Let's keep our eyes on the prize here: D.C. United will clinch advancement out of the CONCACAF Champions League's Group H with a draw tonight against Arabe Unido. A tie would leave the Panamanians with a chance to end up tied with United when all is said and done, but the first tiebreaker is head-to-head, which would give the Black-and-Red the edge.
Of course, United will be favored to win the game outright and make things even less mysterious. Arabe Unido's road record against the CCL's top tier teams (i.e. Liga MX and MLS) is a miserable 0W-0D-6L, with only 3 goals scored against 14 conceded. Sure, Ben Olsen is expected to field a mostly second-choice lineup with a big MLS game against Columbus on the weekend, but that second-choice group is roughly the same players who went to Panama and beat Arabe 1-0 just under a month ago. With the long flight south not a factor this time, Olsen could also include a stronger bench than the one available at the Estadio Maracana.
Here are our three key things that United needs to do to make those advantages pay off:
Stay patient and calm...
La furia Colonense tends to be impulsive (extending from some emotional players to the tactical decisions of the coaching staff). Needing to win to stay alive, they're probably going to show that tendency more than usual. United needs to be the more in-control team. Being calm and patient will go a long way towards making Arabe Unido's mistakes more obvious, and they'll also help when the more or less inevitable attempts at provocation come. CONCACAF refereeing can also throw off teams that aren't truly focused on keeping their emotions in check.
For all of these reasons, United needs to be unflappable and ready to take advantage of the impatient, erratic play of Arabe Unido. There's no good reason to get caught up in a crazy, heated, anything-can-happen affair here.
...But be assertive early
We've already talked about Arabe's emotions, and they know they're in deep trouble as far as the CCL goes. However, history points to them coming to RFK trying to keep things scoreless until halftime. They may skew towards being out of control, but the plan will be to sit deep and defend in numbers. United will have control over the tempo and where on the field the game is going to be played, so they might as well use it. This game could become a bit stressful, but opening the game on the front foot will give the Black-and-Red a chance to get a lead and protect it rather than finding themselves one mistake away from having to go win in Jamaica next week.
Getting in at halftime up a goal will also allow United to hit Arabe on the counter, which looks quite inviting. I don't think the visitors are very good at defending in transition, and if United is sitting deep before breaking out they're going to have some great opportunities. They've got to find that opening goal for any of that to work, though, so why not go get it against an inferior opponent?
So how do these first two items co-exist? United needs to emphasize a positive posture without rushing things, basically. Remember back in Panama, when Arabe was trying to make every forward pass the one that became a 1v1 breakaway? Or the shots from 30 (or even 40) yards? That's the kind of stuff United needs to avoid while still trying to take the game to their guests.
Set pieces, set pieces, set pieces
Generally speaking, United should have a size advantage in this game even when you factor in players like Alvaro Saborio, Bobby Boswell, and Perry Kitchen probably sitting out. On top of that, Arabe Unido will be without center back Jean Cedeño due to yellow card accumulation; his likely replacement is 20 year old Shaquille Coronado.
With goalkeeper Miguel Lloyd not the most reliable in the air, and United surely getting some mismatches in the area, this could be a very fruitful mode of attack for the Black-and-Red. Kofi Opare has 3 goals across all competitions despite limited minutes in 2015, and it's likely that he's partnered by Steve Birnbaum tonight. Throw in Chris Pontius and Conor Doyle, and it seems likely that if United can put good service into the area, they're going to create some significant chances.
It's not just about taking them though. United needs to win good free kicks or force Arabe into conceding corner kicks. We saw Pontius win the free kick DCU equalized from Saturday, and players like Michael Farfan, Facundo Coria, and Miguel Aguilar have tricky feet as well. If past history holds, the visitors will be prone to finding themselves in positions where fouling becomes necessary (not to mention the all-or-nothing tackles they are a bit too quick to go for). United needs to turn all of this into something tangible.