After a long, cold and incredibly snowy winter, spring has finally arrived in the nation’s capital.
And has hordes of tourists descend on the Cherry Blossom Festival on the National Mall, another group makes the first pilgrimage of the season to RFK Stadium, where D.C. United kick off their 2010 home calendar against the New England Revolution.
But apprehension has already threatened early-season optimism in some quarters of Black-and-Red nation, thanks to last week’s 4-0 trouncing in Kansas City. D.C. is left with something to prove to themselves as well as to the fans who are not sure quite what to expect from new boss Curt Onalfo and his young side.
“I think it’s just ammo as far as motivation for the guys to recover quickly, and to show that we’re much better than the way we showed on Saturday night,” assistant coach Kris Kelderman said.
The history of this well-seasoned rivalry suggests D.C. should be able to seize the initiative on home turf, but creativity, focus and finishing ability will nonetheless be required in far greater levels than were shown against the Wizards.
Both teams are significantly affected by injuries, but over the years New England coach Steve Nicol has proved adept at plugging new faces into his system with limited loss of defensive continuity. United expect the Revolution to defend in numbers and wait for opportunities to counterattack on the home side’s unsettled defense, which will already include multiple changes from last weekend.
“They’re always a tough, physical team," said D.C. goalkeeper Troy Perkins. "I don’t think they’ve really changed that much since the league began. They’ve got the same type of approach to games and they’re tough to play against. So they’ll probably sit in and look to counter on us and get balls wide, a lot of crosses.”
That should give the Black-and-Red an opening to control possession and craft more effective passing moves in the attacking third, but it may also test the back line’s discipline and organization. The multiple breakdowns seen in Kansas City were none too flattering for the D.C. back line, but Onalfo and his staff believe that the debut of Bolivian center back Juan Manuel Peña can inspire a much improved display at RFK.
A longtime veteran of the Spanish league, Peña will look to sort out his new team’s communication issues and add a different dimension with his passing out of the back.
“He’s a good leader and he’s experienced,” Kelderman said of Peña. “He’s not only a technical player, but he offers a lot of vocal help to everybody on the field, so he’ll be a nice addition. We expect him to be ready and able to go.”
Pena will likely partner with Dejan Jakovic in the middle, flanked by Rodney Wallace and Carey Talley out wide. With New England boasting several speedy options up top and on the wings, they’ll need to mind their spacing and provide alert cover for one another when possession is lost. The foursome has had limited time to gel as a unit, but United’s injury crisis has drastically limited Onalfo’s options and excuses are of limited use at this point.
“Stuff like that certainly plays a role, but in this league we’ve seen that guys have to step in at any time," said Perkins. "So we’ve got to take that responsibility to ourselves to be ready and be prepared to step in."