D.C. United's second game of the season is against a team they know really well. The New England Revolution are trying to play the same way they did in years past, and they haven't really made major changes in terms of personnel. Jermaine Jones is gone, but he's been replaced by a slightly lesser MLS analogue. They've upgraded at right back, but not to such an extent that it will change who they are. The Revolution are who they were when they came to RFK in the playoffs, in other words.
With that in mind, here are the things the Black-and-Red need to take care of to get a point or three in their trip to New England:
Don't give up set piece goals!
I already said a lot about this recently, so this will be short. The Revs are a very dangerous attacking team already, so giving away goals on free kicks is something United can't get away with. With Chris Tierney available to serve the ball in, the fact that New England doesn't have many good targets matters a lot less. Precise delivery will do that, as we learned last week in LA. No excuses: United has to have a better plan in place for defending inside their box, and each individual needs to take responsibility for being alert and winning their battle.
New England's lineup makes it look like they'd really like to play some possession soccer. That's not at all what they try to do, though, at least in conventional terms. The Revs want to get the ball into the opposing attacking third ASAP, and then they look to string some passes together to break into the box for chances. Their emphasis on moving quickly through the middle third tends to create a high-tempo game.
That speed of play can confuse teams with a season or two playing together as a unit, so United's new midfield is going to be put to a real test in terms of their understanding of how to operate as a group. If New England is breaking through the midfield quickly and finding players in the attacking third, this could be a very rough afternoon for United.
There are a few components to stopping the Revolution from breaking out. Early pressure on the ball has to be applied whenever there's a turnover, so the attacking players will have to stay engaged and help out in that regard. Slowing a team's transition before it really gets moving can make the whole attack seem predictable, and that's the ideal for United. From there, what they're going to need to do is get into sound defensive positions quickly every time they lose the ball. There will be times where players have to rotate into someone else's spot to make that happen, and there will also be decisions between stepping or staying involved. Getting those decisions correct is going to be crucial today.
Pressure the center backs
Steve Stoehr, who covers the Revs for The Bent Musket, brought this up on Filibuster this week, and it's a sound point. Andrew Farrell is often lauded for his ability on the ball (it's why people were still talking about whether he might end up playing defensive midfield at some point when he was a rookie), but his confidence can sometimes outstrip his ability. Making matters worse for New England, Jose Goncalves takes unusual risks with and without the ball. He's a good center back, but sometimes it seems like he has more than one screw loose.
This season, the Black-and-Red have made a point about occasionally taking up a higher line to allow their midfield and forwards to apply pressure in ways they rarely did in seasons past. Today would be a good time to get that right, because the Revolution are vulnerable when trying to possess the ball across the back. They don't have a Nick Rimando sort of goalkeeper who can bail them out with his own comfort on the ball, and the constant running of Gershon Koffie comes with a side effect of him running out of position (meaning one less normally accessible outlet for center backs).
There are risks to stepping up a high line against a New England team that has some speed, but you don't win games without gambling here and there. This is a risk United has to take. The job is to just be choosy about when they make their move.
This may also result in Ben Olsen repeating a decision that rightly caused a lot of discussion. Lamar Neagle started up front over Fabian Espindola, apparently due to a minor hamstring issue for the Argentine. At this point in their respective careers, Neagle is the more likely and more able to pressure the center backs. Espindola can be quite abrasive, but he hasn't shown much interest in chasing defenders this year. If he wants to hold off a sustained challenge from Neagle at the point of United's attack, he may have to. If United's personality is going to involve turning pressure into a weapon, it's going to require every player on the field to buy in.
Force the fullbacks to defend
Je-Vaughn Watson missed practice Thursday, and the options to step in for him are either the inexperienced London Woodberry or the even less experienced rookie Jordan McCrary. Whether Watson is passed fit or not, United should make every effort to force the right back to stay home and defend 1v1. If Watson plays through an injury, he might not be physically as quick as he normally is, or he might be making slower decisions as he tries to hide the problem. With the younger options, it's a little more obvious what the point of this tactic is: Less experienced players make mistakes and/or don't know what to do in a given situation.
On the other side, the reasons United will want to go at Chris Tierney are different. He's a big threat on the offensive side of the ball, for one. Forcing Tierney to be conservative means pinning back easily New England's best crosser of the ball, which in turn reduces the number of options United has to account for defensively. The second major reason to force Tierney to defend the Revolution left is that he's just not that fast. Whether Patrick Nyarko overcomes his concussion, or if Neagle ends up on the right, or if Neagle stays up top and Miguel Aguilar gets a start, United has speed on the right wing. They need to put it to good use.
Smother the area between the lines
New England's attack revolves around the work Lee Nguyen does between the lines. United has done pretty well in the past two years closing that space and making it hard to play between the midfield and defense. That came with Perry Kitchen and Davy Arnaud in central midfield, though, meaning that there are no guarantees that they can replicate that. Nick DeLeon and Marcelo Sarvas are both more attack-minded than Kitchen, and this is their first real test against a mobile attacking midfielder (the 39 year old Sinha doesn't really count in that department).
It's not just about the midfield though. United's back four got disorganized against LA a couple of times when having to shift side-to-side, but the Revs are likely to test their ability to step higher to help out between the lines. Bobby Boswell has a knack for doing that, but it will leave Steve Birnbaum marking a lone forward (probably Charlie Davies) all by himself. Getting that moment right is critical, because otherwise Boswell is out of position as Davies or someone else slashes into the spot he vacated.