The 2018 MLS season kicks off today, and for D.C. United that means beginning a long, strange road trip. Tonight, they face a trip to Florida to take on Orlando City. United will apparently be arriving just hours before kickoff after yesterday’s ferocious winds prevented them from flying south. It seems almost fitting that, with 12 of their first 14 games on the road, there’s an immediate unexpected obstacle on the very first trip away from home.
MLS doesn’t give sympathy points out, though. With the Lions short-handed due to injuries and suspensions, it’s a good time to be playing them. The Black-and-Red cannot afford to let moments like that slip through their grasp if they want to stay in touch before getting to the home game-heavy second half of the season.
Key player: Steve Birnbaum
For all the offseason talk about whether United would sign an expensive striker or not, improving the team’s defense may actually be the more vital task in terms of gutting out this demanding early-season schedule. Additions like Frederic Brillant and Oniel Fisher are good, as are the improvements in the midfield, but with Bill Hamid gone, there are good reasons for folks to wonder whether the defense is good enough.
The man who has to shoulder the heaviest load in that department is Birnbaum. He may or may not still be captain (it seems that we won’t find out this year’s captain until the teams walk out tonight), but more importantly he’s got more pure ability than anyone in a defensive position on Untied’s roster. There was a time in 2016 where you could argue he belonged in the starting lineup for the U.S. national team, after all.
Last year was a massive fall for Birnbaum, and he’s got to be far closer to the old version of himself. His preseason form looked like a step in the right direction, but it’s also clear that there is more progress required. Birnbaum’s performance at the back will probably be fundamental in determining whether D.C. breaks through in a venue at which they’ve never avoided defeat.
Location: Orlando City Stadium (Orlando, FL)
Kickoff time: 7:30pm Eastern
Projected D.C. United starting 11: (4141) - David Ousted; Nick DeLeon, Frederic Brillant, Steve Birnbaum, Oniel Fisher; Junior Moreno; Paul Arriola, Ulises Segura, Zoltan Stieber, Yamil Asad; Darren Mattocks
Bench: Steve Clark, Kofi Opare, Chris Odoi-Atsem, Chris Durkin, Ian Harkes, Bruno Miranda, Patrick Mullins
With Taylor Kemp and Russell Canouse still not fully fit and Luciano Acosta suspended, it’s not all that difficult to put together the 18 for this one. The main question mark at this point is whether Ousted or Clark will get the start. If United finds themselves with a late lead to protect, we may see an MLS debut for Durkin off the bench. There was also a bit of an injury question about Mattocks, but those have been brushed off by the team.
Projected Orlando starting 11: (4231) - Joe Bendik; Scott Sutter, Jonathan Spector, Amro Tarek, Donny Toia; Cristian Higuita, Will Johnson; Chris Mueller, Yoshimar Yotun, Justin Meram; Stefano Pinho
This is a bit of a stab in the dark, as Orlando, a) is missing four or five starters, b) kept their preseason lineups from being published, and c) have a bunch of new players whose ideal positions in Jason Kreis’s mind are unclear. Yotun and Mueller can play three different spots in this formation, while Meram could be on the left or out wide.
That said, it seems reasonable to expect this group of 11 players, whether they play 4231 or change it to a diamond 442. With so many starters out (Dom Dwyer, Uri Rosell, and Josue Colman are all injured, while Sacha Kljestan is suspended), this is a great opportunity for United to get one up on a potential rival for a playoff spot. Given this challenging early-season schedule, every single point is vital.
Referee: Fotis Bazakos
Available TV: NewsChannel 8 and regional affiliates (check the link for the over-the-air alternate channel in your area), including CW Richmond in RVA.
Available streaming: MLS Live for those outside the blackout radius. MLS Live is free for the time being, as ESPN’s new streaming platform is not yet ready (though you might want to check that against this from MLS, which checks your zip code against the blackout list). If you already have an MLS Live account, it should be good to go.
For listings in other countries, check out LiveSoccerTV.com.
What do we have to say about it?: We’re back on the grind for 2018. Earlier this week we talked about this game on Filibuster, and more recently looked at the projected lineups for both United and the Lions, and offered up some (surprisingly optimistic) predictions.
What are you drinking?: Thanks to winter’s final, furious howl, I’m probably going with a Chocolate Oak-Aged Yeti imperial stout from Great Divide Brewing.
This is the place for all your pre-game, in-game, and post-game discussion. Vamos hope for a better season!