D.C. United is facing what looks like a very winnable game against the Colorado Rapids. United has not been able to put together a good 90 minutes, but they're already four competitive games into their season and have had their moments. Colorado, meanwhile, has looked like they're as far from solving some of their biggest issues as they were for all of 2015. They're still playing at the slowest tempo of any MLS team, and they're still apparently picking starters by drawing names out of a hat rather than settling on a best lineup.
Nevertheless, United - who have no wins in the aforementioned four games - are hardly in a position to judge. They're also a work in progress, and Colorado at least enters the game on the back of a dramatic win (1-0 over the completely disinterested LA Galaxy). For United to get into a position to look down their noses at Colorado, they're going to have to get a win today. Here's how they can do it:
The weather is not going to be conducive to controlling the ball, for one, so turnovers are going to be a critical source of offense for both teams. However, this is specific to the players Colorado has been starting in defensive positions. Micheal Azira should be their deepest-lying midfielder, and he's much more of a destroyer than anything else. He can look jittery and rushed on the ball even in normal conditions, so United should harass him both to force turnovers in good spots and to break up Colorado's attempts at possession (which mostly start with the center backs passing to Azira).
Behind him, the Rapids have fullbacks that are either young and inexperienced (Eric Miller, Marlon Hairston), new to MLS (Mekeil Williams), or utterly predictable (Marc Burch). All of those are good reasons to press high. The center backs might be more vulnerable: Jared Watts has a defensive midfielder's confidence on the ball but a center back's actual ability with it. I compared him to Dejan Jakovic on Filibuster this week for a reason. Next to him, Axel Sjoberg would rather the ball never be on the ground.
On a day where the rain (or possibly snow) and the temperature will make good soccer hard to come by, United needs to find a way to augment their attack. Playing a higher line - particularly since the Rapids have only one speedy attacking starter - should be part of the plan, and the Black-and-Red's attackers should use that as a platform to press Colorado's defensive players into mistakes.
Attack the wings
I've already established that Colorado's fullbacks are kind of a mess right now. It should therefore be no surprise that United's attacking emphasis should be on getting at those fullbacks, no matter which out of Miller, Hairston, Williams, Burch, or someone else they choose. Every single one of them is vulnerable. Miller is on the Olympic qualifying team, which indicates either a) a terrible shortage of good American fullbacks or b) a terrible shortage of judgment at US Soccer (or both, as is probably the case). Hairston was drafted as a defensive midfielder, and the Rapids have spent the previous 2 seasons figuring out whether that's what he is or not. Williams is new to MLS and has less than half a season's worth of CCL and international fixtures with Trinidad & Tobago to make up for it. Burch is Burch, but a year older than the last time you saw him.
There's a further reason than just weak fullbacks, though. Azira and Sam Cronin might not be the best central midfield going forward, but they are going to be very difficult to play through. Azira might be susceptible to pressure, but he's a very capable destroyer who covers tons of ground. Cronin, a lifetime MLS defensive midfielder, is smart enough and hard working enough to be difficult to get around when he's all alone in this spot. On top of that, Dillon Powers is also pretty hard-working as a #10 (we'll get to that whole situation in a minute).
As such United has multiple good reasons to get the ball wide and create from there. It can't just be the wingers, though, and it can't be "hoof some crosses in and see what happens." Even if Alvaro Saborio plays 90 minutes - which he won't - the Rapids are built to defend crosses. You beat their fullbacks and then keep going. Low crosses, or anything squared across the top of the box, will be where danger comes from. Asking Fabian Espindola or Lamar Neagle to win a header against 6'7" Axel Sjoberg is a waste of time, but beating him on the ground? That's easy, and that's probably how United will get their best looks.
Don't give Powers time
Matt Doyle's MLSsoccer.com piece covered the situation with Powers, who is apparently going to spend yet another year playing out of position with Colorado. Take a good look at the passing map included in the article. The major thing you should be seeing is the number of long passes that either connected or became key passes (which is to say, passes where the recipient took a shot).
Powers is stuck playing as an attacking midfielder, but that's not what he is. For years now, it's been clear that he belongs in a deeper role. His gifts are field vision and the ability to connect passes over distance, opening up the field for his teammates. He's not the guy that gets the assist; he's the guy that switches the point of attack for what, after a pass or two, becomes a goal. He's how the Rapids open defenses up, rather than how the Rapids create their scoring chances.
He's still able to create as a #10, however, and United needs to be sure he's suffocated in that role. If Powers isn't creating chances, Colorado becomes very predictable. Their attacking players - other than Marco Pappa - aren't creative players. Their fullbacks are not going to dominate the game. Their holding midfielders are not going to do an imitation of what Powers could do in their sector of the field (though Cronin can open things up on occasion from a deeper spot).
The Black-and-Red need to make sure Powers is stuck playing short, safe passes rather than having the time to see (and hit) passes that leave United's back four off balance. They also need to be very aware of what happens when he drops into a deeper position to seek out the types of angles he's best at using. If Powers is on the ball, United needs to be in his face or on his back immediately.
Pay attention to their ever-changing wingers
Dominique Badji is Colorado's one source of attacking speed. He's not a complicated player - mostly, he plays strictly vertical or horizontal soccer - but he will be the fastest player at RFK tonight. Luis Solignac is a converted forward who is mostly looking to get from the wing into the scoring positions a forward knows best. Conor Doyle is a hard worker who will make sacrificial runs for the rest of his teammates. Dillon Serna is a potentially game-changing talent, but can also completely disengage from the game going on around him.
Why am I telling you this? Well, those are Colorado's potential starting wingers, and Pablo Mastroeni swaps his wide men more frequently than anyone else in MLS. Last week, he had his wingers switch flanks four different times, all for several minutes (rather than an accidental situation where they had to switch following a corner kick). It's all about shaking something loose by never letting opposing defenses get used to one set of attacking angles to cope with. The Rapids don't have a ton of invention or skill, so they try to make up for it by being unpredictable.
Still, their least predictable player is likely to enter off the bench. Marco Pappa is Colorado's X factor, a player who will keep trying the audacious or inventive solution until it works or until it goes horribly wrong. Due to an offseason injury, he is not likely fit to start tonight, but he is probably able to play 30-35 minutes off the bench, and he can do damage from either wing.
United needs to be prepared for all of the skill sets of this diverse group, but they also need to get ready to contain Pappa when he enters the fray.
The Rapids are bad. They're the visitor. They're missing two of their most important attacking players and possibly both of their best fullbacks. They have one win at RFK Stadium since the turn of the century.
There are no must-wins in March or April in MLS, but there are games you kind of have to win to show everyone - including yourselves - that you are a solid team. United is a work in progress, no doubt, but if you can't beat a short-handed Colorado Rapids squad, who can you beat? The Black-and-Red need to find a win here, whether it's by scoring some beautiful goals, pressuring the Rapids into coughing up some cheap ones, or scratching out a goal and then hanging on. That means no boneheaded mistakes, no rash moments that turn into red cards, and no wasting good scoring chances.