When it comes to MLS playoff games involving D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls, the dynamic over the first two decades of the league has usually been the same: United is favored (probably strongly favored), and they prove those expectations right against a Red Bulls team that either never had a chance or shoots themselves in the foot. That changed last year, as NYRB were slightly favored in the playoffs (despite being the lower seed) and won thanks in large part due to Peguy Luyindula's outstanding performance in both legs.
This time around, the Red Bulls are the higher seed and heavy favorites over United. There are a few good reasons for that: United were overrun in both of their visits to Red Bull Arena, and their last non-fluke win over another team still alive in these playoffs was back in May. The Black-and-Red can beat anyone at RFK, but just winning today isn't enough thanks to the playoff format. In all likelihood, today's game needs to feature the best performance United has put together all season long.
Key player: Taylor Kemp
I could pick Bill Hamid or Kofi Opare here, but they seem too on the nose. Instead, let's look at Kemp, who will be lined up against DCU killer Lloyd Sam. Sam has scored a goal in each of the three Atlantic Cup matches this season, taking him to 5 goals in 8 appearances against the Black-and-Red. Just as importantly, his ability to consistently get behind the defense in the last two seasons has been the most consistent factor in NYRB's attempts to destabilize United's defense.
Keeping Sam from dominating this game will take a team effort, but we should assume that Kemp is still going to have to deliver some huge 1v1 moments. Some of those will be obvious, like when Sam has the ball at his foot. More often, though, it'll be about Kemp's ability to defend when the ball is elsewhere. Sam is a very smart runner off the ball, and the busy Red Bulls attack will eventually be looking his way. The secret to NYRB's attack is that their off-the-ball play and sheer level of activity moves defenses around enough that big seams appear. You don't need to spend $4 million bucks on a guy who can thread a needle with a ball when the gaps are truck-sized.
On the other side of the ball, Kemp finished the season with United's second-highest assist total (6 in 27 appearances). United can't afford to tell him to simply be a stay-at-home fullback without giving away too much on offense. Kemp doesn't create as many key passes as Sean Franklin, but it's about quality vs. quantity here. Franklin sets up a lot of shots at the top of the box; Kemp hits driven crosses for runners within the goalmouth. Kemp has to take the risk of going forward, and when he does he has to get the delivery right. Without Kemp getting involved, United's attack will lack a bit of diversity, and that's a precious resource with this team.
Key question: Is today the day United finally starts playing at kickoff rather than after they concede?
Letting up yet another early goal against New England was not all that harmful in the end, because in a one-off knockout game you just have to win, period. Things are different in a two-legged aggregate goals series; a 2-1 win would not be a truly bad outcome by any means, but it would be hard to feel good about it given how United's last 3 trips to Red Bull Arena have gone (all shutout losses, all by 2 or 3 goals).
The away goal is such a huge factor here that United needs to finally snap out of their season-long habit and keep a zero on the scoreboard. It took a truly special goal for the Revs to get on the board, and before that Chicago was shut out at RFK. That's progress of sorts given where we're coming from in terms of getting through even the first 10 minutes with a clean sheet.
United can rest assured that with Bobby Boswell suspended, NYRB's high press is going to be turned up to 11 from kickoff. This is going to be a very difficult task, because the early goals the Black-and-Red tend to cough up have involved bad giveaways followed by a slow transition into a defensive mindset. The Red Bulls are also MLS's highest-scoring team, so I'd argue that this is just as big of a test in current context as starting the season at Alajuelense was. Hey, no one ever said the playoffs were supposed to be easy. The path through MLS Cup runs through the Supporters Shield winner every year, and this year United gets the first crack. They need to make it count.
Match previews: We started the abbreviated period between playoff games by recapping all of United's meetings with the Red Bulls this season before moving on to the likely NYRB starters and United's potential starting lineup after Boswell's suspension. Last night we talked about how United can win this game, and later this morning we'll post our predictions for the game's outcome. Over at MLSsoccer, Matt Doyle wrote this excellent preview. Once a Metro has the NYRB perspective here.
Match date/time: Sunday 11/1, 3:30pm Eastern
Venue: Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium (Washington, DC)
TV: ESPN (English), ESPN Deportes (Spanish)
Online: WatchESPN (English)
Our gamethread will be up an hour before kickoff.