D.C. United faces an admittedly tall task in the Eastern Conference Semifinals against their arch rivals the New York Red Bulls. If United want to move to the Eastern Conference Final (and eventually MLS Cup) one player, more than any other, must perform to his peak ability over a grueling five-week stretch—that player is Perry Kitchen. There are rumors swirling of a move to Europe for the young midfielder if D.C. United can’t offer him a pay bump to his liking. If he wants to earn that raise (or prove he can cut it in the big leagues) he needs to perform now and take his stock to a new peak.
First things first: getting to the Eastern Conference Semifinal against the New England Revolution wasn’t necessarily pretty for United, which raises quite a red flag going into a home-and-home pairing with the Supporter’s Shield winners. New England were unlucky not to score more than a single Juan Agudelo wonder goal, with the Revolution successfully exploiting Bobby Boswell’s waning speed to near-deadly effect.
Still Bill Hamid, Chris Rolfe, and Fabian Espindola led D.C. United to a come-from-behind 2-1 win against the New England Revolution in their first playoff match of 2015. Arguably the most effective player for D.C. United was Espindola, who managed to create chances out of the midfield by feeding Rolfe and working in tandem with Saborio later on in the match to stretch the Revs’ defense—he earned two assists on the night. If Nick DeLeon can more frequently involve himself in the attack by making dangerous runs, Espindola and Rolfe are capable of feeding him and others the ball in dangerous spots.
Early in the season, D.C. United had a great showing against the Red Bulls, with Perry Kitchen scoring a brace before the defense allowed the Red Bulls to pull even in the dying minutes. As the chief defensive presence in midfield with Davy Arnaud sidelined due to lingering concussion symptoms, he will not be as free to join the attack as he was in that April match; however, he will still be more capable of making his presence felt, assisting the young center back pairing of Steve Birnbaum and Kofi Opare in their first match together outside the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League.
This necessary role change has opened the door for something I’ve been pining for with D.C. United for a very long time—a move away from the standard 4-4-2 formation. Do I think this is likely? No. But it is definitely worth exploring, especially since Perry Kitchen has seen time with the USMNT this year playing in two slightly different systems. Perry Kitchen does his best work centrally, making him a prime candidate for the CDM position in a 4-4-2 diamond midfield in a similar role to Michael Bradley in previous years. This formation would allow him to come back to assist Birnbaum and Opare.
Even less likely, but more interesting, would be seeing him as the center back in a 3-5-2 formation, with Birnbaum and Opare flanking him. Here, you would push both Taylor Kemp and Sean Franklin into the midfield, allowing them to make their dangerous counterattacking runs on the flanks to compensate for the loss of Perry Kitchen in midfield. Both Kemp and Franklin would still have important roles to play in defending, but would more freely spring forward to join the attack without sacrificing United’s defensive integrity.
It would also be possible for Halsti to play a defensive role in this formation, allowing Kitchen to remain in midfield, but with his high turnover rate that just doesn’t seem wise. Ultimately, I like this formation best because it translates well to the second leg against the Red Bulls and beyond, with Bobby Boswell returning to take that central spot in the defense and making the United counter attack all-the-more menacing.
Perry Kitchen is a critical component of any playoff run for D.C. United. As many strides as the offense appears to have made since their anemic end to 2014, the defense appears to have taken a step back in 2015. This regression can be cured by holding possession and stringing together passes in the midfield, rather than sitting back and letting the opposing team have their way with the ball. Doing so against the New York Red Bulls would be a disastrous tactic for Ben Olsen’s side. In a match with such huge implications against such a heated rival, D.C. have to throw a wrench in Jesse Marsch’s calculations. Expect a fierce battle in this two-leg rivalry clash–Olsen has taught this team to fight–but they’re going to need a tad bit more to take them over the top.