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Is D.C. United ready for the biggest game of their season?

Ahead of the Montreal Impact’s visit, a look back at this season’s most important games

Tomorrow, D.C. United faces its biggest game in at least 2 years, and arguably since 2012. The Montreal Impact come to the District 5 points ahead of the Black-and-Red for the final playoff spot in the East. A loss would leave United with a gap of 8 points to make up in just 5 games, which is another way of saying D.C. would probably have to reel off five straight wins and still hope for Montreal to slip up somewhere.

United, having added Wayne Rooney and opened a new stadium, have a foothold on local relevance in a way they haven’t in years, but missing the playoffs is the surest way to lose the interest of D.C. sports fans (you know, like every other local team whose name we’d feel comfortable publishing), and that ramps up when you’re talking about soccer. This is a one-off opportunity to win people over that haven’t cared in the past, and won’t care in the future. This season’s outcome, good or bad, will echo around Audi Field for years.

With all that in mind, I’ve been thinking about what we know when it comes to United playing under this sort of pressure. A normal season structure — home and away games scattered more or less evenly between March and October — wouldn’t tell us as much as this year’s stadium-construction-enforced schedule. The way things have worked out, we’ve had some very good inflection points to tell us a lot about what this team can (and can’t) do when only a win will really do.

Here’s a look back on United’s most important games of the season:

March 17, 2018
D.C. United 2 (Mattocks 50, Acosta 97+)
Houston Dynamo 2 (Elis 30, Manotas 31)

This, an MLS home game played at the Maryland SoccerPlex, against a team we don’t see very often, in a sudden snow squall in mid-March, was one of the weirdest games in United history. The importance of this game was made clear when the schedule came out: D.C. faced 12 of their first 14 games on the road, and their stated goal was to stay close enough to the red line to have a shot at making the playoffs on the back of a wave of home games.

After an unremarkable opening period, disaster struck. United coughed up two of the worst goals they’ve conceded all season in a span of about 94 seconds. First, Yamil Asad’s header backward was either too short for David Ousted or too long for Joseph Mora, letting Alberth Elis steal in to score.

Almost immediately after the game kicked back off, Frederic Brillant’s cross-field pass across the field to Mora (who was making his debut) came just as Mora looked upfield to move wide. Elis pounced again and picked out Mauro Manotas wide open from 7 yards out to make it 2-0.

A counter-attacking team up 2-0 against a United side still trying to figure out who they were going to be, and who were still in a lot of cases trying to shake off 2017? It’s about a perfect summary of the worst case scenario against Montreal, who are even more of a counter-attacking team than the Dynamo side we saw in March.

United came back with a mixture of grit, luck — Elis could have come away with a hat trick in this one, and Rommel Quioto probably should have scored after coming on in the second half — and good finishing. Darren Mattocks struck in the 50th minute, giving United a platform to come back with a near-miraculous Luciano Acosta goal deep in stoppage time.

It’s great to be able to fight back like this, but let’s face facts: if United comes out without putting their stamp on this one early and making simple passing errors in their own end, they’re not going to get the result they need on Saturday.

April 14, 2018
D.C. United 1 (Segura 1)
Columbus Crew SC 0

This “home” game came with even more pressure after the Dynamo draw. D.C. came in winless, and had recently been held without a shot for an entire half in Columbus. That didn’t bode well for the Crew’s visit to Annapolis, in what turned out to be another bizarre game. Ulises Segura, having missed a couple of great chances in March and being culpable on a stoppage-time equalizer in Orlando in his debut, gave United a 1-0 lead before a full minute had been played. It was a glimpse of the kind of soccer this team is trying to play now: the high press forced a turnover, and a slick sequence of passing and good movement ensued before Segura lashed a shot past Zach Steffen.

United nearly doubled their lead soon thereafter, but also rode a bit of luck into halftime as Pedro Santos hit the post. Still, it was probably the best half we’d seen out of the Black-and-Red up to that point in 2018. They were up to the challenge of another game that they pretty much needed to have in terms of momentum, and in terms of calming what was becoming a pretty angry fanbase.

It’s easy to forget that, though, because Paul Arriola’s 51st minute VAR-assisted red card for a studs-up tackle changed the game completely. The Crew camped out in United’s half to such an extent that D.C. (again) had no second half shot attempts. The Black-and-Red ended the game with 49 clearances to the Crew’s 4, and Steve Clark played out of his mind in his first start of 2018, producing several spectacular saves and claiming numerous crosses in heavy traffic. If D.C. squeaks into the playoffs, make sure you remember Dad Clark producing what is easily United’s best single-game goalkeeping performance of 2018 so far.

The good news for Saturday? United was well-prepared for this one and produced a mostly strong half of 11v11 soccer against a good team. And I think it’s worth mentioning that Ben Olsen’s improvised 540 diamond/531 set-up as this game wore on ended up panning out, as the Crew were forced wide, settling for a crossing bombardment rather than a diverse attack. The bad news was that, once again, we’re talking about a big individual mistake that put the team in a really difficult spot that the Black-and-Red were extremely fortunate to escape.

July 14, 2018
D.C. United 3 (Asad 27; Arriola 69, 80)
Vancouver Whitecaps FC 1 (Davies 94+)

Audi Field’s debut. Wayne Rooney’s debut. Local sports fans, TV channels, and large newspapers actually paying attention. This was the first time in maybe a decade that United had owned this big of a share of the national soccer discourse, and possibly the biggest chunk of the DMV zeitgeist in the team’s history.

Can you imagine what it would have been like to lose this one?

United was under a totally unique form of pressure, and they happened to be facing a Whitecaps team that was in a playoff spot at the time, and who just so happened to play the ultimate form of “screw you and your occasion, we came for points” brand of long ball, ugly soccer. This was a really unusual challenge, but in the end D.C. delivered. It didn’t come with the best start, but once Asad produced a glorious shot from outside the box, the home team bossed this one until deep into stoppage time, when Alphonso Davies came up with a golazo that ultimately was irrelevant to the result.

This game might be the biggest reason for optimism on this list. United was under intense pressure to come up with the goods, and they nailed it. If they can produce this kind of assured, confident play against Montreal, they’re probably going to walk away with the 3 points they absolutely have to take.

August 12, 2018
D.C. United 3 (Acosta 49+, 64, 96+)
Orlando City SC 2 (Ousted 50og, Dwyer 71)

The Whitecaps win was the most remarkable game of the year because of Rooney and Audi Field, but on a purely soccer basis, this game is probably going to be the one United fans talk about a decade from now. Due to Orlando’s horrid form, this was a litmus test: good teams beat bottom-feeders, after all. The Lions were a win everyone else in the East was picking up, and being the one team to slip up against them would have derailed whatever momentum United was starting to build.

Orlando surprised everyone by fielding a 3331 formation and opting for an extremely defensive gameplan, which contributed to a muted first half. The visitors didn’t create much, but then neither did United. Audi Field was getting restless.

Just before halftime, though, Acosta essentially willed D.C. into the lead by beating 3 players to work a give-and-go with Rooney before hitting a ferocious shot past Joe Bendik. However, the feel-good factor of that goal evaporated quickly in the second half, where United perhaps paid some of that good luck karma from the Houston and Columbus games above by giving up a David Ousted own goal in the 50th minute. The fact that the goal came moments after Zoltan Stieber had hit the post made it all the more deflating.

To their credit, United didn’t give up, and this game ramped up into a wild, ecstatic mess from there. Cristian Higuita was sent off in the 55th minute thanks to VAR, which also overturned an offside call on what became United’s second goal. That should have done the trick, but United was (and maybe still is?) incapable of consistently making it easy on themselves, and within 5 minutes it was 2-2. For the second time in 2018, United let a 10-man Orlando side score on them.

Olsen made desperation subs, ending this game with Arriola and Stieber as “fullbacks” in a 4231 that really resembled a 2422, and the game reached a fever dream conclusion: Kofi Opare produced a potentially season-saving block, Russell Canouse was robbed by Bendik, and in the 95th minute United ended up with a corner. You know how things went from there:

This remains incredible six weeks later, so take a second to just digest it. And yes, winning in this fashion may well be a galvanizing force United needed in the locker room, and yes, they did get the job done by beating Orlando.

