Featured / MLS

Attending to a rivalry

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

DC United will host the Union on Dwayne DeRosario Bobblehead Night at RFK Stadium on Sunday. While I appreciate a bobblehead giveaway as much as the next, its presence at this weekend’s game may indicate the underdeveloped status of a mid-Atlantic rivalry.

Rivalry with below-average attendance ??

Even without performing an extensive statistical analysis of surrounding factors or causation, the basic fact is that any purported rivalry among United, the Union, and the Red Bulls is struggling to grow out of its infancy.

Attendance at games during the past three seasons between DC, Philadelphia, and New York reflect little intensity or interest in a regional rivalry. Neither of the last two Union games at RFK (2010, 2011) have topped United’s respective season home attendance averages. Only one of the last three New York games has generated above average home attendance for DC. The Union have played to comparatively better attendance in Red Bull Arena with two crowds outweighing New York’s respective home averages, and one failing to meet that year’s figure. For comparison, DC has played in PPL Park and Red Bull Arena to below-average attendance twice and above-average attendance four times, including three crowds of significantly larger size.

A variety of performance- and non-performance-related bases may exist for these lackluster statistics, but those shouldn’t matter. To the extent that these three clubs consider themselves involved in a rivalry, comparable to the rivalries among MLS teams in other regions (e.g., Timbers, Sounders, Whitecaps) or among mid-Atlantic teams in other sports (e.g., Redskins, Eagles, Giants), attendance at games between them should at least outpace the season average for the respective venues.

It is unfortunate that this game is scheduled for 5 pm on a Sunday, but hopefully Union supporters will make the drive down I-95 to compete with one of the most established supporters groups in MLS. As both sides anticipate the return of key players and look to rebound from losses a week ago, this game could have significant implications for substantiating the presence of a rivalry and for each team in dealing with on-field tactical issues.

Controlling the midfield

United can expect a significant boost in offensive production when Dwayne DeRosario returns from the shoulder injury he suffered in DC’s two weeks ago against Columbus. Nick DeLeon had a great individual run against Columbus that created DC’s only goal, and Andy Najar returned from the Olympics to replicate the feat against Kansas City last week. Up front, Long Tan has hustled to create some good scoring opportunities but wilted with anemic service against Kansas City. DeRosario seemed to be the missing piece of this puzzle, and his return should reinvigorate the striker who would almost certainly like to score on the team that once passed him over.

With Chris Pontius in the midst of an All-Star season, Ben Olsen will have a tough decision whether to bench one of his three wingers, or push Pontius and DeRosario into advanced striking roles and sit Tan. However Olsen aligns United, his former teammate, Brian Carroll, will have his hands full in the midfield, and Bakary Soumare and Carlos Valdes will have to establish an effective working relationship in their first game together in the defense.

The generally unpopular mid-week trade, which sent Lionard Pajoy south and Danny Cruz north, will add an option to the United offense and Union midfield. In Cruz, Olsen has parted with a hardworking, young, popular player who had fallen to fourth or fifth on the depth chart of wide midfielders. Olsen has made his expectations for immediate returns very clear, while John Hackworth appears content to continue building around talented young prospects. Because Olsen and Pajoy have a lot riding on his immediately scoring goals, I would not be surprised to see Pajoy on the field this weekend.

Closing defensive space

DC also needs to focus on occasionally loose marking in its patchwork defense. Chris Korb has filled in at right fullback for Robbie Russell and looked dangerous going forward during the past few weeks. In United’s end of the field, Korb is quick and assertive in tackles but gets turned when he does not close space or allows opponents to run at him with the ball. Columbus appeared to identify this weakness, and last week Kei Kamara fully capitalized on separation from Korb to cross the ball for SKC’s winner.

On the left side of the defense, Mike Chabala had a solid game against Kansas City after joining United from Portland earlier in the week to replace Daniel Woolard (out with a concussion suffered against Columbus). John Hackworth might test Korb and Chabala with runs from the Farfans, Adu, and Sheanon Williams — especially on the Union’s left side against Korb. But Korb will likely do the same and, in combination with Najar or DeLeon, could present a dangerous counterattacking threat on Philly’s left side.

Kitchen cleans up well as the anchor in the midfield but occasionally finds himself out of position by overinvolving himself in the offense. When DeRosario returns, Kitchen should be able to settle on top of central backs Brandon McDonald and Emile Dudar and focus on his defensive responsibilities. As discussed and detailed on PSP last week, the Union need someone in the middle of the field to control the game and catch Kitchen out of position. With Valdes and Soumare available, we might soon find out whether Amobi Okugo can fill that role.

For the good of Sunday’s game and the ongoing rivalry, I hope to see a sizable Union contingent across the field this weekend.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *