Less than a week after returning from a tough loss on the road, Sounders FC has a chance to bounce back in front of the hometown crowd at CenturyLink Field. D.C. United is coming to town and the Sounders look to fight back for the top spot in the Supporters’ Shield standings. To preview the match between the Rave Green and the Black and Red, SoundersFC.com caught up with Pablo Maurer. Maurer has covered D.C. United since 2010 and contributes to MLSsoccer.com, as well as DCist.com and Soccer by Ives.
Chris Rolfe has emerged as the dangerman for D.C. United this season. Though casual observers of United like to point to Fabian Espindola as United's primary threat, it's my opinion that Rolfe is, at any given point in time, the most dangerous player D.C. has on the field. Along with Espindola, he's given United something they've desperately lacked in recent years - creativity - and other teams in MLS are finally beginning to take note.
Espindola missed long stretches this year while suspended or injured, so he's just now beginning to round back into form; Rolfe told me recently that he feels that the two of them are only now just beginning to re-establish the chemistry they had in 2014. When they do, look out.
Busy Week for D.C.
United's depth has served them well this year - they've used 17 different lineups in 20 games - and Friday evening's match will be yet another test of it. Olsen will use a mix of regulars and reserves on Tuesday [in Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup play], saving veterans like Bobby Boswell and Chris Rolfe for Friday's encounter against Seattle.
I think Ben is keenly aware of Seattle's recent slip in form and also aware that they'll be missing Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey. He likely views this match as a rare chance to steal a trio of precious road points in a place that, historically, has brought his side very little joy.
The Points Don’t Matter
Olsen does have flexibility with his team ahead by eleven points in the Eastern Conference - but the first thing Ben will tell you is that the standings mean little to him.
The quirks of MLS scheduling probably influence his attitude: D.C. have played more games (20) than anyone else in the Eastern Conference. Teams like Toronto and Orlando have a few games in hand and are waking from their early-season slumber, so Olsen knows that United's stay atop the east could be temporary.
D.C. haven't won a match against the Sounders since 2011 and haven't won at CenturyLink since 2010 - Olsen has fielded his best possible squad (given injury and age constraints) for every match this year. Losing streaks like those matter to these guys. I don't think Ben is about to rest anybody, if possible - flexibility be damned.
Consistency is Key
If there's one thing that Olsen and United GM Dave Kasper preached after last year's miraculous turnaround, it was consistency. D.C. made few moves in the offseason and worked hard to retain the core that dragged them out of the basement and back into the promised land.
And that approach has worked - in the back, veterans like Boswell and Sean Franklin continue to bring stability to a once-shaky back line and also offer guidance to newcomers like U.S. National Team prospect Steven Birnbaum. In midfield and up top, Rolfe and Espindola are a perfect example for United's young bucks - players like Conor Doyle who finally seem to be realizing their potential. Strapped by budgetary constraints, United have taken a pragmatic, "moneyball" approach to squad building in the past years, and though it's not always the prettiest soccer to watch, it's clearly worked.
Three Thoughts on SEAvDC
- How will Seattle's outside backs deal with Fabian Espindola? Espindola's role with United this year has evolved, and the Argentine has found great success drifting wide and floating balls into the box. Seattle's fullbacks would do well to close him down before he gets to the end line and swings a dangerous ball into the area.
- How will Perry Kitchen and Davy Arnaud deal with Osvaldo Alonso, if he plays? Kitchen and Osvaldo are two of the league's more entertaining center mids - this is a match-up most MLS fans will be keen to keep an eye on.
- Can Seattle's backup strikers get one by Steve Birnbaum, Bobby Boswell and Bill Hamid? It's tough to think of a stronger trifecta, defensively, in MLS. Boswell has been his usual, dependable self this year, and Birnbaum is coming off a lights-out performance in Toronto. Hamid, on the other hand, is arguably MLS' best keeper. Without Oba and Dempsey, Seattle may have a tough time finding the back of the net.