But damn if they didn’t make it as difficult as possible, and it took an extraordinary play (maybe the most extraordinary play in this team’s history!) to get that win. Just from a probability standpoint, we can’t count on anything approaching this on Saturday. United’s tendency to let teams back in while leading is worrisome against anyone, but particularly a team like the Impact, who have Ignacio Piatti waiting to pounce on any lapses.

August 29, 2018
D.C. United 0
Philadelphia Union 2 (Sapong 29, Picault 61)

Obviously we have a recurring theme here about United making mistakes and producing imperfect performances when the pressure is on, but the other four games above all end with a result and some positives. This one? I have no positives to offer here. There are excuses, like the fact that they were obviously fatigued, but even that comes back to a mistake: United started 9 of the same 11 that started at Red Bull Arena three days earlier, and it showed.

In this one, United did have some bad luck early, as Rooney’s 8th minute shot hit the post instead of going past a beaten Andre Blake. Rooney’s lob of Blake missed just wide, with Arriola nearly getting there to guide it in as well, but truth be told Philly was the better team from start to finish in this game. CJ Sapong (who always does well against United) broke a personal scoreless drought in the 29th minute, United had a solid PK shout turned down before halftime, and that was pretty much the game. Sapong turned provider on the second goal in the 61st minute, and the best chance at a comeback was a half-hearted second PK shout that was probably baseless.

This was United’s last real chance at changing this race from the pursuit of one playoff spot into one where Philly was in play, and they produced what is easily their worst performance at Audi Field. It may not have come with quite the same pressure as the other games on this list, but make no mistake: it was a big game, and United came up well short.

For a conclusion, I think we have a couple of patterns that emerge. One, United has repeatedly benefited from individual players coming up big on the day. In particular, Acosta has come up with 4 goals and 1 assist in these 5 matches, including a stoppage-time equalizer, a stoppage-time game-winner, and a game-winning assist. As much as DCU puts itself forward as a goals-by-committee sort of team, Acosta has consistently been heroic when the spotlight is truly on this team.

Second, United has a hard time making things easy on themselves. Whether by big mistakes or the small errors that open the door for bad luck, this team has struggled all year long to see a lead out comfortably. It’s cost them plenty of points, it’s what got them knocked out of the Open Cup (and almost got then knocked out by a lower-division opponent before that), and it’s what should keep you worried until the full time whistle blows on Saturday.

No team is ever really out of it against United, who simply haven’t shown us that they can finish a game off. Even when Vancouver was largely mentally defeated and 3-0 down on the road, the Black-and-Red coughed up a goal. Sure, it was a spectacular strike, but it also involved two separate lapses to gift possession to Davies. Orlando is one of the worst teams in MLS, and they weren’t out of it with 10 men. More recently, United couldn’t hold on at NYCFC, couldn’t hang on to three different leads against the Red Bulls, and had to sweat it out against lowly Minnesota United.

Finally, the third trend that seems to be in place is a resilience, an ability to bounce back. Yes, United has a proclivity towards drama that MLS’s best teams don’t end up being wrapped up in so often, but they’re also involved in so many wild games because they can take a punch and come back. The Union loss is the outlier here, but I think we can safely attribute the lack of response in that game to a gassed team rather than a lack of fight. Overall, United appears to be a weird team that has both the fragility to throw leads away and the mental resolve to then re-take those leads.

All of this adds up to what feels sure to be a nerve-shredding 90+ minutes Saturday night. While I’m sure we’d all love to see United produce the assured, confident sort of 2-0 win that your top teams tend to deliver when it counts, I think we have ample evidence that we’re not going to get that. Instead, it seems far more likely that these two teams are going to produce a goalfest that combines brilliance with mistakes.

The good news is that United has ended up emerging victorious from quite a few of those this year. The bad news...well, you remember 2016, right? United was a different animal then, but they played a bunch of wild-as-hell games as summer became fall, charged into the playoffs as a team no one wanted to face, and then saw luck completely abandon them for 90 minutes against the Impact.

I don’t see this so much an omen as just what can happen in soccer. If you’re the kind of team that always feels like a trip to the casino, you’re going to walk out penniless at some point. I am cautiously optimistic that this won’t be United’s “snake eyes” night, but particularly with a draw being nearly as bad as a loss, it definitely remains a possibility.