For fans of Real Salt Lake the season so far as been above expectations, the recent streak of two matches without a win hasn't been enough to dampen the 9-4-4 start to the season. The home streak of 19 matches without a loss is the second longest in MLS history, their +15 home goal differential is as impressive as the fact that they have allowed just 6 goals at Rio Tinto so far this year. The return of Captain Kyle Beckerman last weekend and Ned Grabavoy's Goal of the Week, were the highlights of a 1-1 draw with Chivas, and now DC United is coming to town as RSL will once again try to close the gap on the LA Galaxy who are currently 9 points in front of them in the Western Conference standings.
For fans of DC United, this season has been nothing but a huge disappointment. When the preseason ended the fans felt confident of a trophy this year, with good reason DC United won the Carolina Challenge Cup. In the past 5 years the team to win that tournament had gone on to win MLS Cup (Houston in 06, and 07, RSL in 09) three times and DC Untied could make it four. The reality was that DC United played a starter heavy lineup in that tournament, while other teams played a rookie and reserve heavy lineups, but you can't fault United, they were dealing with a change in head coach as former DC United player Curt Onalfo took over and he needed to find out what he kind of team he had. Reality came crashing in on them as they started 0-5-0 in league play, giving up 13 goals while scoring just 2, some thought they had found their form before the World Cup break as they got two wins and the draw against RSL in their 3 matches before the break. Again reality came crashing in on their dreams and hopes, since the break ended they are 0-3-2 with just 2 goals scored and 6 allowed.
On paper this is a mismatch of epic proportions, DC United have won just 3 of 17 matches, they are 1-5-2 on the road. RSL is 9-4-4 overall and 6-0-3 at home. DC United have scored just 12 goals all season, RSL has allowed only 14 goals to be scored against them. DC United have allowed 28 goals (worst in MLS), while RSL has scored 29 goals (tied for best in MLS). On paper you think RSL could just dial this one in, but then you have to remember the first week of June, see RSL spend a few days in our nation's capital, a trip to the White House was the only highlight of the trip. It was that trip that saw DC United eliminate RSL from the US Open Cup, and then fight them to a 0-0 draw in league play. Matches aren't played on paper and for DC United you have to think nothing would help them face the rest of the season than getting a result against the defending Champions and ending their home unbeaten streak.
My Key Match-ups, Wildcards, and prediction after the jump:
Real Salt Lake Offense vs DC United Defense
This is a match-up of the best in MLS vs. the worst in MLS, Real Salt Lake's offense has found the back of the net 29 times this season, no team has scored more, while DC United have given up 28 goals, no team has allowed more goals. The match up gets even more lopsided as you look a little deeper, RSL's 21 goals scored at home in 9 matches is an average of 2.33 goals scored per match. For United they have allowed 15 goals on the road in 8 matches for an average of 1.875 goals allowed per match on the road.
There is another number that comes into play, that impact the contest between the offense and defense, it is the fact that RSL has allowed just 6 goals at Rio Tinto this year, meaning they most often score first and don't have to chase matches. United have only scored 6 goals on the road, and that means that often they are playing from behind which can expose their defense as they move more players forward.
I would give RSL a clear advantage in this match-up, but with just two goals scored in their last 3 matches and if you remove their 5-0 thrashing of New England on July second they have just 3 goals since the end of May.
Will Johnson vs. Andy Najar
Not since Freddy Adu (come home to MLS Freddy) has a young player captured the imagination and fascination of DC United fans like Andy Najar. The question remains if this is more hype and hope than reality, and that question remains unanswered in my mind, I like what I see from Andy, and his 3 goals lead DC United. He has a great mix of speed and touch and has provided some exciting moments for United fans but it isn't hard to shine when so many others are looking so bad. I think the reality is that Andy is a talented young player, he is just 17 years old but there is a lot of hype around him.
It is most likely that it will be Will Johnson who gets the primary assignment of "babysitting" young Andy during the match, yeah it was a cheap shot, but we all know I am not above that. It isn't like Will Johnson is an old man, he is just 23 years old but he has become such a part of the RSL lineup since joining the team that many for get he is so young. Will can match energy with the younger player, and can probably keep up with him on the speed front, and nobody works harder during a match than Will. It should be interesting to watch these two battle all night.
OK I had to chuckle a bit as Pablo and DC's other mid-season pickup Branko Boskovic are being referred to as "knights in shining armor", but given DC United's season so far I can understand it. Pablo is a 23 year old who is on loan from Club Defensor Sporting in Uruguay and has been practicing with the team since the start of July and whose transfer was completed as the window opened on July 15th. In his first match he was able to get an assist on a Najar goal in their 2-1 loss to the LA Galaxy, and a goal last weekend against Portsmouth in a friendly last weekend, a sign of what United fans are hoping to see more of.
DC United Injuries
If you just look at the injury list for DC United: OUT: MF Brandon Barklage (L ACL tear); DF Juan Manuel Pena (R quad strain); GK Andrew Quinn (R meniscus tear); DF Rodney Wallace (L fibula fracture); DOUBTFUL: DF Dejan Jakovic (R hamstring strain); PROBABLE: DF Marc Burch (R foot surgery); FW Adam Cristman (lower abdominal surgery); DF Devon McTavish (R calf strain); FW Chris Pontius (R foot bruise), you begin to understand how tough the season has been on them. Cristman, Burch, Jakovic and Pontius are all expected to be available against RSL but you have to wonder with the heat and altitude if Curt Onalfo may chose to hold off on using players just getting healthy.
Yes I am keeping the officials in the wildcard category, as we saw last week the officials can make a huge difference as several key calls were missed and the match was impacted greatly by the officials Ramon comes in with just 23 MLS matches under his belt, he averages 28.7 fouls called per match, he issues an average of 4.3 yellow cards per match. Red cards are something that scare me with Ramon, he has issued 7 or one every 3.2 matches, he also has pointed to the PK spot 5 times or once every 4.6 matches.
Well as I said on paper this one is ugly, but RSL has been anything but overwhelming since their 5-0 win over New England back on July 2nd. DC United is coming in with some confidence from a couple of unlikely sources, a US Open Cup win over Harrisburg City Islanders a USL-2 side in which their new DP Branko Boskovic scored in the first minute, and last weekends 4-0 win over former EPL side Portsmouth FC in which Danny Allsop got a hat trick and Hernandez got his first goal in a United kit.
It was a friendly match late last year that really launched the run RSL made into and through the playoffs, but I don't expect DC United to make such a run. I do wonder if RSL has finally got their feet back on the ground, after a great run of 10 matches without a loss, the second longest shutout streak in MLS history, their last couple matches have seen RSL look a lot less like the team that was dominating teams earlier this year.
In looking at United's season it has been the second half when they have given up 20 of their 28 goals, RSL's attack is more even scoring 15 in the first half and 14 in the second half. I believe that RSL needs to come out strong and get an early goal, they need to force the other team to play their style. That wasn't the case against FC Dallas and Chivas, but to get back on the winning track and close the gap on the Galaxy a win is a must in this match.
RSL will find a way to get the win, but I have a feeling it will be a nailbitter that ends up 2-1.
OFF MY SOAPBOX