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The last word on D.C. United vs New York Red Bulls: Gut check time

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Well, that didn't go as expected. Now there's no margin for anything less than an almost perfect game in leg 2.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Following a 2-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls in New Jersey on Sunday, D.C. United now faces their biggest test of the season as they return to RFK Stadium this coming weekend.  Only a nearly perfect match will see them advance to Eastern Conference finals, and they have to face a team full of momentum and confidence.  But, they have a chance, they have the tools, and they have the guts to get it done.

Their Words:

ChestRockwell:  "Make no mistake: D.C. United's 2-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls was not like the Black-and-Red's last road playoff game, in which a horrendous call was the platform from which Houston went on to win the game. Today at Red Bull Arena, the same team who has brought us the "That's So Metro" and "Metro Playoff Failure" jokes defied all the stereotypes and dominated United over the final hour of the match...if anything 2-0 might not fully reflect the gap in quality between the teams in this particular match. In the return leg November 8th, anything less than a shutout will likely end what has otherwise been a feel-good 2014 for the Black-and-Red."

- Steven Goffvia washingtonpost.com:  "United will need to win by two goals to force 30 minutes of extra time and, if necessary, penalty kicks. However, a two-goal triumph in which the Red Bulls score at least one goal will not be enough for the East Capitol Street boys: Away goals apply, and after DCU failed to score at Red Bull Arena, New York needs just one to further dampen United's outlook. Chris Rolfe called Sunday's performance the worst of the year. The defeats at Real Salt Lake and Los Angeles were worse statistically, but as Ben Olsen noted, the timing of this stinker was terrible. Fabian Espindola and Eddie Johnson had no chemistry - further illuminating the absence of Luis Silva - and the midfield partnership of Davy Arnaud and Perry Kitchen chased the game."

- Charles Boehmvia mlssoccer.com:  "New York's Major League Soccer team has never advanced past D.C. United in four MLS Cup Playoff series. But the New York Red Bulls took a huge step towards turning over all that history with a 2-0 defeat of their Atlantic Cup rivals at Red Bull Arena on Sunday in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals in the MLS Cup Playoffs, presented by AT&T. An imperious Thierry Henry set up goals by Bradley Wright-Phillips and Peguy Luyindula to put his team in firm control of the series, while the East's best team in the regular season looked a shadow of themselves and have their work cut out for them in the return leg on Nov. 8 at RFK Stadium."

MLSsoccer.com Men of the Match:

Rank Player What We Saw
1 Thierry Henry As if anyone needed yet another reminder, TH14 showed why he is one of the all-time greats. Vision, movement, and enduring class on the ball.
2 Peguy Luyindula Three days after changing the game off the bench, he did it again as a starter, orchestrating the RBNY attack and netting the crucial second goal.
3 Dax McCarty Quietly but ruthlessly put the clamps on United's Kitchen-Arnaud midfield axis, and thus kept the Red Bulls in the driver's seat all night.

- Ben Olsenvia dcunited.com:  "I think New York put a whooping on us. They were very good, and we weren't...in a game like this you have to have everybody play well, and we had very little of that. Our passing was poor, we lacked ideas, it wasn't for lack of want, it just was an off night. It's not good timing to happen."

- New York Red Bulls coach Mike Petkevia dcunited.com:  "It was a big victory. It started off, in the first 10-15 minutes it was obvious that they were rested, and physically up for it, and we looked a little slower than usual. They put it on us a little, great pressure by them. I think after that it opened up a little bit, and once we were able to find the wings and play a couple of penetrating balls, I think from then on, especially in the second half, we found a lot more success, particularly getting the ball out to Lloyd on the right, or Thierry on the left, or him coming into the middle. It's a good result, and the most important thing is that we got the shutout. No away goals for them and we go back to D.C. 2-0 up. It's far from over though. D.C. won the East this year for many reasons, one of them being that they get results. They're organized and hard-working, so we know it's going to be a fight next weekend."

- Chris Pontiusvia dcunited.com:  On what they need to do to improve going forward. "Connecting passes, our movement, you know, they just looked like the sharper team and you know after the first half I think it got into our head, but you know that's stuff that we can clean up on our own so we know what we need to do and we have a tough task at home, we've beat them at home two times this year already."

