The scenario couldn't be more simple for D.C. United: Go beat the New York Red Bulls on the road, or the MLS playoffs end today for the league's most successful club. Simple is a long way from easy though: NYRB has the best home record in the Eastern Conference and scored more goals than anyone in MLS this season. United, meanwhile, scored just nine times in their seventeen road games, and three of those goals came in their first three road games of 2015.
Nonetheless, United's position is not all bad. A 1-0 win will send the game into extra time (where the away goals rule no longer counts, in case you're wondering), while a win by any other scoreline - 2-1, say, or 600-0 also works - will send the Black-and-Red to their second conference final in the past four seasons. In this capricious, sometimes arbitrary game we love, one-goal wins can happen by accident. United's loss in the first leg was a body blow, but it wasn't a knockout punch.
The Black-and-Red have been a strange team this year: They're still built around the identity of grinding out close, low-scoring wins, but they've also been involved in numerous high-scoring wins and losses. Today, if they can be the best version of that gritty, battle-tested, mentally strong team - a version that poses a threat going forward and defends without making mistakes - they have a real chance of springing an upset against the Supporters Shield winners. If they can't, this may be a long 90 minutes.
Key player: Bill Hamid
Surprise, surprise. As much as United needs to score their first goal at Red Bull Arena since August 31, 2013 (a streak of 414 minutes), we have to concede that the highest-scoring team in MLS will generate plenty of chances at home. United's road attack has been anemic all year, but if Hamid preserves a shutout the Black-and-Red will be just one goal from forcing extra time.
What will that require? Hamid's typical quickness off his line and amazing reflexes on it will of course be factors. He will also need to dominate the 18 yard box in the air, as the Red Bulls are likely to produce crosses. With the Red Bulls pressing high and throwing numbers forward - Jesse Marsch has said they're not going to suddenly change the way they play for this one - Hamid's distribution may also be a factor. A quick, accurate outlet pass might allow United to bypass 6-7 players, which means an awful lot of space to counter-attack into.
Mostly though, United just needs their best player to put on a show. If Hamid is man of the match, there's a significant chance that DCU just needs one goal against a team that takes risks and will be missing their one veteran starting defender on the day.
Key question: Can United disrupt NYRB's high press without also killing their own ability to play constructive soccer?
It's no secret that the Red Bulls pressed United into very bad situations in both trips to New Jersey. United could win tackles and clearances all they wanted, but the inability to escape their own half afterward meant long spells of defending. In both regular season road games, DC simply had no answer, and the 2-0 and 3-0 scorelines were flattering and accurate, respectively.
So at RFK last Sunday, we saw a new plan designed to put a stop to the endless pressure. United played long ball early and often. On one front, it did actually work: The Red Bulls had to press a lot less, and had to drop their normal line of confrontation quite a bit. On the other hand, stopping someone from using their Plan A is not at all the same thing as beating them, and the Red Bulls seemed all too comfortable in going to the next page in their playbook.
United can't really go back to long ball again and hope that it just magically works this time. The Red Bulls are smart enough to know that by pushing their fullbacks up, they occupy the Black-and-Red's wide midfielders. With those players stuck in deeper positions, United ends up lacking numbers to win the second ball when the strikers win the battle for a given hoof up the field. Long ball will stop the pressure, but it won't win the game.
In all likelihood, United is going to have to do some pressing of their own early and force the Red Bulls to second-guess themselves. NYRB is full of confidence, but they're also keenly aware that they're one big mistake or one bit of bad luck away from this thing going to overtime (or even straight up elimination depending on what the scoreboard says when the bad news comes their way). It's a huge risk to go to Red Bull Arena and attempt to play with some attacking intent, but it seems apparent that United's chances of sitting deep, defending for ages, and then snagging a goal are pretty long. Something has to change in Ben Olsen's gameplan for this series to turn into a toss-up (much less one going in United's favor).
Match previews: For your ears, we spent a good bit of this week's Filibuster discussing the first leg and what United has to do to get it right today. For your eyes, we looked at United's potential starting lineup and sought lessons from MLS history for precisely the predicament the Black-and-Red are in. Stay tuned this morning, as we'll also check up on the likely Red Bulls lineup and what key points United needs to address to win.
Match date/time: Sunday 11/8, 3:00pm Eastern
Venue: Red Bull Arena (Harrison, NJ)
TV: ESPN (English), ESPN Deportes (Spanish), Fox Deportes (Spanish)
Online: WatchESPN (English)
Our gamethread will be up an hour before kickoff.