What Are They All About? DC United
Well, the glass is either half full or half empty. This past Wednesday the Chicago Fire earned a 2-2 draw against the Los Angeles Galaxy. If you had initially told supporters that Chicago would take a point from the encounter they would have gladly taken it. However, Robbie Keane and Steven Gerrard weren’t in the 18, Chicago controlled possession, dominated the shot count and overall looked the better team. Ultimately, the Fire let a lead slip at home and saw two vital points vanish before their eyes as the season inches towards its conclusion.
On the bright side, attacking momentum is building for Chicago but they will need to make it count as a busy week continues with a visit to RFK Stadium on Saturday. DC United has not served as a gracious host lately, defeating the Fire at home on the last three occasions including a 4-0 thrashing last October. Ben Olsen and his players currently occupy the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference by a slim one point margin. They will want to use Saturday’s encounter as a launching point down the stretch as both Orlando and New England look capable of catching up.
Looking at the table Chicago hasn’t discounted their playoff hopes either as the red line is only six points away. The Fire also have at least one match in hand against everyone ahead of them in the standings. The string has been dangled a little closer in recent weeks but again, hopes are not guarantees as the only certainty heading into this encounter is that viewers can expect a feisty affair. Three points are a must for both sides heading into this one. Will Chicago notch a second consecutive road win to get within touching distance of the post season or will DC put a strange spell behind them and rise to expectations?
DC United Form Guide (Last 5 matches): D-D-W-D-D
Previous Match: A 1-1 draw away to Montreal.
Formation: 4-1-4-1: Mishu, Opare, Birnbaum, Franklin; Vincent; Nyarko, Buescher, DeLeon, Neagle; Igboananike
Strengths: These two sides have already met this season, sharing the points after a 1-1 draw in April. That preview saw us highlight DC’s work ethic, their ability to create goal scoring opportunities and rare early season cohesion in their backline. DC has remained in the playoff picture for the majority of the season since then so let’s take a look at where they have thrived.
Ben Olsen the Tactician: When we sat down to bring you this piece we automatically typed 4-4-2 in the “formation in the previous match” slot. Surprisingly, we found that not to be the case. In fact, it hasn’t been the case in the recent past. Known for his refusal to tinker with a flat 4-4-2 and reliance on speed, strength and determination ahead of tactical awareness, Ben Olsen has pleasantly surprised this season.
After finishing fourth last season and making a run to the conference semifinals Olsen saw his side take just ten points from their first ten matches, a haul in which DC treaded water in 7th. The next ten match spell featured some unthinkable changes, Olsen implemented some squad rotation and he changed his touted formation to a 4-1-4-1.
With those adjustments came a haul of thirteen points from those ten matches and a reinvigorated sense of optimism around the team. We may be taking some comedic liberty with Olsen’s rigidness but his ability to slide Marcelo Sarvas into a holding midfielder role while rotating Kennedy Igboananike, Patrick Mullins and Alvaro Saborio in the lone striker role has paid dividends.
Marcelo has some new responsibilities in that role but his veteran leadership and league experience have seen him thrive there. He also poses a dangerous threat with late runs into the box that haven’t been picked up by recent opposition; he’ll need to be watched closely by whichever central midfield pairing Veljko Paunovic elects to use. In terms of the shift to a lone forward, Patrick Mullins has two goals and an assist in four starts for DC since joining them from NYCFC and Igboananike won’t need any extra motivation in this fixture either.
Hug the Touchline: The rest of Olsen’s lineup has remained largely the same and therefore his tendency to build from wide areas has also stayed intact. Patrick Nyarko has been a staple on the left wing for DC with Lloyd Sam and Lamar Neagle rotating on the right. Those players all have some speed to them, possess some great skills on the ball and aren’t afraid to shoot (Nyarko and Neagle are second and third on the active goal scorers list).
Tactically speaking, Nyarko is a right footed player playing on the left and Neagle is a left footed player playing on the right which allows DC to cut in from the wings. This approach creates a series of unique scenarios where they can either put in through balls to the lone striker, continue to build through the center of the pitch with Acosta/DeLeon, or dish the ball off to the overlapping wing backs. Sean Franklin and Taylor Kemp can play deadly balls in and have some pace to them as well.
