What Are They All About? DC United
Eliminated. This past weekend the Chicago Fire defeated Bob Bradley’s LAFC at Toyota Park by a score of 3-1. The shock result led to a zero percent mathematical probability of the Fire finishing at the bottom of this year’s MLS regular season standings, avoiding a third wooden spoon in the last four years. The freedom that comes with not having a post-season to play for ensured that Chicago came out of the blocks with a high tempo that had LAFC on the back foot from the starting whistle. An MLS goal of the week-worthy strike from Djordje Mihailovic, a spot kick from Nemanja Nikolic, and Aleksandar Katai’s twelfth goal of the season secured all three points for the hosts and propelled Chicago above the one point per game mark on the season. The Fire’s fight to not finish last in the East continues this weekend against DC United (12:00 CT on ESPN).
The team from the nation’s capital enters this encounter with their season very much still alive and their playoff hopes on the line. DC currently sit just two points out of the sixth and final playoff spot in the East but have at least two matches in hand on the teams above them in the standings. A long-term home hiatus at the beginning of the season while Audi Field was being constructed has given United a stretch of home matches for the remainder of the campaign. Thirteen of their last fifteen fixtures have been at Audi Field and their current five-match unbeaten streak indicates just how much of an advantage that has been. Additionally, the arrival of Wayne Rooney has revamped not only the image of the club (long accused of being cheap and disinterested in MLS 3.0), but his seven goals and seven assists since signing on in July are largely responsible for DC’s current form.
A win against Chicago coupled with a Montreal draw or loss to Columbus would catapult Ben Olsen and his charges above the red line for the first time this season, a prize that will surely motivate the hosts. Will Paunovic and the Fire play the role of spoiler for yet another rival, or will DC’s revival prove to be too much for the nonchalance of the visitors? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
DC Form Guide: W-D-W-D-W
Previous Result: A 5-0 home victory over Montreal.
Formation: 4-2-3-1; Hamid; Fisher, Brillant, Birnbaum, Mora; Canouse, Moreno; Arriola, Acosta, Asad; Rooney
Strengths: Their current run of form is certainly not accidental. DC has gotten several major pieces of the puzzle right this season and Sunday could prove to be another step towards the pinnacle that is MLS playoffs. Let’s see where they’ll succeed.
Truth in Engineering: Starting with the completion of Audi Field is a no brainer here. Although the facility itself may have had a few features fail on opening night, the on-field production has been smooth sailing since it opened. A 3-1 opening night win over Vancouver signaled the beginning of a run that has seen them lose just twice at their new stadium (once to Supporters Shield contender New York Red Bulls and once to playoff hopefuls Philadelphia), a feat which coupled with Chicago’s poor away form (just two road victories on the season) makes Sunday’s result almost inevitable.
En el Estilo de Boca: DC United’s Lucho Acosta was named MLS’ player of the month for September after the Boca Juniors youth product scored four goals and notched six assists in that time. Overall, the diminutive Argentine has nine goals and sixteen assists on the season, meaning he is just one goal shy from being the first DC United player to have a double-double season since Jaime Moreno’s ten goal, ten assist season in 2008.
Acosta’s recent success has largely come as a result of Wayne Rooney freeing him up to play his preferred role as a traditional number ten rather than as a secondary or even primary striker. The duo has struck up quite the partnership, earning the affectionate nickname of LucheRoo from DC’s broadcast team, and have wreaked havoc on their opposition in recent weeks. The space created by Rooney for Acosta to work with has ensured that DC is one of the most dangerous attacking sides in the league.
The Fire will likely find themselves playing a proverbial game of whack-a-mole on Sunday with Asad and Arriola adding pace and width to Acosta’s ability on the ball and Rooney’s finishing skills, picking and choosing when to press and when to stay compact, adding room for error with every decisional situation they are put in.
We’ll Do the Dirty Work, You Have Fun: The aforementioned success brought on by Acosta and Rooney has functioned so well partly because of the attacking freedom they have been given by the back six. Whether utilizing a 4-2-3-1 or a 3-4-3, Olsen has Canouse and Moreno functioning as dual sixes protecting the back line, rarely venturing into the final third. Tasked with hard tackles and quick distribution to the front four, the duo has been exceptional over the last five matches in their ability to stifle productive play and should prove a difficult barrier for the likes of Katai and Mihailovic to break through. Additionally, a nearly 90% pass completion ratio over the last three matches from the pair solidifies their engine like function within the side.
Lastly, a more conservative and static back line, a product of shifting Arriola forward into the wing position, has further solidified DC defensively. The likes of Birnbaum and Brillant may not be the fastest pairing in the league but their chemistry, understanding, and tactical prowess make up for what they lack in speed. Nikolic will certainly have his work cut out for him if he is going to score from an onside position in this one.
Weaknesses: While it may seem like the Eagles are flying high, there are always hiccups in MLS play and even this feel-good story can turn into a nightmare. Let’s see where DC might struggle this weekend.
Who Wants to Be a Right Back?: DC fans, players, and staff were all ecstatic after last weekend’s thrashing of Montreal, well all of them except for Oniel Fisher. The Jamaican right back came out of the match in the fifty-fifth minute with a knee injury which turned out to be extensive ligament damage that will likely require surgery and several months off. Fisher was a stalwart at that spot after early season injuries to Taylor Kemp and Nick DeLeon earned him a shot at securing the role. The position seems to be cursed this season and Olsen may have to turn to former Fire defender Kevin Ellis to deputize there on Sunday. Ellis was waived by the Fire after what sources say was Veljko Paunovic and Nelson Rodriguez’s displeasure at the lack of professionalism from the league veteran in the wake of Chicago’s semifinal ousting from the US Open Cup. The Fire will know his weaknesses well and vice versa, but DC’s cohesion and chemistry will certainly take a hit in Fisher’s absence.
Free as a Bird with Everything to Prove: Although we alluded to it above, the carefree attitude and style of play that Chicago is now able to exhibit as they try to end the season on a high note was visible in their last match against LAFC. Additionally, the first half of the NYCFC encounter showed that this is a group with a lot to prove to Nelson Rodriguez and Veljko Paunovic (or whoever is coaching the team next season). Both of these facets were brought up by Ben Olsen and Bill Hamid in their midweek presser and the long time DC stewards both highlighted the need for caution when approaching this fixture. Olsen reminded his players that their big win over Montreal means nothing if Chicago can get a foothold in the match and Hamid spoke from experience about wanting to play the role of spoiler. Playing for a contract and securing your livelihood are dangerous motivators and should certainly be a factor on Sunday.
Prediction: Fasten your seat belts for this one. Chicago 3-3 DC. Katai, Gordon, and Kappelhof’s first in a Fire uniform seal a point for the visitors, some combination of Rooney and Acosta keep the host’s playoff hopes alive.