While there may mathematically be a total of 196 possible 1 versus 1 matchups in the Wizards game against the Colorado Rapids, if our beloved Wiz have any hope or intentions of building off of Wednesday night's shock victory at Columbus, there's three key battles on the field they must win Saturday night at 8:00 p.m. central time.
1. Wizards winger Ryan Smith vs. Rapids right back Marvell Wynne
Why it's important: As Smith goes, so does the Wizards offense. Through 15 games this season, the Wizards have scored 12 goals. Smith has assisted on 6 (half) of the 12 and scored one of his own. That means he has either created or scored on 58 percent of the team's goal for the season.
Had a fantastic start to his MLS career, but since then, MLS teams have learned to stop Smith you just knock the crap out of him all game.
That sounds about right, doesn't it? The worst part about that is that Wynne is about as physical a fullback as you're going to find in MLS. When these teams matched up back on April 10 in the Wizards second game of the season, Smith was still the unknown new boy and Wynne was playing the center back position while Julien Baudet was hurt, so this will be the first time the two have squared off face to face for a full 90 minutes.
If Wynne decides to try and match Smith for pace and lets him receive the ball out wide and doesn't put a physical bump on him, Smith could run circles on the left wing and dart into the center of the attack with the ball - the place where he has proven to be at his most dangers. (See: Wednesday's goal) The knock on Smith thus far, and something that Wizards fans have noticed about him, is that when you do "knock the crap out of him" as Mike said, he gets extremely frustrated and you've won the battle. Needless to say, the play between Smith and Wynne will get chippy when Ryan is on the ball. It's up to him to deal with it, adjust to it and play his teammates into dangerous positions, just as he did Wednesday.
2. Wizards holding midfielder Stephane Auvray vs. Rapids attacking midfielders Mehdi Ballouchy and Claudio Lopez
Why it's important: As Craig de Aragon told us on Thursday, most of the Colorado attack is created and distributed from this attacking midfield role. Most would be hard-pressed to find a holding mid that pressures and wins the ball from skilled attackers the way Auvray does. The fact that the Colorado attack runs through the Wizards' greatest area of strength makes me feel good about this game. *
*That doesn't go to say the Wizards will win because they're the better team. Obviously, that's not the case based on league positioning and recent results. What it does say is that sometimes in certain matchups, styles of play match up and favor the lesser side.
How Auvray can win it: The further back an attacking player, specifically a linking piece like Ballouchy and/or Lopez, have to come to receive the ball, the less dangerous their next move or pass is going to be. In a way, the Auvray-Ballouchy/Lopez battle will be a 3 on 3 battle at all times. The Wizards will count on forwards Kei Kamara and his strike partner - whether it be Josh Wolff or Teal Bunbury - to continue to apply pressure to the center of Rapids defense, even after they've lost the ball. The more pressure on the Colorado center backs, the further holding midfielders Pablo Mastroeni and Larentowicz have to come back to receive the ball, the further back Ballouchy and/or Lopez must do the same. If he's continually receiving the ball in his own half of the field, the rest of the Rapids attack will be far enough up field that there will be little he can do but make a lateral pass to hold possession.
3. Wizards left back Roger Espinoza vs. Rapids winger Omar Cummings
Why it's important: From a strictly game-changing aspect, Cummings is by far the Rapids most dangerous player. You can teach certain skills and technical abilities. Something that can't be taught or acquired is speed. There's little answer for a player that can outrun anyone else on the field and leave a wake of fallen defenders in his path.
How Espinoza can win it: The good news is that Rapids forward Conor Casey, a real big lug, doesn't often do much to create his own scoring chances. He's the epitome of a target forward. Without proper service, he lacks much speed and ability to play himself into dangerous positions.
This means that Espinoza limiting (notice I didn't say stopping or even containing, because Cummings will get his) Cumming's chances to either streak into the box on the ball or play dangerous crosses to Casey will be the number one most important key to the Wizards getting another result Saturday night.
So, how does the Honduran World Cup squad member go about that?
Well, for starters, read everything I said about Marvell Wynne defending Ryan Smith. The good thing about that is that the last couple of games - home to Chivas USA and at Columbus - Espinoza has taken his physicality to a whole new level. Early in the season, I saw Roger as more of a finesse fullback than the physical imposer part he's played recently. Espinoza, however, will have to be a bit more selective with his aggression. Wednesday against Columbus he flirted with a yellow card on multiple occasions. Once he was beaten, he wasn't hesitant whatsoever to go to ground from behind and play for the ball. Cummings' name in MLS alone may be worth enough to draw a foul or card against Roger that others wouldn't.