Once a Metro: Dwayne De Rosario's two-game suspension for violent conduct during a preseason game seems to have stifled DC's attack (as well as my fantasy MLS team). Granted, Houston and Real Salt Lake are two of the better defensive teams in MLS, but still just one goal in two matches isn't the best offensive start to the season. What have you seen so far offensively and how will DeRo's return improve the attack?
Black and Red United: United have definitely been less threatening in the attack since losing DeRo. But this is the same team that closed out the 2012 season on a 7-game unbeaten streak, beat the Red Bulls in the playoffs and were essentially a blown red card away from MLS Cup - all without Dwayne De Rosario. Once the Black-and-Red have their captain back, I'd expect the goals to flow a little bit more freely, as he combines will with polarizing target forward Lionard Pajoy and opens up space for outside midfielders Chris Pontius and Nick DeLeon to attack.
That said, I don't know if we'll see a return to the high-flying days of last spring this year. Just before DeRo's injury last September, Ben Olsen was in the process of shifting away from the very attack-minded 4-1-3-2 a more conservative 4-2-3-1, and he stuck with the double-pivot through preseason and through two games this year. DeRo is the key man to the system, though, and it's no surprise that United hasn't been able to generate chances against very good defensive units in his absence.
Once a Metro: On the flip side, DC United has essentially held opponents scoreless for all but the last ten minutes of their season opener. After allowing an acceptable but not particularly impressive forty-three goals in 2012, do you expect the team to maintain this stingy defense or are there still gaps for opponents to exploit?
Black and Red United: I do. D.C. United's stretch run last year was built on defensive solidity, and that's not changing this year. Bill Hamid continues to grow and improve his game in goal, and likewise with the central defensive partnership of Brandon McDonald and Dejan Jakovic. Just as important, Perry Kitchen turned a corner last year in defensive midfield and has looked great so far in 2013. As I mentioned in my answer to the first question, the better defense also has a lot to do with a change in formation to one utilizing two deep holding midfielders to screen the back four, and I don't expect the new system to be changing any time soon.
This team has weaknesses, though. United has always had trouble dealing with long balls over the top, especially on the counter, as our fullbacks are high up the field. Set pieces have always bedeviled us, too, as somebody always seems to miss a mark, leaving Hamid to deal with an attacker's free header.
Once a Metro: Saturday is the first of three meetings for DC and the Red Bulls this season. How confident are you that United will win this iteration of the semi-relevant Atlantic Cup?
Black and Red United: I'm feeling pretty confident, especially after watching both teams the last couple weeks. The biggest hurdles are really going to be playing two of the three games up at Red Bull Arena and ensuring that United's big pieces are all available at the right times. The attack is reliant on De Rosario to create some chances and finish others. Our center back depth isn't where it probably should be. After Lionard Pajoy, we don't currently have a starting-quality forward who can play 90 minutes - and quite a few D.C. fans would nix that initial dependent clause.
Even with some flaws, though, United have been pegged by some neutral pundits to claim silverware this year, and that's the stated goal for Ben Olsen's side. It's a reasonable target, too, since Sporting Kansas City have taken a step back with the loss of Roger Espinoza and Kai Kamara and some other rivals at the top of the table like San Jose, Houston and LA will be dealing with fixture congestion later in the year as they enter the CONCACAF Champions League.
Once a Metro (bonus question): Since it's rivalry week, what do you think about some Red Bull fans arguing that the general distaste toward DC United will soon be a distant second to that for the Philadelphia Union?
Black and Red United: You're joking, right? I thought you guys were supposed to be JerseyStrong and all that, but some of you are waving the white flag and saying DC - who has basically owned you for 17 hate-filled years - isn't your "real" rival? Whatever makes them happy, I guess. I mean, if you're looking for a team more on the same level as you - no major trophies, a similar number of Atlantic Cups - the Union might make more sense than D.C. United and the full-to-bursting trophy case at RFK Stadium. I would have thought that if either side was going to play the "you're not our rival" card it would be the one on the winning side of the relationship, but if y'all want to not get fired up for our games, that's up to you.
But for real, those guys are trolling, right? The history of the DC-NY rivalry is way longer than the history of anything involving the Union (excluding their annexation of Bethlehem Steel, anyway), and nobody has caused you guys more heartache - or taken more joy in causing it - than the Black-and-Red. For examples of both, look back at the inaugural MLS playoffs and a final-minute penalty in the deciding game of the series between United and the MetroStars. Hell, last year's playoff series between our two clubs provided more material on which to build a rivalry than every brawl the Union has ever fought (and there have been a few). We've called each other "Scum" since long before a Philly team was a twinkle in Don Garber's eye. If a few fans on your end want to get a reaction by saying that Philly is more important to them, it's probably out of ignorance or reasons involving their own self-image than any ambivalence toward United.
