What Are They All About? DC United
“This is a great point”. That is a phrase that Chicago Fire supporters might like to hear from head coach Veljko Paunovic after drawing a Western Conference powerhouse on the road amidst a tough road trip. Instead, that is what they heard after Chicago’s 1-1 draw with the New York Red Bulls this past Saturday. Not only was the draw another blemish on the quickly disappearing “fortress” title of Toyota Park, but it came against a team that is below them in the standings, has played fewer matches and is within touching distance of the Fire. As the final stretch of the season approaches, Chicago is not only out of the Supporters’ Shield race, they have a five-point gap to make up on NYCFC in six matches, and newcomers Atlanta United are just three points back from Chicago with two matches in hand.
Now, none of this would seem problematic if Chicago looked like a side full of confidence. However, the display against the Red Bulls was once again one that fully reflected Chicago’s struggles. A lack of urgency in the final third, question marks about leadership amidst missing pieces, competing against teams close to them in the standings, and an inability to play against an organized side were all hallmarks of what is becoming an all too familiar sight. The Fire will surely make the playoffs but that cannot be the bench mark for an ambitious club. They will need to build momentum and renew a winning mentality that hasn’t been present since before the All-Star break if they are to make a deep run into the post-season. The turnaround could begin this weekend as the host DC United at Toyota Park on Saturday (7:30 CT CSN Chicago Plus).
Ben Olsen and his charges will enter this encounter with a slightly sour taste in their mouths but the past month has been full of positives overall. With a new stadium on the horizon and the addition of pieces that will be the foundation for next season, United is in the beginning phases of a rebuild. Contracts will be on the line over the coming weeks and Olsen will also want to ensure that he is the man leading this team into a new era of their history. Will the visitors shock a Chicago side that is already struggling, or will the hosts remind DC of their shortcomings? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
DC Form Guide (last five matches): L-W-W-W-L
Previous Result: A 2-1 home loss against Orlando.
Formation: 4-2-3-1; Hamid; Franklin, Birnbaum, Opare, DeLeon; Sarvas, Canouse; Arriola, Acosta, Stieber; Mullins
Strengths: In our previous discussion of Saturday’s opponent we noted Ben Olsen’s extensive experience in DC helping to steady his side through turbulent waters, a caution to the wind attitude, and Bill Hamid’s safe hands as strengths. They have made quite a few improvements to the squad since then and have found themselves on a bit of an upswing recently. Let’s see where they might succeed in this one.
Punching Above Their Weight: Although DC United has won just eight matches this season, five of those wins have come against sides that are currently in playoff positions. Additionally, ten of their lowly twenty-three goals have come against those sides as well. For whatever reason, Ben Olsen can motivate his players to do well in situations that they should expect nothing out of. Whether it is the clean sweep of Atlanta United in all three iterations of that fixture, the victory over Vancouver away from home, or the impressive draw against high flyers Toronto, DC has repeatedly shown that they can pull results out of nowhere this season. Given Chicago’s recent run of form, especially the head scratching loss to Minnesota United, the coaching staff cannot take DC lightly.
Building for the Future: While not all MLS clubs believe in utilizing the summer transfer window (for better or worse), DC United wasn’t going to wait until January to start fixing their squad. With Audi field scheduled to open in June of 2018, Ben Olsen was given some cash to spend as DC’s ownership looks to have a product that matches the beautiful 20,000 seat stadium. Olsen wasted no time allocating the funds to youthful, speedy, talented pieces in Russell Canouse, Deshorn Brown, Zoltan Stieber, and Paul Arriola.
Canouse came through Hoffenheim’s youth academy and has featured in all four encounters he has been fit for since his arrival, partnering next to either Jared Jeffrey or Marcelo Sarvas. He is a pure defensive midfielder who has the technical ability and understanding of the game that you would expect of a former Bundesliga player. His speed makes up for the lack of mobility from the aging Sarvas and he has offered some stability in an area where DC has struggled all season.
Deshorn Brown joined DC from the Tampa Bay Rowdies where he scored three goals in the first half of the season before showing enough to earn a deal back in MLS. Brown, who notched over twenty goals for Colorado in three seasons before bouncing around Europe for a few years, adds some much-needed speed at the forward position–the years have not been kind to Sebastian LeToux and Patrick Mullins has always lacked speed. Brown has notched two goals and an assist since arriving in June and he could test the likes of Jonathan Campbell who has shown he is ill equipped to deal with the counter.
