New York City FC is back home in the friendly confines of Yankee Stadium for their home opener this Sunday, welcoming DC United for a 2PM Sunday showdown. NYC FC took a tough loss to Orlando City SC last Sunday, unable to capitalize on several late chances.
Meanwhile, DC played to a 0-0 draw at home against Sporting KC in which the team squandered several chances to win the match (sound familiar?). Both teams are eyeing Playoff appearances in 2017, so getting their first win on Sunday will be a must.
Q. DC made a spirited run at the back half of last season to vault itself into the 4th spot in the Eastern Conference. Despite losing the Wildcard game to Montreal, I think United fans must have been encouraged at how the team closed the season. How has DC positioned itself this season with its off-season moves to build on their success at the end of 2016?
D.C. United has taken the core of the 2016 team, locked it down, and surrounded them with some key role players to support them. The team signed Luciano Acosta on a permanent deal, with the biggest transfer fee in club history, and gave new contracts to Steve Birnbaum, Sean Franklin, and Patrick Mullins. They also signed Ian Harkes (a projected top three draft pick) to a homegrown player contract despite interest from overseas, and have added Sebastian LeToux and Costa Rican international Jose Ortiz to the attacking mix. Ben Olsen teams have always functioned best when there is competition, and this team has more competition at every spot than we've seen in a long time.
Q. DC played to a frustrating 0-0 tie on opening weekend against Sporting KC at home, missing a penalty chance and seeing two would-be goals cleared off the line. What about the match leaves you encouraged and what does DC need to improve on to get a result against NYC FC?
Midfield passing is the main thing upon which they need to improve, with Marcelo Sarvas and Jared Jeffrey having down games in the center of the park, at least from a passing perspective, and Lloyd Sam having a poor game all around as well. If they continue to do so, Ian Harkes may get a chance as the season progresses, and if nothing else he is an excellent passer (and there are plenty of other facets to his game as well).
I was encouraged by the defensive performance and the defensive passing, with Steve Birnbaum taking over the captain's role and Sean Franklin playing center back full-time for the first time since his rookie season. The partnership had been a little shaky in the preseason as Franklin re-acclimated to being in the middle, but his speed and his passing showed why Ben Olsen made this decision; the fact that he was able to bottle up Dom Dwyer didn't hurt either.
Q. One of the most important engines in DC's midfield is Luciano Acosta, who tallied 3 goals and 8 assists in his first season in MLS. Acosta was an important factor in DC's revival late in 2016, but has started 2017 banged up, having to miss the team's opener. What does his absence mean to DC, what is his current status for Sunday, and what will DC do if he is unable to suit up?
Luciano Acosta will not start in this game, and it is looking unlikely that he will make the bench (though I do hope against hope). United is likely to run out the same starting lineup, which means that second year professional Julian Buescher will line up at the central attacking midfielder in Acosta's place. Buescher showed flashes in his first game and was one of the most efficient passers in the league in his substitute appearances last year, but he isn't the same type of player as Acosta. When drafted, some of us thought he might be more suited for a box-to-box midfielder role, but Ben Olsen has consistently seen him in the more attacking position. If he can translate his passing acumen over a full game, he can be an effective piece of Ben Olsen's attack.
Starting XI and Prediction?
Bill Hamid; Nick DeLeon, Steve Birnbaum, Sean Franklin, Taylor Kemp; Marcelo Sarvas; Lloyd Sam, Julian Buescher, Jared Jeffrey, Patrick Nyarko; Patrick Mullins
Games in Yankee Stadium are always strange, so I'll go with a 1-1 draw.