Thanks again to Adam for some great insight and decent smack talk. Now on to some of our thoughts about the Red Bulls...
Black and Red United: So how much do you love Roy Miller right now? I mean, he scored the own-goal that let the playoff series between D.C. and the Red Bulls head back to Jersey all squared up, then he blows a free kick that could have tied things up at Red Bull Arena. And just last week, he gets beat on the game-tying goal in San Jose before committing an atrocious hand ball to give the Quakes a penalty - and then encroaches on the PK when Wondo misses, giving the perennial Golden Boot winner another bite at the apple. So really, how much do you love Roy Miller right now?
Once a Metro: In less than ten days, Roy Miller may suit up for Costa Rica against the United States in a World Cup Qualifier, and, if he plays like he did against San Jose, the Red, White, and Blue should be back in business. What makes the latest Roy Miller debacle so infuriating is an interview with MLSsoccer.com where he said he meant to encroach on the penalty kick! He thought Wondolowski would score on the first attempt and his encroachment would then offset the goal and Wondo would have to then retake it and subsequently miss. Everyone in the Red Bulls organization, from head coach Mike Petke to Miller's teammates, have said all the right things in defense of the beleaguered left back. Miller not only makes three major errors to cost New York the game against San Jose, but also then opens up to the media and makes the blunder that much worse. If the Red Bulls are serious about winning MLS Cup, Roy Miller cannot be their starting left back.
Black and Red United: It's still early in the year, but the Red Bulls so far this season have shown a propensity for late-game melt downs in their two games so far, blowing a 3-1 halftime lead to draw in Portland and losing after leading in the 83rd minute in San Jose. Is this just early-season kinks being worked out or does it present a more pervasive problem for Mike Petke to work out?
Once a Metro: If it's not one thing it's another. Don't forget, the Red Bulls conceded yet another early goal against the Portland Timbers in the first fifteen minutes, something that plagued them throughout the Hans Backe era and unfortunately may have carried over into 2013 under Mike Petke. I won't go so far as to say that surrendering goals late in matches on the road against Portland and San Jose, two of the best home teams in MLS, is a pervasive problem, but if New York is so lucky to build a lead against D.C. on Saturday and subsequently blows it late in the second half, yes, something is going on with this team that will need to be addressed just a few games into the year.
Black and Red United: Mike Petke, a man who's played on both sides of this rivalry, was named interim head coach this off-season and subsequently had the qualifier knocked off the title after the Red Bull front office couldn't find a big name European coach to take the reins. Will finally having an American who played in the league help your always underachieving team break through this year?
Once a Metro: New York has a tough task taking a largely revamped roster through a long and grueling season. It's no surprise that the teams that traditionally thrive in both the regular season and playoffs are ones that are able to maintain some continuity from year to year. From the reports emerging about former head coach Hans Backe's tenure, he did not properly prepare the squad each week. Mike Petke knows the league, he knows the opponents, and from the sound of it he is willing to spend the time necessary dissecting the Red Bulls performances to figure out how to make adjustments throughout the season. As an untested coach in a major market with an expensive roster, however, Petke might not have a lot of wiggle room if the team struggles out of the gate.
Black and Red United (bonus question): What do you make of Thierry Henry's recent statements implying that his Red Bull teammates don't understand what it takes to win? It feels a little bit early for this kind of stuff to be leaking out of the locker room, no?
Once a Metro: I hate to take the middle road, but of the two camps that have emerged around Henry's comments I really can't come down strongly in either direction. I don't think his comments were particularly "motivating" as some have spun them, but I also don't think he's intentionally bashing his teammates. In a candid moment, Henry mentioned that one of his struggles in MLS compared to playing on World Cup and Champions League (UEFA, not CONCACAF) caliber club teams is that he has to spend more time telling his teammates what to do instead of focusing on his job at hand. Does Henry come across as a bit condescending? Sure, but he is an international soccer star and currently one of if not the highest profile players in MLS. Either way, if he drops a hat trick against D.C. United on Saturday, he can say whatever he wants, but a slow start to the 2013 season might have more fans starting to question his attitude if he makes similar comments in the future.