HOUSTON - APRIL 29: Goalkeeper Bill Hamid #28 of D.C. United looks behind him as a header from Will Bruin #12 of the Houston Dynamo slips past for his third goal of the game at Robertson Stadium on April 29, 2011 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Last season DC United were awful. Their -26 Goal Differential was the worst since 2005, when expansion teams Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA stunk up the place, and the worst for a non-expansion side since the 2003 Dallas Burn finished with a -29 differential. The problems were mostly on the offensive side. Their Goals Against was below average but not terrible, especially when you consider how often they were pressing to equalize. But the offense only generated 21 goals — or about a goal every game and a half.
The addition of onetime US national team striker Charlie Davies and veteran forward Josh Wolff as well as a first full season for DP attacking midfielder Branko Boskovic were supposed to help relieve the offensive problems. And the future looked bright after a home 3-1 victory over the Columbus Crew to start the season, which also looked like a Charlie Davies coming out party. But the team hasn't scored more than one goal in any game since then that wasn't against freefalling Toronto FC. And while the offense is threatening to return to sputtering mode (especially with the loss of Boskovic for the season with a ligament tear), the defense has collapsed. DC has given up 4 goals in three of their last five games, including the last two.
Saturday's 4-1 loss to Houston in particular exposed a young and out-of-synch defense. Rookie Perry Kitchen was playing at one center back position alongside Dejan Jakovic and in front of young keeper Bill Hamid. Communication problems were endemic throughout the match between the three as well as with the fullbacks. Houston's first goal came when Will Bruin jogged through the DC back line after a turnover with Jakovic failing to pick him up. Geoff Cameron slid a nice through ball to the wide-open Bruin and Hamid was left for dead. The second goal came when Kitchen let Bruin get around him to head home a Brad Davis cross. Admittedly, the cross was gorgeous, but Kitchen needed to be stronger and the cross was close enough that an aggressive keeper would have had a good chance to punch it out. The third goal was another great Davis service on a free kick to the box, where Bruin once again outjumped Kitchen and right-back Jed Zayner. The fourth was the most embarrassing of the bunch, when the entire DC United back line missed Cam Weaver lurking 20 yards behind them on a throw in. Weaver dribbled unmarked into the box, Hamid failed to come out aggressively enough, and the Houston forward blasted it into the near post. Those were just the goals that went in, but there were many more threats and nearly all involved a defensive line that wasn't picking up runs or communicating their responsibilities.
Evidently aware of the porousness of the defense, midfielders Fred and Chris Pontius — who are dynamic attackers when given the chance — were tentative about going forward and played more as side midfielders than wingers. Add in the fact that theoretical playmaker Dax McCarty is more of a deep-lying midfielder and is playing alongside distinctly defensive midfielder Clyde Simms and you have an offensive recipe that consists of hopeful long balls to Charlie Davies, which didn't work out. DC's only goal came on a convoluted set piece routine that required four players on the ball and managed to beat Tally Hall by going under the wall.
The lesson of the Houston match is that DC's line can be exposed by late runs and offensive switches that force the defense to coordinate and communicate. The Sounders excel at those sort of interchanging, drifting runs. Brad Evans in particular is known for the timing of his late runs into the box, which is why I'm sure he'll be seeing the field tomorrow if he's fit. Nate Jaqua can provide the physical offensive presence that Will Bruin used to punish Kitchen and Jakovic, and Fredy Montero has the vision to find the defensive holes and exploit them, as well as confront a Hamid who's playing a timid game in goal.
From the Sounders' end, the roster is stabilizing somewhat. Alvaro Fernandez had a breakout game on the left wing in place of Steve Zakuani and is likely to stay there for as long as he continues to play at that level. Mauro Rosales has also impressed every time he's taken the field, and his time off against Toronto despite claims that his hamstring is fit means he's likely to take the field in DC. Evans played a great game at right wing this weekend, so Sigi could leave him there and put Rosales in the middle. Or Evans could move back to his comfortable pairing with Osvaldo Alonso and Rosales could slot into a wing position where he's already shown he's dangerous this season. In either case Erik Friberg would be the odd man out. It'll be interesting to see whether Sigi continues his center back rotation, as that's something he's been loathe to do in his time in Seattle so far. Jeff Parke is certainly well rested after being left out for two games, though he's proven he's a starter-quality MLS back (and at times a borderline all-star). It may come down to which pairing matches up best against Wolff and Davies.
The Sounders have never failed to win a game at RFK and the blueprint for success has been written for us. The Sounders should be eager to continue piling the pressure on DC, especially coming off of such an emotional victory at Qwest Field this weekend.
- Jaqua vs Kitchen - Will Bruin abused the rookie last week with a combination of height and speed, and Jaqua has both of those qualities. He can be the sort of target forward who drifts around and makes runs instead of squatting on the back line, and drifting around is likely to confuse and disrupt the DC back line.
- James Riley vs Pontius - Charlie Davies gets all of the attention, but I think Chris Pontius is more likely to score a goal in the run of play. Maybe I'm still in shock from the hat trick he scored last season against the Sounders to earn one of DC United's few road wins. The new Zakuani-less offense requires the fullbacks to push forward more and provide offensive pressure, which accounts for Tyson Wahl's sudden emergence in the starting roster over Leo Gonzalez. Riley has always done a good job of moving forward and providing pressure, but he can't leave Pontius behind him or we could get burned.
- Fernandez vs Zayner/Korb - Jed Zayner had a rough night in Houston along with the rest of the DC defense. He was beaten handily by Brad Davis on the Houston left a number of times and there's no reason the revitalized Alvaro Fernandez can't make those same runs. There's some speculation that United might put Zips rookie Chris Korb back in at right back for the Sounders game. He's considered more of an attacking fullback, but the combination of rookieness and a player eager to get forward may provide even more space for Fernandez to exploit.