This might not be the best time for D.C. United to have to play the San Jose Earthquakes on the road, but the calendar has no sympathy for United's messy situation. It's the 20th anniversary - give or take a few days - of MLS's first game, played between these two sides on San Jose's home turf. United could use a home game against a fellow struggler right now, particularly with Marcelo Sarvas - easily their best player in this young season - suspended for tonight's match.
Instead, they'll have to take on a gritty Quakes side that is very sure of who they are and how they go about playing games. The Black-and-Red are going to have to get their season on track against a team that, broadly speaking, approaches things in a similar manner. Here's how they can come home with a result:
Clear-headed, simple defending
United has made it so easy to score goals on them this year. Uncomplicated hard runs from set pieces have turned into goals numerous times, while every one of the goals FC Dallas notched last weekend came via big mistakes by defenders who know better. A lot of United's problems in the back have come from things like not talking, or failing to anticipate what the consequences of an action will be.
The Quakes don't force teams to defend particularly intricate moves. The positioning involved in their standard 442 doesn't create much in the way of passing triangles on the field, and they don't have much in the way of technical players coming through the middle. However, they won't need any of that if United makes the sort of errors they have against Dallas, Colorado, or LA.
The Black-and-Red are going to have to do a lot of simple, straightforward defending. San Jose isn't playing as many long balls as they have in the past - they're actually well down the chart in terms of total long balls played, though that's partially because they've only held 45.9% of the possession in their three games - but they tend to push upfield quickly in an effort to force defenses to get to work. Throw in the work rate of their forward pairing, and you have what tends to be a busy night at the office.
However, here's the good news: Most teams have been able to restrict the Quakes to a very low number of shots. San Jose is averaging 7 shot attempts per game, easily the lowest total in MLS right now (RSL, in 19th in this particular category, is taking around 28-29% more shots a game than the Quakes). The Earthquakes push the ball to the wings, and those players either cross or look to find the forwards, who bear most of the creative weight as well as the more obvious job of finishing.
If United can handle a high but uncomplicated workload, they should keep whoever starts in goal from being too busy. It's just that the "if" in this case is a huge one right now.
Take advantage of favorable flank pairings
Patrick Nyarko should like his chances tonight. San Jose is without their top left back (Jordan Stewart) due to ongoing rehab for an achilles tendon tear. Shaun Francis, their second option, is solid enough but was only cleared to practice a couple of days ago after missing 2 games with a quad issue. That leaves rookie Kip Colvey as the last man standing.
United has been able to look threatening out on the right in numerous games now. While his absence in New England was not the sole reason United had by far their fewest shots on the season, it was involved. Nyarko's ability to isolate defenders right on the edge of the penalty area is a huge advantage, because it forces them into making unpalatable choices. Dive in for a tackle, and Nyarko might just glide past or end up being tripped for a penalty (which, between refs missing obvious calls and United's dreadful penalty taking record in recent times, is no sure thing). Stand off, and he'll spot a runner. United needs to make sure Nyarko gets plenty of opportunities to put Colvey (or Francis) into spots where they have to make those choices.
On the other side, United could set up a different sort of mismatch. Whether it's Chris Rolfe at left midfield, or him and Fabian Espindola roving around as a forward duo, or even Luciano Acosta giving the left wing another shot after last week's cameo appearance, the Black-and-Red have to test Marvell Wynne. You don't do this by simply trying to catch him leaning one way and sprinting past, because Wynne is much faster than any United player. The way past him is to force him to make complicated positional questions quickly. All of the players mentioned in this paragraph have the skill and the intelligence to pass and move in Wynne's sector in a way that pulls him badly out of position.
Re-discover the hallmarks of recent United teams
There are good things about what United has tried to do thus far in 2016. They've added some speed, the central midfield is more skillful with the ball, the higher pressure is (theoretically at least) more fun to watch, and we've seen far more shot attempts.
Nonetheless, United has been an easy mark thus far this season. Is it that this is too much to take on all at once, with a roster that has seen so much change? I doubt that's the case. Instead, United has simply lost touch with some basics that they used to be very good at (and that these new ideas don't prevent them from doing). The Black-and-Red have had stretches of time where they were hard to play against - for the umpteenth time, United had over an hour of good play at Queretaro, and a strong first half in LA - but they have yet to bring those fundamental elements of what a Ben Olsen team does to the field for a full 90 minutes.
So perhaps more than anything else, this one's a key. United needs to get back to being a team that gets into defensive shape fast. They have to get back to being a team that is physical and tough, but not a team that fouls a lot or picks up a ton of cards. They need to be hard to escape on set pieces. Their attackers need to show a bit more selectivity in shooting. Plenty of United's high shot totals have been shot attempts that were blocked outside the box; it's awfully generous to count those as real shots. It's the soccer equivalent of someone just chucking a three in basketball due to a lack of better ideas, or patience, or options.
March was a dark month for D.C. United. April can be better, but they have to join some of the hallmarks of what made the 2014 and 2015 teams playoff-caliber with the moves toward a more proactive style of play. And they have to do so for 90 minutes, not for 45 or 70.
Don't give up on the press
United is struggling to generate chances, and they're struggling to defend. However, neither of those things can be blamed on their attempt to play a somewhat higher line. In fact, pressure has been a helpful source of looks going forward, and the issues in defense have not been down to playing too high a line.
United isn't a particularly creative or talented bunch, and pressure can be what levels the playing field for them. If the Black-and-Red are forcing more turnovers while still struggling to pass accurately (their season percentage, 71.4%, is very ugly viewing), they're at least preventing teams from dominating possession more thoroughly. They can also catch teams napping and win the ball further upfield, which in turn means not having to connect as many passes to create a chance. When you're giving away so many passes, that one extra pass skipped really makes a difference.
The Quakes, as we talked about earlier, aren't generating a lot of offense. United may be tempted to go into a shell on the road and just hang on like they did in New England, but right now that seems like a bad idea. The Quakes are starting a back-up center back and will have to replace Anibal Godoy with either a) a teenager, b) someone who doesn't fit into his role, or c) a formation change.
When you face a team missing their key center back and key defensive midfielder, you step up and press them. Make the new guys cope with that rather than letting them settle into a groove. A positive approach didn't work for Portland, but it might have gone differently if Quincy Amarikwa doesn't score the best goal he's scored in his entire life.
United needs to approach this game like they did their trip to LA, where they made the Galaxy miserable for 45 minutes before poor set piece defending and Mike Magee undid all that good work. That half showed the elements of a team that can get results on the road without Bill Hamid performing miracles.