What Are They All About? DC United
The run continues. This past Wednesday the Chicago Fire overcame another hurdle in their busy week of soccer by defeating a lackluster Colorado Rapids side 3-0 at Toyota Park. They came out with a winning mentality and pressed from the start as Nemanja Nikolic reiterated his intent of becoming the Golden Boot winner by notching a goal in the fifteenth minute of the match. He would add another goal late in the encounter after David Accam tallied his own strike. Smiles were plentiful on and off the pitch in Bridgeview as the players headed into the locker room but the week’s work does not end there. A quick regeneration session on Thursday and a flight to DC on Friday is on the cards for the Fire as they round out three matches in seven days against United on Saturday (3:00 CT on UniMas).
Saturday’s match could prove to be the sternest test of the season so far as Chicago needs to prove to itself that their poor road form is just mental and MLS’ narrative of difficult travel is a myth. The Fire have won just one of their last fifty road encounters–stretching back to the middle of the 2014 season–and recently the results have been rather head scratching. Good performances against LA and New York earlier this month yielded just a point and perhaps more tellingly, Schweinsteiger and Nikolic seemed to have off days in those encounters. DC United find themselves in tenth place in the East and are coming off the back of a 4-0 thrashing at home to Philadelphia. The stage is perfectly set for Chicago to take all three points but this league is completely unpredictable. Will the Fire rise to the challenge, or will Ben Olsen rally his men to stifle the onslaught? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
DC Form Guide (last five matches): L-L-W-D-L
Previous Result: A 4-0 home loss to the Philadelphia Union.
Formation: 4-1-4-1; Hamid; Birnbaum, Opare, Boswell, Kemp; Jeffrey; Sam, Harkes, Acosta, Neagle; Mullins
Strengths: This DC United side may be struggling at the moment but onlookers can be certain that Olsen won’t stand for any nonsense. He has been with the club as a player or coach since 1998 and has seen everything from lifting the MLS Cup, US Open Cup, and Supporters shield to finishing dead last with the worst record in MLS. He offers a cool head, stability, and tactical astuteness that can grind out results no matter the situation. Let’s see where DC might succeed on Saturday.
Hold my Beer: While it could be construed as cynical, the truth of the matter is that after a 4-0 thrashing to a team that had been pegged as a potential wooden spoon winner, hopes cannot fall much further. Chicago will be entering this encounter on high after two great performances, and if we know one thing about Olsen it’s that he doesn’t care much about expectations. Wins against Atlanta and NYCFC away along with a draw against Western Conference leading KC away indicate that perhaps DC plays better under pressure. The encounter against Atlanta specifically highlights this mentality.
After going down 1-0, DC seemed to throw caution to the wind and go blow for blow against the darling expansion side. The strategy saw them leave Bobby Dodd with a 3-1 victory and their best performance of the season. They didn’t try to control the match (conceding 75% of the possession to their hosts) but they pounced on the counter registering a season high seven shots on target–five of which came in transition. Rather than lining up in his typical 4-1-4-1, Olsen marshalled the troops in a 4-3-3 knowing that Atlanta would be exposed on the break. Should he opt for similar tactics against Chicago, the attacking forays of Accam and Solignac could leave the Fire exposed. If there is any time to play with reckless abandon it is Saturday’s home match as DC is set to leave on a brutal two match road stint against Vancouver and Orlando. They simply cannot afford to lose this one.
Safe Hands: For the second match in a row Chicago will face a team that is down on its luck but has a miracle worker between the posts. For as bad as DC have been, Bill Hamid has been a lifeline throughout the season. He leads the league in saved shots, forty-one, and has done so on the back of fifty-nine shots faced. Joe Bendik, Luis Robles, and Zach Steffen all trail closely behind Hamid and it is unsurprising that such stats with better defenders in front of them see those keepers currently sitting in playoff positions. With Nikolic and Accam in good form, Hamid will have to be at his best to get anything out of this match but he has proven time and time again that he thrives in difficult scenarios.
