D.C. United begins a crucial three-game road swing tonight with their first-ever trip to Nippert Stadium, where they’ll face expansion side FC Cincinnati. Last Friday, United went into halftime looking like a team in crisis. They were trailing at home again, and if not for some bad goalkeeping the score could have been 2-0 rather than 2-1. A loss would have made it two straight defeats. United desperately needed something to change.
We may have finally seen something shake loose, as an invigorated Black-and-Red lifted the tempo to a pace that this team hasn’t been able to play at in months. On another night, we may have been talking about a comeback win rather than a 2-2 final score. While the draw left D.C. with just one win in nine games, it also contained the best 45 minutes of soccer United has produced since early May.
To get a needed win at Cincy — winners of two in a row, but still in dead last in the overall MLS standings — that’s the standard to aspire to.
Key player: Lucas Rodriguez
With Luciano Acosta suspended, United needs someone to help Wayne Rooney out in the creativity department. Rodriguez struggled in Dallas and in the first half against the Revs to step in and fill his countryman’s shoes, but after halftime he began finding better spots to influence the game. That resulted in Rodriguez seeing a lot more of the ball, winning fouls thanks to his quick feet — including the foul that saw Wilfried Zahibo sent off — and getting into better shooting positions (including what was very nearly a game-winning goal in stoppage time).
That’s the Rodriguez United needs to see tonight. Assuming the 343 is back again for the Black-and-Red, Rodriguez found room dropping off the front line, setting up as a connection between Rooney and the central midfield duo. In that space, Rodriguez repeatedly managed to get himself on the ball in space, facing the opposing defense. Against a Cincinnati side that gives up 2.25 goals per game, there should be plenty of room for Rodriguez to operate...but only if he’s an active participant and creates those openings, rather than simply waiting for them to arrive.
Location: Nippert Stadium (Cincinnati, OH)
Kickoff time: 8:00pm Eastern
Projected D.C. United starting 11: (343) - Bill Hamid; Donovan Pines, Frederic Brillant, Steven Birnbaum; Leonardo Jara, Russell Canouse, Junior Moreno, Joseph Mora; Paul Arriola, Wayne Rooney, Lucas Rodriguez
Bench: Chris Seitz, Jalen Robinson, Marquinhos Pedroso, Chris Durkin, Ulises Segura, Griffin Yow, Quincy Amarikwa
Ben Olsen could opt to rotate, what with a tougher opponent coming up on Sunday, but United may have finally started to have some pieces fall into place in the second half against New England. Given that we’re talking about a team in desperate need to build on whatever momentum that game provided, my guess is that Olsen sends the same 11 out to jump all over Cincy.
If there is rotation? Segura instead of Jara at right wingback would make some sense, as would Amarikwa up front for Rodriguez. You could also make an argument for Durkin stepping into a central midfield role or Robinson joining the back three.
Projected Cincinnati starting 11: (4231) - Spencer Richey; Alvas Powell, Justin Hoyte, Kendall Waston, Mathieu Deplagne; Caleb Stanko, Leonardo Bertone; Emmanuel Ledesma, Allan Cruz, Kekuta Manneh; Darren Mattocks
Despite winning two straight, there are question marks scattered throughout Yoann Damet’s lineup. Will Hoyte continue to play out of position, or will Nick Hagglund come back into the lineup? Will it be Stanko alongside Bertone, or perhaps Victor Ulloa, or Cruz dropping back (opening up room for USA u20 and #1 SuperDraft pick Frankie Amaya)? Or maybe guys like Eric Alexander or Fatai Alashe get a shot...yes, Cincy really has this many defensive midfielders.
Elsewhere, Mattocks could start after missing their last two games due to a family matter in Jamaica...but that’s a guess. Rookie forward Rashawn Dally has started the last two games before making way for Fanendo Adi in the game’s final 25 or so minutes, and any of those three could start. Adi might not be fit enough to do so, though, while Dally (a late pick in this year’s draft) wasn’t even supposed to see MLS action this year.
Referee: Baldomero Toledo
Available TV: ESPN, ESPN Deportes
Available streaming: WatchESPN
For listings in other countries, check out LiveSoccerTV.com.
What are you drinking?: I have an early morning tomorrow, so probably nothing more adventurous than some lemon or grapefruit Polar seltzer.
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