The 2015 regular season ends today for every club in MLS, and the highlight of the early games is D.C. United's trip to Ohio to face Columbus Crew SC. The winner of this game gets a bye to the Eastern Conference semifinals, which comes with the significant prize of not having to play a potentially season-ending game midweek. United has a slight advantage, as a draw could also do the job provided Toronto FC fails to win by 2 or more goals in Montreal (a game that kicks off at 5, just like this one).
Slight advantages are all well and good, but United also has two far more important advantages. Kei Kamara and Federico Higuain got themselves suspended for this game due to yellow card accumulation, and the Crew don't really have a player that can suitably replace either one. It's a rare gift to play a big game against an opponent missing their two best attackers, and it's the kind of opportunity United can't afford to waste.
Key player: Taylor Kemp
With Kamara and Higuain suspended, the top Columbus threat is Ethan Finlay. It seems safe to expect the Crew to be heavily right-sided as they lean on the other vital member of their attacking triumvirate. It's not entirely on Kemp to deal with him, but the bulk of the work will fall on "Shooter." Finlay can beat you a lot of different ways: Through pure speed down the touchline, or making a well-timed slashing run towards the middle. Kemp's 1v1 defending needs to be excellent, but it's just as important for him to stay alert in dealing with Finlay when the ball is elsewhere. Even when Columbus is in possession in their own half, they will be looking to swing the ball to Finlay to open up the field.
Furthermore, Kemp's ability to get forward should prove important. When United is playing well, their fullbacks are engaged in the attack rather than simply staying home. With the Crew vulnerable to defending in the air, Kemp's crossing could be a potent weapon. He might not get as many opportunities as he had in the past two games, but United probably can't afford to see Kemp only attempting 2 or 3 crosses.
Key question: Can United match their recent results against a team that is not deeply flawed?
United's recovery from ridiculously giving up yet another goal in the first five minutes of a game against NYCFC seems to have sparked something in the Black-and-Red. At least, that seems like a reasonable conclusion to reach after the capital club ruthlessly punished the Chicago Fire for their many flaws last Sunday. There's a renewed vigor in United's attacking play - personified in the form of Chris Pontius - and they appear to have solved the central midfield balance between Perry Kitchen and Markus Halsti.
However, NYCFC and Chicago are very bad teams who have known for a while that their October games were not imbued with much meaning. In both games, United got themselves on the scoreboard and then went on to win the game against a psychologically broken opponent. That's a useful skill in the playoffs, to be sure; if United is going to lift a trophy in 2015, they are going to have to put an opponent on the ropes down for the count before everything is said and done.
However, Columbus is not a reeling opponent that will roll over and die when one bad thing happens to them. Their most recent match - a 2-0 playoff-clinching win on the road against TFC - showed that the Crew may have finally developed the mental strength that has been lacking over the past 2 seasons. On top of that, they're a very strong possession team that scores a ton of goals and will pose a unique tactical challenge for United.
Coming back to beat NYCFC was good. Thrashing the Fire was better. Going on the road with something tangible on the line for both clubs and winning over this Crew team is the kind of thing a contender does. Today is probably going to tell us a lot about United's chances to make some noise in the next few weeks.
Match previews: Around here, we're feeling fairly good about United's chances of a road result and took a look at the Crew's probable lineup. Stay tuned for our Keys to Victory post coming midday. In the meantime, the latest episode of Filibuster closes with a long segment on today's game. Over at Massive Report, it appears that the Crew are very focused on sticking to their gameplan.
Match date/time: Sunday 10/25, 5:00pm Eastern
Venue: Mapfre Stadium (Columbus, OH)
TV: Fox Sports 1 (English), Fox Deportes (Spanish)
Online: Fox Sports Go (English), Fox Soccer 2Go (English, requires subscription)
Our gamethread will be up an hour before kickoff.