- New York Red Bulls forward Thierry Henryvia dcunited.com:  On where the team found the energy to get the win. "It's playoff time. Like I said to you, we've been unfortunate sometimes at home, and not taking away anything that some of the teams did in the past year in playoffs, but today we put the ball in the back of the net and then it does change the game. If you go one-nil up and they're trying to come out and stuff like that. I thought that we were compact, difficult to beat, and we know that we can score. We need to make sure that we could go back there without conceding a goal and obviously try to get some along the way...Some of the guys are obviously tired, but now we're going to have six days to recover before we play them, but it's very important to not concede a goal, not to concede a goal today."

- Bobby Boswellvia dcunited.com:  On what keeps them optimistic of a turnaround. "Playing at RFK, you know we play at home in front of our fans, we take care of business there. Now we've got a little bit more of a challenge with the scoreline and whatnot, but anytime we play at home I think we have a good chance to go out and get a good result and now we just need to - we know what we have to do so it almost makes it even more definitive in how we play."

- New York Red Bulls keeper Luis Roblesvia dcunited.com:  On the clean sheet. "All season we couldn't put together back-to-back shutouts. I think that's just a testament also to Dax [McCarty] and Eric [Alexander]. I mean those guys limit the chances. [Jamison] Olave and Ibra [Ibrahim Sekagya], the whole back four, the played great today. We knew that they were going to be direct, they were going to find Fabian [Espindola], and their offense runs through Espindola. They expect him to do something great every single time and if he doesn't they're kind of at a standstill. Ibra and Olave did a great job, but huge credit goes to Eric and Dax. Their ability to limit their [D.C. United's] chances and win as many second balls as possible."

My Words:

No excuses for D.C. United's performance against the Red Bulls in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals, but the winner of the #4 vs #5 play-in match has done well since MLS adopted the current playoff structure in 2012.  It's a small sample size, but in 2012 both winners of the play-in matches (#5 Houston Dynamo in the East and #4 LA Galaxy in the West) went all the way to the MLS Cup final, while in 2013 one of the play-in match winners (#4 Houston) made it to the conference finals and one (#4 Seattle Sounders) failed to move on.  So, in two years, three of the play-in match winners moved on, while only one crashed out in the next round.  Chalk it up to parity, or to the fact the play-in match winning team creates momentum (even on short rest) they then can leverage in their next series against the #1 seed.  Whatever happened to D.C. United on Sunday afternoon certainly wasn't remedied by the Eastern Conference leaders getting more rest than their opponents who were forced to play in the play-in match.

The Last Word:

The success of D.C. United in the 2014 regular season has already been established.  It was a remarkable year, especially in the aftermath of the 2013 season.  The team's historic turnaround in 2014 is not dependent on how they perform in the playoffs.  But, this is a club who has a mission of winning championships and serving the community.  And if the team is going to fulfill its mission in 2014 by winning a trophy (as it shockingly, yet gloriously, did last season), then it will have to play almost a perfect match in leg 2 when New York visits RFK Stadium.

As has been well documented, the addition of the away goals rule this year in the MLS playoffs narrows D.C. United's options on how they can get through on aggregate.  Their only options at this point are to win 2-0 and force extra time, or win by three or more goals.  Anything else will see them either lose outright on aggregate or draw on aggregate but lose on the away goal tiebreaker.  Doing this will be difficult.  It will be unlikely.  But it won't be impossible.

As Steven Goff reported this week, only twice in MLS history has a team come back from a 2-0 deficit in a two-leg, aggregate goals series: the San Jose Earthquakes did it against LA in 2003, while the Kansas City Wizards did it in 2004 against San Jose.  So, there's a chance.

To see the chance come to fruition, however, D.C. United will have to play a nearly flawless game.  Almost certainly the team will have to get a clean sheet, and that plays to the strengths of this United squad--Perry Kitchen, Davy Arnaud, Bill Hamid, Bobby Boswell, and Steve Birnbaum.  It looks like Olsen will have to choose which of three fullbacks will get the start, and I say go with Sean Franklin and Chris Korb to lock down the defense, and bring on Taylor Kemp late if needed to add to the offensive punch.

Then, United will have to score at least two goals, and preferably three.  This will be a game of big moments, because the Black-and-Red will get looks at the goal.  The question will be whether they convert those opportunities--which they will have to do if they are going to move on to the conference finals.  So I say push for the first goal early in the first half by running out all the most creative attacking pieces.  If Chris Rolfe and Luis Silva can play at least one half, start them and go for the first goal before the break.  Then use Eddie Johnson and Chris Pontius as impact subs if needed.  Other starting and substitution options are available, but let's not plan to leave the needed goals for late in the game--go push for them early.

It's gut check time for D.C. United. But this is a team with guts to spare.

What's your game plan for Saturday?