D.C. United's 2016 season has been a roller coaster, with wins and losses generally following one another with regularity. They have one last chance to put together a winning streak before MLS takes a break for the Copa America Centenario, and that requires taking all three points against a Sporting Kansas City team that is also looking to bounce back from a dissatisfying loss last weekend.
Here's how the Black-and-Red can claim their first road victory of 2016:
Frustrate (almost) everyone at Children's Mercy Park
Sporting is a brittle outfit right now thanks to a run in which they've taken 6 points out of the last 27 available to them. Their players have been getting frustrated quickly and making mistakes as a result, and the crowds in Kansas City have long had the tendency to get nervous about their team's chances too quickly. If United can get off to a solid start defensively, it would be very in character for KC to start to lose their way after half an hour or so. United's traveling support should be very happy if they start to notice some desperation creeping into KC's play before halftime.
For the Black-and-Red, that means staying calm under pressure. KC will throw numbers forward from the start, and they'll look to high press in an attempt to win the ball inside United's half. Smart, simple play with the ball - which also requires alert movements from those without it - and a willingness to be patient are both going to be important. If the game is not played at the high tempo Kansas City prefers, DCU is going to have emotional control over the game. With where Sporting is as a group right now, that would set United up very well to come home with some points.
Selective, collective pressure
One of Sporting's main problems this season has been poorly chosen passes between their defense and midfield. Essentially, they've been handing out too many gifts. United's goal here is to foster an environment where those bad passes happen more often, and where DC players are in position to make them count. RSL showed the rest of the league a blueprint on how to make this happen last week, by intelligently choosing when to surge forward and press as a group.
Those situations include moments when play has slowed down, as those moments tend to give players a false sense of security. From there, United needs to jump on the moments when a KC pass is just a bit off. We're not talking missing the target here; rather, it's about those passes that go to a right-footed player's left foot, or where the ball is slightly ahead of or behind the intended recipient.
That one extra touch needed to control passes like those can be enough time to initiate pressure. It's great if that pressure wins the ball immediately, but what is far more common is a domino effect. Player A takes an extra touch and, under pressure, plays a second straight imprecise pass. Meanwhile, United has moved up as a group, so Player B is under as much or more pressure as Player A. This goes on until someone plays out of the pressure, smacks a long ball, or gives the ball away. The latter two are both good for United.
It's vital, though, that United's pressure is coordinated. If Fabian Espindola or Luciano Acosta starts to press a defender, for example, the midfield needs to follow. Otherwise, there's a 30-40 yard gap that the KC player can easily find a target in, and that means the effort of that initial press is wasted. This extends to the back four's connection with the midfield as well. In fact, that understanding is even more vital, as mistakes there can turn an attempted press into a dangerous attack the other way.
Lock down the set piece defense
Graham Zusi's USMNT call-up reduces Sporting's set piece options, but with Brad Davis still there they are still a major threat. More than anything else, Davis has been an MLS success based around what he can do from dead ball situations.
On top of that, KC's other Copa America absentees - Matt Besler and Soni Mustivar - have both been replaced by taller players who will add to Sporting's aerial threat. Ike Opara is one of the best in MLS in the air whenever he's healthy, and he'll start in Besler's spot tonight. Given that he's had good luck in front of goal against United, that's not great news. Mustivar, meanwhile, has been replaced by towering defensive midfielder Lawrence Olum.
KC has not been very potent in front of goal, especially once you remove Dom Dwyer's success from open play from the equation. However, United's sometimes flimsy set piece defending - especially with Steve Birnbaum out - remains a worry against a team bringing in some big players. With United over a year removed from their last 2+ goal showing on the road, it seems safe to say that letting up a set piece goal tonight will leave United with little hope of getting a win.
Kansas City mixes up their set piece delivery, so there's not one specific thing to look out for. United just needs to win their individual battles, and they'll probably need Hamid to be sharp coming off his line to punch or catch whatever he can get to.
Last week, the most talked-about thing concerning United was Acosta's testy exchange with Ben Olsen after being subbed off. The word is that Acosta was frustrated with not getting enough of the ball. That's a problem that would require a swift correction against anyone, but tonight it could be all the more important. Acosta's deceptive speed, his quick feet, and his willingness to keep the ball even in tight spaces make him a very tricky player for KC's center backs and midfielders.
Olum, in particular, seems vulnerable to what a player like Acosta brings to the table. Olum is fast for his size, but we're talking straight-line speed. Side to side, or that quick two-three step burst you need to deny a guy like Acosta on the dribble? He's glacial. Acosta needs to be hungry to take Olum on any time he can face him 1v1, and when he gets into those situations, someone else in United's attack needs to make a run in behind the defense.
Setting this sort of thing up will require two things to happen: Acosta needs to do a better job of showing for the ball than he did in Philadelphia, and United needs to look his way more often. With Patrick Nyarko out due to a concussion, there's already a risk for the Black-and-Red to be too one-note (particularly if Nyarko is replaced by Nick DeLeon moving out wide and Jared Jeffrey coming into the middle). Getting a win is likely going to require a big outing from United's smallest player.