Assuming that the heavy, constant rain falling in the DMV today doesn't force a cancellation, D.C. United will host New York City FC in a game both teams will feel like they've got to win. For the visitors, a loss would leave them needing to win out while Montreal and TFC both pretty much lose all of their remaining games. The Black-and-Red don't have those tangible, immediate concerns. Rather, this is a team that needs a win ASAP if they're going to have any chance of going somewhere in the playoffs.
It's a weird situation, with the slumping team virtually certain of their postseason place while the team that is on life support has won three straight (including a huge win in Vancouver last week). On top of that, it's a weird night weather-wise: The biggest drenching the region has gotten in ages is happening in October, which is usually among the most pleasant months of the year. That might play to United's advantage, though, as the short passing game favored by NYCFC is a bit difficult to pull off in these conditions.
Key player: Fabian Espindola
United's offense has been flat-out poor recently, but the one player who has consistently been providing the small threat DC has offered up has been Espindola. However, just because Espindola has been better of late than his attacking teammates does not mean he has met his previous standards. In this game, United needs Espindola flaring wide both to punish NYCFC's advancing fullbacks and to stretch the field out. This is one of the weakest back fours in all of MLS, so the more we see of Espindola making unsettling runs and taking up unexpected positions, the better.
It's not just getting more out of their most talented attacker, though. Espindola is also more than capable of sparking this team emotionally, and that's an area they've been lacking in just as badly. United needs the charged up Espindola who sets the tone by outworking defenders, getting scrappy, and flirting with - though most certainly not going over - the edge. This team needs a jolt, and no one on the roster is more suited to provide it on the field than Espindola.
Key question: Can United's defense keep them in the game?
3. 2. 3. 1. 2. 2. That's a list of how many goals United has given up in each game of this six match winless streak. It's fully one-third of the goals they've given up this season, and pretty much one goal per game more than the rate they had 25 games into the season.
Simply put, that's not good enough to beat anyone in MLS. It's certainly not good enough to help out an offense that doesn't score many goals, or to beat a team that sits 5th overall in goals scored. United's defending has been reactive and mistake-prone, while their tendency to go long stretches of the game without either possession or a counterattacking threat means that they're having to do more defending than is necessary.
Everything about United's defensive approach needs to improve. They need to be more organized, smarter, quicker to anticipate where the danger is going to come from, and they need to make better choices with the ball. Further forward, United's front six can't be stagnant or predictable so that we can see some playing out of the back rather than the aimless clearances that have become too common. Teams may end up holding possession against United, but right now they have every reason that their possession is going to lead to real chances. That's different from the long-range, virtually hopeless shots that the Black-and-Red previously specialized in forcing teams to go for. If we start seeing David Villa and Frank Lampard getting a lot of touches around the edge of the box tonight, this game is probably going to go like the last six did.
Match previews: If you need further previewing, we've taken a stab at United's lineup as well as NYCFC's. Yesterday we threw it back to the last time torrential rains threatened a game at RFK, and earlier today we outlined what United has to do to win tonight and made our best attempt at predicting the outcome.
Match date/time: Friday 10/2, 7:00pm Eastern
Venue: Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium (Washington, DC)
TV: UniMas (Spanish), Eurosport 2 International (English)
Our gamethread will be up an hour before kickoff.