In terms of actual ability to win games, D.C. United seems to be stuck somewhere in MLS’s middle. They’ve largely done well against bad teams, been alright against other mid-level teams, and have struggled against the good teams. United is 2W-3D-2L with a +2 goal difference against non-playoff teams, but has gone 1W-2D-7L against sides above the red line, conceding 20 goals in those 10 games.
Some years, that’s just how it goes, but in the short term it means some good news. The Colorado Rapids have been bad all season long, and have barely beaten United’s points-per-game pace (0.85 to 0.82) despite playing 11 of their 20 games at home, which is to say at elevation that benefits them more than just about any home venue benefits any home team in the league.
Colorado has been hampered by a roster that is, in terms of pure talent, arguably the worst in MLS. Numerous USL-caliber players are in their regular gameday 18, and their big-money players are either years past being capable of contributing, washed out within half a season (Joe Mason is already back in England), or don’t fit Anthony Hudson’s tactics. That last factor is another issue with this group. The Rapids basically thrive on a system that calls for extraordinary buy-in from every player, because they’re just trying to grind teams into pulp by out-working them and being tough to score on.
Hudson had success with New Zealand’s national team playing this same way, but it’s easy to get players to give everything when they’re representing their country. It’s a special occasion, emotions are high, and motivation is easy to come by. When it becomes a daily grind, it generally doesn’t work, and despite being among the most conservative teams in MLS, the Rapids have tended to concede regularly no matter who they face. Making things worse, they traded Dominique Badji, their only viable goal threat, away to improve their midfield.
All of this preamble is to underline two ideas: the Rapids do not make sense on the soccer side, and the pressure is on United to punish them for being bad. Anything less than a straightforward win, even on short rest, is unacceptable.
With that out of the way, Hudson began the season playing out of a 532, but has more recently started fielding a 541 or a 343 that only differs on where the wide players set up. Given that this is a cross-country trip against a team that can score goals, look for those wingbacks to drop deep and the wide midfielder/forwards to complete a line of four in the midfield rather than support the center forward.
Tim Howard is a USMNT legend, but in 2018 he’s also an albatross around Colorado’s collective neck. Howard’s massive salary hampers their ability to sign better players, his star power more or less obliges his first-year coach to start him, and his actual play has him as arguably MLS’s worst starting goalkeeper. This isn’t an overstatement; the most common scene in Rapids games this year has been Howard being beaten before he can even leap, then coming out to castigate his defense.
Speaking of that defense, it’s undergone some changes in the last few weeks. Kortne Ford has been brought in to add some much-needed quickness, while Danny Wilson’s move into the midfield has made room for Axel Sjoberg in the middle of what is most often a back five. However, with Kellyn Acosta a virtual lock to make his debut in the midfield, Wilson will probably move back, sending Sjoberg to the bench. If Acosta plays wide, however, the towering Swede should maintain his spot, with Wilson playing as a defensive midfielder.
Tommy Smith is the third center back, and...well, he’s certainly a soccer player in MLS. It is worth noting that he’s been dangerous on set pieces, and his 2 goals/3 assists make him one of the most effective players in front of goal on this team. Despite being a center back, he’s managed to take 22 shots in 20 appearances, so in all likelihood Steve Birnbaum is going to have to man-mark him on free kicks and corners.
Johan Blomberg has played several games as a right wingback despite not looking fast enough for the job. Marlon Hairston’s return to fitness could mean a move back into the midfield, but it seems unlikely that Hudson will start the latter. On the other side former U.S. left back Edgar Castillo has been a rare positive for the Rapids in 2018, and the wingback role here suits him perfectly. As such, United should funnel play to Colorado’s right flank whenever possible.
Further forward, Jack Price is perhaps the one success story from the Rapids’ strange affinity for signing players based in the United Kingdom’s non-Premier League leagues. He’s got good vision and is very capable of spreading play around and setting the tempo. Price is tied with Diego Chara for the league lead with 8 yellow cards, so United needs to come through on the set pieces he inevitably gives away.
The Rapids are surely hoping that Kellyn Acosta can give Price some desperately needed help in central midfield. He’ll certainly be able to cover far more ground, and will bring the ability to drive play forward with the ball at his feet. This will be his competitive debut (provided he starts, which is a very solid bet), and D.C. might want to pounce on any uncertainty in this midfield partnership. They’ll also do well to avoid giving up free kicks, as Acosta is a significant threat going to goal.
Where the Rapids midfield goes wrong is out wide. The addition of Giles Barnes might help a bit, but he’s listed as questionable and only signed a couple of weeks ago. If he can’t play, Blomberg will likely move up, robbing Colorado of some dynamism. Blomberg tends to play it safe, which is the last thing this side needs. Target forward Jack McBean has also been given minutes wide on the right, which I can’t even begin to explain. He’s not fast, he’s not technical, he’s not creative, and he’s not a wide man.
On the other side, Scottish winger Sam Nicholson was acquired in an early-season trade with Minnesota. Hudson clearly values him as a utility knife, and Nicholson has played this role, on the right, as a wingback on both flanks, as an attacking central midfielder, and as a second forward. He’s only really good as a left winger, though, and this role cutting inside while Castillo overlaps reduces his efficacy. Still, Nicholson isn’t dumb, and he knows that this team’s success counts on successful counters and winning set pieces.
Up top, the decision to trade away their one goal threat has left the cupboard even more bare. Yannick Boli, a nomadic 30-year-old Paris Saint-Germain youth product who has played in the French 2nd division, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Russia, and China. The Rapids used TAM to sign Boli, but so far the return is 1 goal and 0 assists in 563 minutes (14 appearances, 7 starts). He’s got decent speed and some creativity, but thus far he just hasn’t been able to put much together for Colorado.
Boli has struggled enough that McBean, who is as unspectacular as they come, could get the nod instead. McBean least makes sense as a hold-up man for a team that needs time to get everyone forward, though reducing this group’s team speed even further seems like a bad idea. Barnes could also start up top, and that may be where Hudson is going to end up eventually, but with his injury it seems unlikely that it’ll happen today.
Off the bench, Enzo Martinez is probably a solid bet to appear, and in fact could start if Hudson pushes Nicholson up as a withdrawn second forward and plays 532 instead. The former Charlotte Independence man is combative and loves to have a shot from distance. Hairston should get some time now that he’s fit again, and Bismarck Boateng is an option to boost the mobility in their midfield. Shkelzen Gashi, who is still a Designated Player, has become a bit-part player, but if the Rapids are still hanging within a goal late on, we could see him play wide left, as a second forward, or even underneath two forwards.