Just about every reasonable person with an opinion on the subject predicted that D.C. United and the New England Revolution would be somewhere in the playoff places within MLS's Eastern Conference. No one was going out on a limb by saying so, either: United finished atop the East last season, while the Revs came through the playoff bracket to appear in MLS Cup. These teams were supposed to be here.
It's all about the journey, though, and both of these teams are a bit strange. The Revs followed 9 game unbeaten streak with a spell where they went 1W-4D-7L, and then followed that by dropping just 2 points in 8 games, only to then close the season with 1 win in 5 games. The Revs are the kind of team people give real consideration to as a dark horse while also being the kind of team that has, by some distance, the worst record against the rest of the playoff field.
United, meanwhile, is a team built around being tough, battle-tested, and hard to beat despite having conceded first in 22 different games, and despite committing the cardinal sin of giving up goals in the first 10 minutes with unbelievable regularity. A team that does that, and a team that scores barely half a goal per road game, has no business in the playoffs, right? Yet here the Black-and-Red are, turning 9 of those 22 games in which they trailed 1-0 into wins (and getting a draw in 2 more to boot). Their attacking anemia disappears at RFK, and no team in MLS scores more goals late in games.
Key player: Bill Hamid
In the playoffs, your best players are pretty much always key, and Hamid is United's best player. Beyond that though, Columbus just showed everyone in MLS that the Black-and-Red have some trouble with elusive forwards capable of playing one- or two-touch soccer and with dynamic wingers who make good off-the-ball runs. So here come the Revs, who have 2 strikers that could fit that first description and a cadre of wingers that meet the second.
One of Hamid's biggest improvements in the last 2+ seasons has been his judgment of when to come off his line. Against a New England team that tends to burst through midfield at speed, that may end up being a crucial talent. It seems safe to expect Hamid, at least once, to charge off his line and make a big save or clear a ball away in order to prevent a 1v1 opportunity inside the box. Granted, that sounds like most United games this season, but against the Revs it seems even more likely than normal.
Emotions may also be important here given that United could be in a pretty bad place after Sunday's 5-0 thrashing at the hands of the Crew. United could well need a big play early in this game just to spark some confidence, and no one on this team has made more big individual plays in 2015 than Hamid.
Finally, it's worth noting that over the past two season, every game between these sides has been won by a single goal or ended in a draw. The odds are that this will be a very close game, and we could well be on the brink of a penalty kick tiebreaker. In that case, Hamid is United's trump card. Given the struggles of everyone not named Chris Rolfe at the penalty spot in recent seasons, DCU may need the Annandale native to save more than one PK if the game gets to that point.
Key question: Was Sunday's nightmare the breaking point for this squad, or the shove they needed to truly get back on course?
There are two ways to react United can take the 5-0 goleada Columbus just handed them. This could be a ruinous, confidence-killing loss that will cause a long stretch of aimless, depressed soccer. If that's the case, we should just be thankful the playoffs end after one night, because a team that reacts like that tends to lose for weeks on end.
United could also react with focused anger at themselves for letting such a thing happen. That's the sort of reaction that provokes a vigorous push towards getting things right. You can't run your team on rage forever, but it can be a pretty damn good one-off motivator. Columbus may have just given United a slap in the face that they've more or less been needing since July.
If it's the former, look for nervous players needing too long to make decisions on the ball and tackles that are either too timid or too late. Look for spreading panic as veterans sense what's happening and try to stem the tide with a lot of frantic in-game changes. Look for subs coming too early, and look for New England to seem like they're barely having to get out of 2nd gear.
If it's the latter, United should be look vigorous and almost too energized early. Hopefully, the team's veterans will be able to rein their teammates in for a bit and keep them channeling their energy. A good United response, in terms of psychology, will see them transition at the right pace in both directions while bringing their physicality to bear in conditions that will favor United's blue-collar style.
Match previews: We've been very busy since Sunday evening. For those with little time, here's our straight-to-the-point playoff preview. If you have more time, the back half of Filibuster looks a little deeper into this game. We also think United might be making changes to their lineup, and think the Revs might do the same with their starting eleven (but for different reasons). We looked back on the previous meetings between these two sides, wondered about several unpredictable United players, and checked in with United after yesterday's training session. Oh, and Keys to Victory will be coming later today, in case you're just a glutton.
Match date/time: Wednesday 10/28, 7:30pm Eastern
Venue: Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium (Washington, DC)
TV: CSN Mid-Atlantic Plus (English, channel finder here), UniMas (Spanish)
Online: MLS Live (English, requires subscription)
Our gamethread will be up an hour before kickoff.