Starting this week, D.C. United faces the string of games that may well make or break their season. All the talk is about playing 15 games at Audi Field and trying to race up the standings in the fall, the fact is that United can’t just rely on those points to make the playoffs. The next eight games, a stretch that will take us all the way to July 4th, are where the platform for this season will be built, or it’ll be the part of the schedule we look back on with regret.
Picking up 8 wins and 5 draws in those games, for example, would mean finishing the season with only 2 home losses. That would be pretty good, and would out-perform an average MLS home record. It would also leave United needing over a point a game from their road fixtures to get above 50 points, and given the strength of the East, it may take 52 or 53 points to get into the postseason.
As such, we’ve decided to look at each game in the long, long journey to Buzzard Point, starting with the game with the lowest likelihood of a positive result, and moving on towards the most winnable match from United’s perspective.
6/13 at Toronto FC
The Reds are currently at the very bottom of the MLS standings, with four losses in five games as their focus has been entirely on the CONCACAF Champions League. Nonetheless, this game (originally scheduled for a couple of weeks ago) looks like bad news for the Black-and-Red. TFC has lots of ground to make up in the Supporters Shield race, so even though this is coming at a weird time for them (it’s a Wednesday night, and their previous game is a Friday road trip to Philly), it’ll be a full-strength Toronto team.
Despite a 1W-1D-3L record in the last five meetings between the teams, United has kept games surprisingly close. Other than a 4-1 loss back in July 2016, the games have all been up for grabs (even if Toronto has bossed the run of play). But still, we’re talking about Sebastian Giovinco, who has done particularly well against D.C. since coming to MLS, and we’re also talking about the most talented roster in the league. A point from this one would be wonderful, but don’t bank on it.
5/26 at Los Angeles FC
There’s no history to go from here. LAFC has not played a home game, ever, and United has never played them. This one looks pretty tough on its own merits: LAFC has four wins from their first six, and they’re doing it by getting into high-scoring shootouts. There have been 29 goals scored in LAFC games this season, or 4.83 per game, which leads the league by a wide margin. If the expansion team gets the sort of game they seem to want, United’s attack is going to have to be sharper in front of goal than a team featuring Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi. That seems...unlikely.
On top of that, there’s the traditional difficulty of flying out to the Pacific coast for a game. United has gone 4W-2D-7L since 2014 in those situations, which isn’t too bad, but half of those wins came in 2014, and one of those was over Chivas USA in their final days. Take the Goats and Vancouver (United has, for whatever reason, done well at BC Place), and you have seven losses from nine trips.
6/9 at Seattle Sounders
Like TFC, Seattle is struggling mightily in MLS this season, and like TFC they’re expected to bounce back and be a more formidable opponent by the time United faces them. It took them over three games to even score a goal, but they’ve got five goals in their last two games and appear to be slowly rounding into form. Plus, there’s always the possibility that they make a high-priced move between now and next week’s end of the transfer window.
Since we already spelled out United’s difficulties near the Pacific Ocean, let’s talk about their travails against the Sounders in general. D.C. has lost each of the last five meetings between the clubs, including last year’s preposterous 4-3 defeat that saw United up 3-0 in the second half before giving up four goals in less than half an hour. The three goals United scored that day are their only goals in their last five games against Seattle. The Sounders are probably not a team United will shut out at home, so that tendency to get blanked by Seattle has to change if they’re going to get a valuable draw or win at CenturyLink Field.
5/12 at Real Salt Lake
RSL has been a weird team this season, but they’ve got 10 points and are in a playoff spot despite having some of the very worst performances any team in MLS has managed this season. Since losing 5-1 at home to LAFC, they’ve won three straight at Rio Tinto Stadium, which is more in line with expectations. The advantage they have at elevation gives them an edge that United can’t really prepare for, short of flying there a week in advance and just chilling in Salt Lake City.
One positive: United has been decent against RSL in recent times, going 2W-1D-2L in their last five meetings. One of those wins is the 2013 US Open Cup final, a game that still seems to linger in RSL thoughts when it comes to facing the Black-and-Red. This will be a tricky game, certainly, but this is where we start to get into matches that you’d like to see United be able to snag a point from.
