Yesterday we discussed the likely Alajuelense lineup that D.C. United will face tomorrow night at RFK Stadium. Well, "will face" is an iffy statement; we might not know with absolute certainty if the game is going off until around 6:00pm tomorrow (when players will start to arrive at RFK Stadium). Two-legged ties require an unusual calculus on this end of blogging, because the general idea of what to expect from LDA have already been covered at length here. As such, this post is going to focus more on what United did wrong last week, and how they might possibly fight their way out of what is a dire situation.
On the mistake front, the biggest problem was pretty straightforward: Facing a team in the middle of their season, United had to - I repeat, had to - strongly influence the pace of the game. It goes beyond the fact that Alajuelense likes to play a very high-tempo sort of game. Even if LDA preferred to play slow, they were still likely to think faster and play a more cohesive game simply due to the difference between being in preseason form and being over halfway through your season.
Instead, we saw La Liga flying full-speed past the midfield and launching wave after wave of attacks. Obviously the goals in that disastrous opening half-hour were all the result of horrific mistakes, but we need to talk why those mistakes happened. When players find themselves having to think faster than they normally do, they either make bad choices or no choice at all. Alajuelense created a game that underlined the lack of match practice United has right now, and the mistakes came in the worst spots.
That situation hasn't really changed all that much. LDA still has many more games under their belt than United, and they're still an attack-minded team that likes to fly up the wings and bypass central midfield. United probably won't win a staid slog of a game, though. Basically, Ben Olsen is going to have to tell his team to embrace a more chaotic game in the hopes that Alajuelense starts to get nervous.
On what will be a slippery field against a team that took advantage of United's errors, that's a daunting situation. After all, a chaotic game will have mistakes in both directions, so it stands to reason that a shutout for the home team is unlikely. However, I would point out that Alajuelense's defense conceded plenty of good chances despite the fact that United's attacks were sporadic and often involved one player (mostly Fabian Espindola or Nick DeLeon) doing most of the work. This wasn't a convincing display of attacking soccer from DC, and yet several chances went wasted while the Black-and-Red managed two road goals.
United's inability to control the first leg partially came from a lack of pressure applied to Ariel Rodriguez, La Liga's deep-lying playmaker. There's no player in the 442 who would naturally find himself near Rodriguez, so the responsibility has to be split between the central midfielders stepping up and the forwards dropping back. It's not an easy thing to coordinate, but if United is going to stop LDA from bypassing central midfield with early passes out to the wings, it's a must. Rodriguez is a crafty player who knows that playing through the middle won't work, and he was the architect of LDA's tactical decision to play around and over Perry Kitchen and Davy Arnaud. If that happens again, United will probably need to score 5 or 6 times to advance.
Going forward, the Black-and-Red had some success - including a goal - by attacking Porfirio Lopez with aerial service. Long balls aren't anyone's cup of tea these days, but in the conditions we'll see tomorrow night they become pretty inviting. Lopez can't compete with Chris Pontius in the air, and despite being the same size as Espindola he probably lacks the judgment and timing to win that matchup often enough.
United can't just send every long ball in Lopez's direction and think that things will sort themselves out. Espindola's perceptive early run was just as important on the goal as the controlled, smart flick-on from Pontius. United didn't get much in the way of good runs from the midfield (aside from DeLeon), though, and that can't be repeated. For this to be a repeatedly successful tactic, United needs DeLeon, Chris Rolfe, Kitchen, and Arnaud (or maybe Michael Farfan?) bursting forward from midfield.
Attacking Alajuelense on the dribble was actually a somewhat successful offensive weapon, and we'll need to see more of that from a wider range of United players for advancement to become a real possibility. It's not just that LDA struggles with direct running - they do, badly - but rather that United needs to put Alajuelense in bad spots that force rash tackles.
Whether the end result is actually beating the defender or drawing a yellow card and free kick, it's a positive outcome. LDA is not good at defending set pieces, so every foul they commit tests one of their weaknesses. If United can start drawing bookable fouls, we'll see some kind of positive. It might be a more hesitant defender who can't handle the complicated decisions that pop up when you're one tackle away from being sent off, or it might be a reckless player who doesn't adjust to having a yellow. Getting an Alajuelense player ejected would be a significant boost to United's hopes, obviously, but we're still talking about a good mode of attack even if it just results in some more nerves at the back.
Finally, United is going to need to come up with some big plays defensively. The best way to defend is to position yourself and stay organized to such an extent that you don't need any saving tackles or blocks, but let's face it: On a sloppy surface against a fast opponent and in a situation that requires a very attacking mindset, United is going to have to be successful when it comes to emergency defending. There's not much of a tactical suggestion here. United just needs a defense that made big plays last season to make big plays tomorrow night.
United is going to need to do everything here: They have to control the game's tempo, they have to render Rodriguez ineffective on the ball, they need to win fouls and create set pieces, they need to come up with big defensive plays when the game gets stretched, and they need more attacking involvement from the midfield. Even if they do everything listed, actually winning by a margin that sees them into the semifinal round will also take a massive helping of luck. Is that a mistake from goalkeeper Dexter Lewis? A bad call that hurts Alajuelense? A fluky deflected goal? It might actually mean all three.
All United can really do in these circumstances is create a game that allows them to carve out enough scoring chances while not conceding, and then hope against hope that their finishing is sharp and that the defense holds up despite getting less support than normal. It's not a good spot, but if it's 1-0, 2-0, or 2-1 at halftime I'd say United still has a pulse.