Thanks to yesterday's results, D.C. United will enter today's game against the Chicago Fire in fifth place in the East. That's the lowest they've been in months, and if it isn't improved upon it would mean United has to win a road game in the first round of the playoffs. Fortunately they've been handed a vulnerable target, as Chicago has 10 losses and 6 draws from their 16 road games this season, and are actually winless in their last 24 MLS matches away from Toyota Park.
That said, the Black-and-Red have shown a pronounced tendency to make games at RFK Stadium more difficult than they need to be, and even with last week's win we're talking about a team that has taken just 4 of the last 21 points available to them. There's no reason for United to come into this game and suffer from arrogance. Chicago in all likelihood is going to finish dead last in MLS this season, but United needs to respect the fact that this team has improved since Brian Bliss was brought in for Frank Yallop last month.
Key player: Chris Rolfe
Via an odd sequence of events, this should be Rolfe's first match against his old club. In all likelihood the "put one over on your old team" factor has been lowered by time apart, so that's not why I'm mentioning Rolfe here. The Fire have struggled all season with inventive play between the lines and with combinations designed to pull their shoddy back four in different directions. Those are things Rolfe excels at, and United is going to have some attacking success if he and Fabian Espindola - a pairing that appears likely to be retained - are exchanging passes and putting their movement to good use.
Key question: Can United get through the first half an hour without going behind?
I realize this is probably asking a lot these days, but getting to even the seventh minute without conceding is a serious accomplishment for United these days. It's not encouraging, but that's the way it is. The Black-and-Red have eight wins after giving up the first goal, but teams don't do that very often for a reason: It's hard. If DCU gives up a goal in the opening minutes in any playoff game, that is likely going to be the final game of the season (or, if it's a first leg, the one we mull over for months a la the CCL).
Ben Olsen has said that United has tried everything "short of an exorcism" to end the bizarre tendency to cough up early goals. Assuming that a) this week they tried and exorcism and b) that it didn't work because that's not what exorcisms are for, United's players are just going to have to get this job done on their own.
Chicago, like everyone that has come to RFK in recent weeks, is going to come out aggressively. Look for them to press high and send more numbers forward than a normal road team would. United has not given teams a reason to be afraid, and in fact has given visiting clubs an incentive to attack in the early moments. The cures? Better organization, better communication, decision-making that is not rushed or panicked, and getting out on the front foot. If the Fire - one of the worst road teams in MLS history by the numbers - want to send numbers forward, make them pay for it. Even the act of inspiring a bit of fear would likely get the visitors to step back a bit in the hopes of weathering a storm, and that in turn lowers the chances of any kind of attack at the other end.
Match previews: Yesterday we risked a jinx by unanimously predicting a win, took a good long look at the likely Chicago starters, and got into what United needs to do to get three points. Ben took a stab at United's lineup earlier this week.
Match date/time: Sunday 10/18, 2:00pm Eastern
Venue: Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium (Washington, DC)
TV: CSN Washington (English), MLS Direct Kick (English, requires subscription)
Online: MLS Live (English, requires subscription)
Our gamethread will be up an hour before kickoff.