The constant expansion and collapse of the width of the field has worked well for DC lately as their five match unbeaten streak shows they are tough to read. Thinking through each option as DC moves up the field adds room for error in the mind of opposing defenders so Chicago will need to be sharp in their positioning and decision making.
Bill Hamid: After missing almost half of the season due to injury the DC shot stopper has been a constant feature of DC’s lineup since June. Amid some questionable defending, center back rotation and a return to fitness Hamid has tallied four clean sheets and a few game saving moments in his return to the team. He may have fallen from glory since his USMNT days but Hamid has always been known for his reactionary saves and his shot stopping ability, something reflected by the fact that DC have lost just two matches that he has featured in this season.
His skills could serve as a stumbling block for a Chicago side still trying to gain its attacking bearings. The Fire have notched just 27 goals this season (only San Jose have a lower goal tally) and everyone except for John Goossens is seemingly under orders not to shoot from outside the box; Hamid could be the difference in this one.
Weaknesses: This is hands down the best opportunity the Fire have to build momentum going forward. They could not have asked for a better away fixture right now as DC has equally as many struggles as the have strengths. Let’s take a look.
Needing to Build from the Back: We talked about how dynamic DC can be in the final third but their reliance on build up play has also caused concern lately. The seeming necessity to carry the ball out of the back has negated the possibility of clearances or long ball play from their defensive third. In both of their last matches this mentality has cost them a result.
Against Montreal DC took an early lead only to squander it in the 78th minute. An Impact set piece could have easily been cleared to provide DC an opportunity to organize. Instead, Marcelo tried to connect with Neagle out on the wing. The pass was picked off by Dondael who crossed it into Camara for the match tying goal. Rigidity cost DC two points. The same was true in the draw against New York as Franklin looked to build from his own third only to lose the ball to Mike Grella. Bradley Wright Phillips didn’t need a second invitation to finish the ensuing cross. Chicago should look to close down early and put pressure on the wingbacks as DC is bound to make mistakes in possession.
Slow Center Backs: Here is your reminder that few MLS teams care about putting competent center backs in their lineup. Steve Birnbaum and Bobby Boswell are the likely pairing for this match as Kofi Opare repaid Ben Olsen’s confidence in him with a red card against Montreal. With advanced wingbacks and tired wingers they won’t get much help defensively and aren’t exactly the quickest players. David Accam should have a field day with these two.
The most helpful sequence for the Fire to look at would be Felipe’s goal against DC a couple of weeks ago. New York countered with speed and numbers, pushing six players forward as DC had just the back four defending. DC’s marking assignments and shape was off, signaling that their ability to defend counters is suspect.
“Well, it’s kind of the Raccoons Home Anyway”: Chicago has a unique opportunity to put the away winless spell even further behind them on Saturday. No team in the Eastern Conference has lost more at home than DC United. Yes, those losses came against LA, TFC, Vancouver and NYCFC but the stat remains a troubling one for Ben Olsen.
“We’re Meh on the Road Too”: DC will hit the road after this fixture for a three match away spell that includes both New York sides and a rematch against Chicago. Interestingly, DC doesn’t fare that well on the road either, having won just once on their travels this season and tying more away matches than anyone in the East. The desperation associated with this match only increases in light of those two stats and where there is desperation there is greater room for error.
“We’re Meh in General”: The only place where DC seems to have some consistency is in their ability to earn draws. No other Eastern Conference team currently sitting in a playoff position has tied more than DC has this season (11). They find ways to lose leads, they find ways to come back from deficits, and they can drum up 0-0 draws better than anyone. Chicago should feel confident in leaving DC with at least a result.
Prediction: Both sides will be exhausted after this one. Chicago 2-2 DC United. Newcomer David Arshakyan scores on his debut and an injured Nick LaBrocca subs on anyway to earn a point for Chicago. Kennedy Igboananike and Patrick Nyarko notch for DC.