Unless this is your first season as a D.C. United fan, you’ve encountered “must win” games in the mathematical sense, where anything other than a win meant United’s ability to compete for MLS Cup was over. Today’s game against the Chicago Fire is not one of those, but it is a “must win” in terms of perception and probability. We’re talking about a home game against a team that has spent almost all of 2016 at the bottom of the MLS table, and who just played an energy-sapping game Wednesday night. If you’re going to the playoffs, you have to beat a team in that situation. And if United is going to get into the playoffs with five of their last eight on the road, it seems more likely than not that they’ll need three points today.
Unlike United, the Fire were unable to engage in any major squad rotation mid-week. Starting with last Saturday’s unlikely 3-0 win in Montreal, seven Chicago players have played 180 minutes this week, and two more have played at least 170 minutes. Veljko Paunovic will have to choose between sending out his best guys - who are all drained - or dipping into a bench that is very shallow. Either way, it’s a promising circumstance, but one United has to take advantage of.
That said, the Fire have, at long last, discovered some momentum going forward. They followed that big win over the Impact with a 2-2 draw against the LA Galaxy that, if not for some horrific finishing and bad decisions inside the box, could have easily been a 4-2 Fire win (and that’s assuming they only convert half of the big chances they wasted). David Accam is one of those players who has played two full games this week, but the Ghana international has been bordering on unstoppable lately and it’s hard to see Paunovic leaving him out. United may have been banking on a supposedly easy home game against a weak opponent, but the Fire are not the mess they were a month ago.
Key player: Patrick Mullins
Chicago tends to defend very deep on the road, relying virtually exclusively on their counterattacking ability to create danger. What’s the best way to open up a bunker? It’s tempting to bring up the dribbling ability of Patrick Nyarko and Luciano Acosta, but for me at least the most vital player will be Mullins, who will have to serve as a reference point for those two and the rest of United’s midfield.
What does Mullins need to do to have a successful game? His hold-up play needs to be efficient - that is to say, no taking three touches where two (or even one) will do - and he needs to vary his runs. Chicago’s center backs shown a tendency to lose strikers inside the box, so if Mullins is unpredictable, he’s likely to find plenty of chances to add to his two goals in 359 minutes (a minute under the one goal per two games ratio that generally indicates an effective goalscorer) since joining the Black-and-Red.
There’s also the psychological side of things to consider. The Fire are righting the ship a bit, but they’re still emotionally vulnerable. An early goal at RFK - United has scored 6 goals in the first half hour of their last 5 home games - will shake them up, and mitigating their growing belief will go a long way towards making this game an easy one. Letting them hang around, though, could be tempting fate.
Location: Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium (Washington, DC)
Kickoff time: 7:00pm Eastern
Available TV: NewsChannel 8 and regional affiliates (check the link for the over-the-air alternate channel in your area)
Available streaming: MLS Live for those outside the blackout radius
For listings in other countries, check out LiveSoccerTV.com.
Our gamethread will be posted one hour before kickoff.