De Rosario Tames Colorado After Rapid Opening

Written by Ian Thomson

D.C. United moved within a point of New York Red Bulls at the top of Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference Wednesday with a 2-0 win over Colorado Rapids at RFK Stadium.

Goals from captain Dwayne De Rosario and Albanian international Hamdi Salihi sealed the three points for the capital side after Colorado had dominated the opening stages.

The Rapids’ inability to test United goalkeeper Bill Hamid coupled with their inability to defend cross balls allowed the hosts to gain the ascendancy and eventually run out comfortable winners.

Approach

United Head Coach Ben Olsen made three changes from last Saturday’s 1-0 loss to Houston Dynamo in the opening game at BBVA Compass Stadium. Lewis Neal and Branko Boskovic came into his midfield quartet. De Rosario moved up front in place of the injured Maicon Santos and Danny Cruz dropped to the substitutes’ bench.

Salihi partnered De Rosario in attack with Chris Pontius also kept on the sidelines.

D.C. captain De Rosario partnered Salihi in attack with Santos injured and Pontius dropped to the bench

This was Colorado’s first game since their 2-0 win over nine-man F.C. Dallas on May 6. Omar Cummings’ ankle sprain made space for Conor Casey’s first start since the former Borussia Dortmund striker ruptured his Achilles tendon in Seattle 10 months ago. Hunter Freeman replaced Kosuke Kimura at right-back.

Rapids first-year Head Coach Oscar Pareja has overhauled Colorado’s style of play since taking over from Gary Smith during the off-season. Gone is the rigid, traditionally English 4-4-2 in favor of a modern, expansive formation with a greater emphasis on fluid attacking.

Jeff Larentowicz anchored Pareja’s midfield with Jaime Castrillon, Martin Rivero and Brian Mullan staying narrow and pressing high behind Colorado’s two forwards in a 4-1-3-2 system. Full-backs Luis Zapata and Freeman provided width by joining the attacking phase.

Conor Casey made his first start since July 16, 2011 after recovering from his Achilles tendon tear

Opening Stages

The first 25 minutes were all about Colorado’s promising new system. Casey showed his worth as a bulldozing target man, threatening in the air and holding the ball up while his teammates make cutting runs around him.

Colorado’s pressing was evident when Perry Kitchen dropped deep to take the ball from D.C.’s back line. Rookie forward Tony Cascio, Casey and Rivero quickly converged on the 20-year-old holding midfielder. Conversely, Kitchen was having a tough time trying to shield his back four and shut down passes into Casey’s feet.

High pressure from Rapids' Cascio, Rivero and Casey forces Kitchen back to his goalkeeper

Castrillon found Casey 10 yards inside D.C.’s half on eight minutes after Mullan picked up a loose ball in midfield. Castrillon and Cascio quickly provided support and those two combined before the latter fired a shot wide from 25 yards.

Pareja’s desire for interchangeability among his midfielders requires Mullan to look for the ball centrally and make runs that he’s never done before in his distinguished career as a wide player. That’s been a struggle for the five-time MLS Cup winner, but his growing awareness of his new role almost released him on goal after 12 minutes following another sweeping move. Rivero found Casey at the edge of D.C.’s penalty area and the big forward’s flick landed half a yard behind Mullan’s run.

Rivero’s tackle on Kitchen at the edge of Colorado’s penalty box on 21 minutes allowed the visitors to spring another quick counter with Casey, Cascio and Castrillon already supporting from advanced positions against four D.C. defenders. Brandon McDonald shepherded Casey down the left of the penalty area before blocking his attempted cross.

Rapids' attacking formation gave Rivero (circled in white) options on the break. He chose Casey on the left, but McDonald (circled in black) got back to block the cross

One Chance, One Goal For DeRo

De Rosario had barely been involved in the opening stages, but D.C.’s captain opened the scoring with a moment of sheer brilliance on 25 minutes.

Castrillon’s loose touch when trying to control Zapata’s square pass in midfield allowed former Orlando City midfielder Neal to gallop into Colorado’s half with just Salihi and De Rosario in support versus four defenders.

The Canadian international waited for the moment that Larentowicz turned his attention toward Neal to peel off the back of his opponent, while Salihi’s diagonal run dragged central defenders Drew Moor and Tyrone Marshall to the right. That opened space for Neal to thread the ball into De Rosario’s path, and he slid his shot under goalkeeper Matt Pickens.

Salihi's run (black arrow) pulled Larentowicz (white arrow) and the Rapids defense to the right, while De Rosario (circled in black) peeled into the space created to receive Neal's pass

D.C. surged forward after the goal. Pickens tipped De Rosario’s 25-yard blast over his crossbar before making an outstanding reflex save to turn away Robbie Russell’s header from the resulting corner kick.

Another loose touch on 44 minutes, this time by Zapata, allowed Russell to release Andy Najar down the right wing. The Honduran teenager stepped inside Zapata before firing in a 16-yard drive that Pickens tipped over the bar.

Rapids’ Struggles On Corner Kicks And Crosses

Colorado don’t possess a lot of height to defend their penalty area. They struggled throughout to clear cross balls under pressure from Salihi, Russell and McDonald. That gave D.C. added belief that they could add to their lead whenever Boskovic whipped his dangerous inswinging corners.

Pareja chooses not to employ men on the posts when Colorado defend set pieces. United were winning a lot of headers, but they couldn’t direct them down into the vacant corners. Pickens made another great stop to deny Salihi shortly after the interval as the Rapids’ defensive problems continued to fuel D.C.’s confidence.

Colorado choose not to put players on the posts while defending corner kicks

United’s second goal arrived on 60 minutes. Again it owed much to Colorado’s aerial weakness at the back. Neither central defender met Chris Korb’s 60-yard punt forward, allowing De Rosario to carry the ball into the penalty box before turning back to feed the supporting Neal. His cross found Boskovic unmarked, 10 yards from the center of Pickens’ goal, as Castrillon didn’t track his run. Zapata played the Montenegrin midfielder onside by failing to step out in line with his fellow defenders.

Zapata (circled in white) didn't step out in line with his defense, playing Boskovic and Salihi onside as De Rosario (circled in black) returned from an offside position

Salihi was on hand to knock in the game-clinching rebound after Pickens made another wonder save from Boskovic’s header.

Disciplined D.C. Hold Out Comfortably To Seal Win

Colorado’s attack was also becoming numb as Casey tired. Former Real Betis forward Edu replaced the fading front man on 65 minutes for his MLS debut after receiving his United States work visa.

Olsen’s organized defense kept their shape, kept eight players behind the ball and prevented the Rapids from creating any opportunities to get back into the game.

Boskovic should have added to D.C.’s lead on 70 minutes with another close-range header after Colorado’s defenders failed to attack the ball. Man-of-the-match Pickens made yet another save.

Conclusion

D.C. United’s defense has bounced back from their 5-3 shellacking at San Jose Earthquakes on May 2 to concede just once in their past three outings. Upcoming home games against Toronto F.C. and New England Revolution offer Olsen’s team the chance to solidify their position within the Eastern Conference’s top three, though Chicago Fire have games in hand.

Colorado’s hit-and-miss season is reflected in their 5-6-0 record. Pareja hasn’t been able to solve the imbalance caused by Pablo Mastroeni’s continuing absence alongside Larentowicz in central midfield. The Rapids’ offensive play has been good, but they still look vulnerable during those vital seconds after conceding possession.