Weaknesses: There is truly a plethora to choose from here. This DC United side looked to be the real deal after a midseason turnaround on the back of summer window acquisitions saw them finish fourth in the East. That run is a distant memory now and Ben Olsen has gone back to the drawing board to figure out how to salvage the season. Chicago seems to be catching them at a great time as looking up from tenth can’t be easy. Let’s see where DC could struggle on Saturday.
I’ll Get to It when I Get to It: DC’s biggest recent weakness is also perhaps the most bizarre in terms of Ben Olsen’s ethos. Over the last five matches DC has struggled with urgency and intensity on the defensive side of the ball. It is perhaps not surprising that DC has just one clean sheet on the season. In the match against Philadelphia specifically, the Union could have finished six or seven goals to the good were it not for Hamid. Lackadaisical marking on the part of Opare, Boswell, and Jeffery led to Medunjanin’s strike from distance to open the scoring (Schweinsteiger, Juninho, and McCarty should take note and shoot on site). The trio was at it again as Hamid needed to make a finger-tip save on Picault’s header as the Union man found himself completely unmarked from Ilsinho’s cross. Several plays later Onyewu punished DC for allowing him a late run on a corner. Goal three came off of Birnbaum pretending it was the fifth-grade dance and giving Picault acres of space to slot the ball into the upper corner from 25 yards out. Lastly, an unmarked Fabian Herbers floated in a goal of the week contender, again, unmarked. Similar scenarios were visible with Tabla’s goal for Montreal, Kenwyne Jones open header for Atlanta, and Lee Nguyen’s goal for New England. The chances will come for Chicago as DC looks destined to increase its Eastern Conference high eighteen goals against stat.
What Do I Do with It?: As if struggling on one side of the ball weren’t enough, DC enters Saturday’s encounter having scored just nine goals this season (only Colorado has scored less). Through ten matches DC have only notched forty-two shots on target. Again, only Colorado (twenty-one) and Montreal (forty-one) are worse in that category. DC seems timid in and around the box and simply runs out of ideas in the final third. Whether it is the directness of Olsen’s 4-1-4-1, a slump in form on the part of Sam and Neagle, inconsistent line ups, or the realization that Le Toux is past his prime, the offensive productivity simply isn’t there for DC this season. Seeing the solid performances of Polster and Vincent at the fullback positions will be worrying for DC as they grapple with some serious questions of mentality.
Una Roja para Che: For as good as he is on the ball, Luciano Acosta has had some hot-headed moments in his young MLS career. As any good Enganche, he plays with passion and commitment but this past Saturday he took things a bit too far. Frustration over a non-call on a challenge from Oguchi Onyewu (and perhaps frustration with DC’s form in general) led to a two-footed challenge on Ilsinho which was rewarded with a straight red. The dynamism and moments of brilliance provided by the diminutive Argentine will be sorely missed on Saturday. Did we mention he is responsible for a third of DC’s goals?
Injuries: Not only do DC find themselves at the back of the pack, they have continually struggled with injury this season. League veterans Patrick Nyarko and Nick DeLeon have been sidelined with hamstring and abdominal strains respectively. Their leadership and tactical ability will be missed heading into this one. Patrick Mullins and Steve Birnbaum returned the line-up last week after lengthy absences and may not be fully match fit either.
Lastly, we’d like to take a moment to recognize former Fire player Chris Rolfe who is officially on DC’s roster but not engaged in any soccer related activities due to his continued battle with concussion injuries. Rolfe scored fifty-five goals for the Men in Red before moving to DC and suffering what now appears to be a career ending injury against his former club in April of last year.
Prediction: The Fire pass their mental test with flying colors and show that fatigue, squad rotation, and travel are no match for a side on the ascendency. Chicago 3-1 DC. Nemanja Nikolic, David Accam, and Michael DeLeeuw for Chicago. Sebastien Le Toux for DC.