Zoltan Stieber was seen as another worthy addition and earned himself a move stateside from Kaiserslautern in August. In his two appearances, he has completed 77% of his ninety-five passes, made the oppositions right backs work for ninety minutes, and has helped to alleviate some defensive duties in ways that Lloyd Sam simply can’t. Matt Polster will have to be weary of getting caught too far forward against the man who has been capped by Hungary twenty-one times.
Lastly, the much-hyped addition of Paul Arriola is one that cannot be judged simply by its price tag (rumored to be in the range of $3.5 million). At just twenty-two years of age, Arriola has much of his career in front of him and has been promised the room to further develop a skill set which includes pace, power, and a dangerous crossing ability. There is a reason why he earned thirteen national team caps at such a young age. All four of these players will be at the center of what is sure to be an exciting project from DC United and three wins in their last four matches speaks to the quality that they have already shown.
Awaken the Enganche: Prior to the arrival of some speedier pieces in midfield, Luciano Acosta seemed disinterested in playing to the best of his ability. The temperamental nature of Argentine playmakers is well documented and the necessity to give them something to play for is ever apparent. With Chicago missing Michael DeLeeuw, Joao Meira, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and likely Juninho, coupled with the new additions, this could be a match in which Acosta shines.
Weaknesses: At the end of the day, the table doesn’t lie. DC United currently sit rooted to the bottom of the Eastern Conference and are still very much in the thick of a race for the Wooden Spoon. Minnesota United, LA Galaxy, and the Colorado Rapids are closing in on Ben Olsen’s side and have played fewer matches. In our last preview of DC, we discussed a lack of urgency on the defensive side of the ball, an inability to score, and suspensions/injuries as weaknesses, most of which remain. Let’s see where else they may struggle.
Too Little Too Late: Although we may have praised their additions above, Ben Olsen’s work should have been done in January not August. He will likely spend the remainder of this season looking to see which pieces belong in his side and which don’t. Squad rotation in the spots next to Canouse and Opare as well as at the right back position have been characteristic of tinkering that allows for judgement more than it allows tactical flexibility. This inconsistency along with the fact that some of the assured pieces may have checked out mentally will be worries for DC. Yes, they are professionals, but Chicago will simply have more to play for in this one.
Childish Mistakes: Although this is a theme that has been present all season for DC, even during the success of their recent matches, have shown a complete inability to defend at a basic level. Against Orlando, the speed of Dom Dwyer, Cyle Larin, and Yoshi Yotun was too much for the backline to handle on the first goal, and the second was evidence that man marking was something that Olsen hadn’t include in the week’s training regimen. Although they beat New England, that math was full of errors in the same categories. Bill Hamid could be seen furiously yelling at his back line for not picking up Kamara or Bunbury on numerous occasions and they looked completely lost in transition. The likes of David Accam and Luis Solignac should be asked to switch flanks early and often in this one to confuse an already struggling defensive unit.
We Don’t Like to Press: Part of the problem for DC in transition is that they are seemingly unable to press high up the pitch. A strategy that worked for the Red Bulls at Toyota Park last weekend may not be in play this Saturday. While Arriola and Stieber’s work rate is impeccable off the ball, the likes of Acosta, Mullins, and Sarvas are not on the same page quite yet (nor will they ever be if you ask us). Consequently, if DC turns the ball over cheaply Canouse is often left to close down the opposition on his own, almost necessitating he leave space as he is often caught in two v. one scenarios. Although Atlanta couldn’t capitalize on any of their chances against DC in their last encounter, fourteen shots (ten on the counter) is worrisome in terms of vulnerability. Aside from the problems in transition, the lack of a high press also increases the possession statistics of the opposition, a weakness that will likely assure Chicago’s success in this encounter.
Prediction: The Fire simply cannot afford anything less than three points on Saturday. There will be no way to chalk up a draw or a loss as anything other than a complete failure. Chicago 3-1 DC. Nemanja Nikolic, David Accam, and Matt Polster for Chicago, Kofi Opare with a consolation goal for DC.