It's opponent preview time, and there's few-to-none better to inquire information regarding D.C. United from than SB Nation's United blog, Black And Red United. So, that's exactly what we did. I wanted to know about D.C.'s backline, why they struggle to score goals and who might be the solution to that problem, and how will the Red and Black come into Sporting Park to play - defensively, or attacking-minded?
Andy Edwards: D.C. has obviously had some struggles to open 2013, going 1-2-1 and failing to win away from home yet. It's always important to the result against Sporting how teams come into Sporting Park to play. How much does D.C.'s style and gameplan differ on the road versus playing at home?
Adam Taylor: You're not going to like this answer - and quite a few D.C. fans don't like it, either: Ben Olsen's road tactics differ pretty dramatically from his tactics in the friendly confines of RFK Stadium. In United's last game, a 2-1 loss at home against Columbus, Olsen played a system based on a 4-4-2 diamond with Dwayne De Rosario sitting in behind two out-and-out strikers and ahead of Perry Kitchen, who was covering the defensive midfield solo. On the road this Friday, I would be shocked if Benny ran out anything other than his 4-2-3-1, essentially dropping one of the two forwards in favor of a partner for Kitchen deep in midfield. The goal for the first hour will be to avoid conceding and maybe poach something on the counter or on a set piece. Once we get deeper into the game, Olsen will see where things stand and whether United is sturdy enough in the back to hazard a shift to something more attacking.
AE: Chris Pontius and Dwayne De Rosario are as good a duo of attacking midfielders as it gets in MLS, but they've struggled to score in 2013. Perhaps a striker in the box - maybe a Cladio Bieler type - seems to be missing for D.C. Is there a guy on the roster that looks at all likely to complete what could really be a very dangerous D.C. attack?
AT: United's problems in the attack this year have been pretty manifold. The team hasn't been able to hold possession, but they haven't been able to generate dangerous chances by playing more direct, either. Some of it is on striker Lionard Pajoy, whose valuable hold up play and defensive pressure from last season appears not to have joined the team this year, but a lot of it is on the guys you mentioned - Pontius and DeRo - along with the rest of the midfield, who haven't been able to give the striker(s) enough service.
Luckily, we got a glimpse of what the future might hold in our last game, when young designated player Rafael (Gladiador if you're nasty) turned the Argentine hoss that is Glauber and unleashed a 35-yard guided missile to beat Andy Gruenebaum. Many (if not most) fans of the Black-and-Red are hoping the 20-year-old Brazilian will get the start on Friday and relegate Pajoy, who is averaging a measly one shot on goal per game, to the role of late game lead-defending substitute.
AE: For me, Matt Besler is the centerpiece, the lynchpin, of the Sporting defense; the guy that when he goes missing, everything could fall apart rather easily. I'm also quite high on the D.C. defensive unit this year, but there doesn't seem to be the one "star" player that stands out for the group. If they're going to struggle to score goals, which it seems they will, are they good enough at the back to keep them in, and win, games?
AT: Oh, there's a superstar in United's defense, and he's the guy in the off-colored shirt: goalkeeper Bill Hamid. He's already been named MLS player of the week once this year, and he's made 20 saves through four games and securing two clean sheets with an 83% save percentage (tied for second in the league) after leading the league in the stat last season. He's the biggest reason United salvaged a scoreless draw against New York and didn't lose by more against the Crew. As long as Hamid is in the net - and we're not counting on having him past the end of this year, such is his talent - United will have at least a chance to bring home the points against anyone and in any building.
As for field players, keep your eye on Dejan Jakovic. Brandon McDonald is the organizer in the back line and generally reads the game better than any of D.C.'s other defenders, but Jakovic - who missed the Columbus game while on international duty with Canada - has elite speed for an MLS center back, can pick attackers' pockets on the run and has a knack for being in the right place to make a game-saving tackle or block. His speed and recovery ability (along with Hamid's shot-stopping) allows United's other defenders to play less conservatively, going for interceptions or getting stuck in rather than standing off.