7/4 at LA Galaxy
Speaking of weird teams, the Galaxy have not gone on a streak of any kind this season. No back-to-back wins, or draws, or losses for LA, who are 3W-1D-3L and sit fourth in the Western Conference at the moment. Most of the talk about their addition of Zlatan Ibrahimovic can be summed up as “Zlatan!” rather than getting into the strange situation it creates for them tactically. To get all their best players on the field at once, Sigi Schmid will have to either play Romain Alessandrini as a wingback or get results out of Giovani Dos Santos as a wide man in a 442.
Nonetheless, there are enough game-changers in their attack that United will have to go to a venue where they’ve largely struggled over the years (for example, their last trip to StubHub Center ended in a 4-0 loss) and deliver a near-flawless performance at the back. If they pull it off, though, the Galaxy defense looks quite vulnerable both as a unit and due to a lack of particularly talented individual players. If the lesser version of the Galaxy that has shown up a couple times this season makes an appearance, D.C. can actually pick off a win here.
5/19 at San Jose Earthquakes
The Quakes haven’t been good this season, but they haven’t really been bad either. Sure, they’re on a five-game winless streak at the moment, but their goal difference is still just -2, and they haven’t been shut out yet. In fact, Mikael Stahre’s side has scored 2 or more goals in four of their six games this season, so United probably needs to grab a couple goals if they want to come back from the Bay Area with something positive.
United’s recent history against San Jose is surprisingly positive. They’ve gone 3-1-1 in the last five meetings, with a +4 goal difference, though that might not count for much against a largely rebuilt team. More importantly, San Jose will be coming into this game on short rest, as they play at Vancouver (i.e. on turf, against a physical opponent) on May 16th. It seems probable that the Quakes will prioritize their game against a Western Conference foe over United’s visit, boosting the chances of a rotated team on the field to face the Black-and-Red.
6/30 at New England Revolution
The Revs are, surprisingly, 3-2-2 right now, a total good enough to get them into 4th place in the East. They’ve been largely opportunistic, but they do have a road win over Houston as well as draws with NYCFC and at Columbus to bolster their claims of being a truly improved team rather than simply benefiting from teams having less time to map their tendencies out since Brad Friedel took over.
Still, their home record of 2-1-1 is not exactly impressive, and United has by and large dominated this series in recent years. Their last loss to the Revs in regular season play was back in May of 2014, and they’ve gone 3W-2D-1L over the past two years across all competitions (the one loss came with a B team on the field in last year’s Open Cup meeting). In five MLS games, United held the Revs to a total of just two goals.
New England has made some decent additions in the offseason, with winger Cristian Penilla their best player in 2018 and left back Gabriel Somi strengthening a spot that had been vulnerable for years. However, overall this isn’t a particularly skillful group, and if United can match them for effort and avoid giveaways when New England opts to high-press, their recent control over this fixture could continue.
4/28 at Philadelphia Union
On one hand, the Union always play United tough. Over the past two years, United is 1W-1D-4L against Philly and have coughed up 12 goals. United is on a five-game losing streak at Talen Energy Stadium, and they’ve only scored one goal in those games. That goal came back in 2015, when Jairo Arrieta gave them an early lead minutes after CJ Sapong was sent off in an Open Cup match. What followed? A miserable hour in which United gave up two goals to the remaining 10 Union players. To find United’s last win in Chester, you have to go back to May 10, 2014, when Chris Rolfe scored the game’s only goal.
That’s the bad news. The good news? Philadelphia is a bad team. They’re in 10th place in the East, with just three goals scored in six games played in 2018. Even worse, they opened the season with a 2-0 win over New England, and have scored just one goal in their last 471 minutes of play. Their back four is extremely young, Andre Blake hasn’t been at his game-changing best, and Union fans have booed them off the field more than once this season. The Union have done all of this despite having four of their first six at home so far; they’re actually under more pressure than United is coming into this weekend’s game.
I’m not going to tell you this game will be an easy one for United, but it feels like a huge opportunity to catch a team while they’re down. The Black-and-Red can’t afford to waste any of those chances during this run of games.