and United needs to keep them to a minimum to exploit LDA's current problems.