D.C. United, still needing points to ensure their place in the playoff race heading into MLS’s Decision Day, hosts an even more desperate Columbus Crew side tonight at Audi Field. United were wobbling in the midst of the most grueling part of their 2021 schedule, but gutted out a mid-week win, finding themselves in the final Eastern Conference playoff spot heading into this weekend’s slate of games.
The defending MLS champions, meanwhile, have a more stark situation. A win is the only result that keeps them in the playoff race, possibly opening the door to a wild one tonight on Buzzard Point.
Key player: Julian Gressel
Gressel has been United’s key chance creator, and at least per Opta, he’s the league leader in expected assists with 11.9. Spread across 32 appearances thus far this season, that’s 0.372 xA per game. However, with United lacking the options that can speed attacking moves up by one-touch play and incisive movement, over his last four games that number has been cut nearly in half, to 0.195 per game.
It’s not that Gressel is playing badly or showing major signs of fatigue, but rather that United is creating fewer moments where he’s receiving the ball in space. That comes from being outplayed in the last two games as well as Nashville’s bus-parking a little while ago, but it also comes from the Black-and-Red’s movement not drawing defenses out of shape in a way that gives Gressel room to deliver the service that DCU has thrived on all season.
Tonight, that’s really the key: United needs to set the stage for Gressel to do his thing often enough. When they do that, the goals follow.
Location: Audi Field (Washington, DC)
Kickoff time: 7:30pm Eastern
Projected D.C. United starting 11: (343) - Bill Hamid; Andy Najar, Steven Birnbaum, Donovan Pines; Julian Gressel, Russell Canouse, Felipe Martins, Joseph Mora; Paul Arriola, Ola Kamara, Adrien Perez
Bench: Jon Kempin, Brendan Hines-Ike, Tony Alfaro, Chris Odoi-Atsem, Junior Moreno, Drew Skundrich, Yordy Reyna, Nigel Robertha, Ramón Ábila
Despite the schedule draining everyone, we’re not expecting major rotation tonight. Our guesses? Felipe for Moreno in central midfield, Perez for Robertha (who has played nearly all of the last three games), and the enforced change on the left with Mora replacing Kevin Paredes.
There are question marks in here though. Can Najar and Arriola start again as they come back from knocks? Moreno could well start again, either alongside Canouse or Felipe. Perez is also something of a wild card as he returns from injury. Despite being listed as out on the injury report, it does sound like Reyna will be available, though it seems unlikely he’ll play more than 20 minutes.
Projected Columbus starting 11: (4231) - Eloy Room; Steven Moreira, Jonathan Mensah, Josh Williams, Milton Valenzuela; Darlington Nagbe, Marlon Hairston; Pedro Santos, Lucas Zelarayán, Derrick Etienne Jr.; Miguel Berry
Caleb Porter (who, after missing three games, will apparently be back on the sidelines after clearing Covid-19 protocols) either doesn’t trust his team enough to rotate, or doesn’t want to rotate, or maybe both. In any case, there are few proven options for him to turn to, with six players — including Gyasi Zardes — all out injured.
The only real change we’re guessing at here is Williams starting over Vito Wormgoor, but that’s just a guess. Harrison Afful has been on the outside looking in since Moreira arrived in August, but he could rotate in at right back. Liam Fraser could come in for Hairston as a defense-first option at defensive midfield. If Valenzuela needs a rest at left back, the realistic replacement is actually moving Santos back, with Alexandru Mățan the favorite to step in. Up front, Bradley Wright-Phillips would be the go-to if Berry isn’t able to start a third game in a week after playing the full 90 in their last two games.
Referee: Drew Fischer
Available TV: NBC Sports Washington +, TeleXitos
Feel free to check our our DCU how to watch guide to figure out what your best option is.
For listings in other countries, check out LiveSoccerTV.com.
What are you drinking?: The forecast says we’re talking mid-50s, so it’ll be another night with hot tea (half green, half lemon-ginger).
This is the place for all your pre-game, in-game, and post-game discussion. Vamos finishing off the champs!
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