Back in action again on Saturday, the Portland Timbers come up against D.C. United (4pm PT, ROOT SPORTS, 750 AM The Game / La Pantera 940). Find out everything you need to know about the opposition.
A brief history…
The easiest way to sum up D.C. United is to label them as successful. With four MLS Cups, four Supporters’ Shields, and two U.S. Open Cups, they have set the bar for most MLS clubs with their superb achievements. They have also had some of the league’s best ever players in the likes of Jaime Moreno, Marco Etcheverry, Jeff Agoos, Eddie Pope, John Harkes, Christian Gomez, and Ryan Nelsen.
Off the pitch, D.C. plays at the multi-purpose RFK Stadium and they have been a very organized franchise. There has been talk of moving into a new soccer-specific stadium, but discussions are ongoing on that front. In 2009, William Chang took control of the club with Erick Thohir and Jason Levien coming onboard as minority owners.
How did they fare last season?
It turned out to be a very good year as Ben Olsen emerged as one of the brightest young coaches in MLS due to leading D.C. to second place in the Eastern Conference, thus qualifying for the playoffs. They finished as the third-best team in the overall standings and boasted the third-best attack with 53 goals – 12 of which came from Chris Pontius, who enjoyed an excellent season.
Part of the reason why D.C. made the playoffs was an unbeaten run of seven games at the end of the regular season – five of which they won. With Pontius leading the way in goalscoring, Nick DeLeon and Dwayne DeRosario also made valuable contributions and helped them to beat New York Red Bulls in the playoff semifinals before losing to Houston Dynamo in the Eastern Conference final.
Who have they brought in for this season?
Top of Olsen’s shopping list for the 2013 campaign was bolstering his attack and the arrival of MLS veteran Carlos Ruiz was huge. The Guatemalen playmaker, known as The Little Fish, knows this league and adds a different dimension to their attack. The additions of Brazilian youngster Rafael on loan and Casey Townsend in a trade with Chivas USA also gave them extra options up front.
One of the best moves that D.C. made this season was bringing outside back James Riley in from Chivas USA as the former Seattle Sounder strengthens a position that they had trouble covering. Space had to be made on their roster though and that saw the departures of former Timber Mike Chabala, Stephen King, Branko Boskovic, Maicon Santos, and Andy Najar, who joined Anderlecht in Belgium.
How have they done so far this year?
It has been an incredibly disappointing start to the season for D.C., especially considering how they did in 2012, with only one win secured. Last week’s tie with Sporting Kansas City ended a seven-game losing streak and their record after 11 games is 1-8-2, which leaves them with only five points and bottom of the Eastern Conference.
Injuries have clearly deprived D.C. of some key players with the influential quartet of Pontius, Ruiz, DeLeon, and DeRosario missing big chunks of the season so far. But there are other issues on the pitch, such as their backline, that need to be addressed as they are only collecting 0.45 points per game, which is striking when put beside the Timbers’ 1.58 points per game.
Head coach: Ben Olsen
Only retired from playing since 2009, Olsen still looks like he could do a job in that central midfield area where he used to dominate. A cult hero amongst D.C. supporters, he played over 200 games for the club, won two MLS Cups, and earned 37 United States caps whilst there. After briefly serving as assistant manager to Curt Onalfo, he got the gig himself in 2010 and he has done a fine job since then in turning D.C. into a competitive force again.
Star Player: Dwayne DeRosario
Now playing for his fifth different team in MLS, this Canada international will be remembered as one of the league’s all-time greats. Voted as MLS MVP in 2011, he has won four MLS Cups (two with San Jose Earthquakes, two with Houston Dynamo), and is still one of the most creative players around. Deadly accurate at set pieces, unpredictable in open play, and possessing the ability to change a game in favor of his team, DeRo is someone D.C. turn to quite often.
One To Watch: Perry Kitchen
Not exactly a player who will make many headlines or score a ton of goals, but Kitchen’s contribution to his team is invaluable. He is the player who breaks up opposition attacks, shields his defense, links play going forward, and sets the tempo of play for his team. Still only 21, he is quickly developing into the type of tough-as-nails midfielder that his head coach once was – except he needs to pop up with a few more goals.
What can the Timbers expect?
On current form, D.C. will turn up, chase down balls, and generally make life difficult for the Timbers. Their start to the season with only six goals scored – the joint lowest in the league – and a backline that has shipped two or more goals in seven of their 11 games played does, at first glance, not bode well for them.
However, if D.C. can start to turn things around and return to the kind of form that saw them blaze into the playoffs last year, the Timbers will have a tough game. That all depends on which players will be injury-free and how match fit they will be for what is a game they really need to take something from before their season tumbles to truly despairing lows.
Who are their main threats?
If fit enough to play, Pontius and DeRosario will be the two main men in DC’s attack and stopping them will be crucial to the Timbers dominating in the game. But it would be foolish to solely concentrate on that pair as DeLeon is a potential game-winner who likes to shoot from distance, while Casey Townsend and Kyle Porter can bring speed to their line-up, if selected.
D.C. has yet to strike a winning formula this season, mainly because they have not had all of their players available at any one time. That means they are still unsure if Ruiz and DeRosario can consistently play together, if Pontius can recapture his form of last season, and if their younger players can step up and prove that they can handle the pressure of big games in MLS.
Where are they most vulnerable?
With 20 goals conceded in 11 games, D.C. clearly has defensive problems. A look at how they fared in their last outing – a 1-1 tie at home to Sporting Kansas City – reveals some worrying trends as they allowed 14 attempts on their goal, 20 crosses from open play, gave up 12 corner kicks, had only 40.7 per cent possession compared to Sporting’s 59.3 per cent, and generally found themselves on the back foot far too often.
The two big stats that will jump out at Olsen from their last game is the 44 duels won compared to Sporting’s 66, and the total passes of 296 compared to Sporting’s 441. Of course, it should be noted that Sporting is a very good team, but losing individual battles and not being able to pass the ball is simply not good enough and it is why they are so vulnerable right now. Olsen has work to do to tighten his team’s shape and get his players working harder.
Previous Meetings in MLS
2011: May 29 – Portland Timbers 2-3 D.C. United
2011: October 19 – D.C. United 1-1 Portland Timbers
2012: September 29 – Portland Timbers 1-1 D.C. United
Record vs D.C. United: 0-2-1
Did You Know?
D.C. United have won 12 international and domestic titles, including the CONCACAF Champions’ Cup in 1998, where they beat Mexican outfit Club Toluca in the final.
Gareth Maher is a contributing writer to PortlandTimbers.com. He is a frequent writer about soccer for the Irish Daily Mail in Dublin as well as ESPNFC.com.