Today isn't a complicated day for D.C. United, who simply have to beat the New York Red Bulls on the road to advance in the MLS playoffs. 1-0 will force extra time, and all other winning scorelines will send the Black-and-Red through. Straightforward, right? Er, well, no. United - who scored just 9 road goals in MLS this season - has not scored at Red Bull Arena since 2013, and you kind of have to score at least once to win in soccer. It's in the rules.
However, United has gone to this venue obliged to score a goal to stay alive and done just that, winning the famous "snow game" 1-0 on an 88th minute Nick DeLeon goal after both Bill Hamid and Rafael Marquez were sent off, a penalty kick was saved on a re-take by a goalkeeper coming in cold, and after the game itself had been rescheduled twice. Today hasn't had that off-field drama, but the history between these two teams indicates that something weird is going to happen today. Hopefully, that oddity is United scoring enough road goals to knock off the best attacking team in MLS.
D.C. United Projected Starting 11: The big questions for United this week had to do with the health of Chris Pontius and Sean Franklin. Both are listed as questionable, but in all honesty they sound more like doubts having not trained this week. Bill Hamid will start in goal, of course, but with United's defensive struggles at Red Bull Arena in mind, I think the back four will consist of Steve Birnbaum, Bobby Boswell, Kofi Opare, and Taylor Kemp. That frees Nick DeLeon to stay in the midfield, where he and Chris Rolfe will play on the wings while Perry Kitchen and Markus Halsti hold down the middle. Fabian Espindola and Alvaro Saborio will start up top again.
Off the bench, I think United will hold off for a long time on making subs. If NYRB scores, or if there are 20 minutes to go and DCU is still a goal away from a lead, look for Miguel Aguilar to come in for Opare, with DeLeon moving to right back and Birnbaum moving into the middle. If Michael Farfan is fit, we could also see him come on for Halsti. If not, and things get really desperate, Ben Olsen could opt for a rare appearance from Facundo Coria and give him the #10 role. Should United get a lead before that stage, I think we'll see Conor Doyle come in for Rolfe as a defensive move.
Match previews: This morning we posted a general preview, went in depth on the likely NYRB lineup, and looked at what United has to do if they're going to win this game. Shortly after noon, we posted our staff predictions of how the game will go.
Referee: Ted Unkel
What are you drinking?: Three years ago yesterday, I was on the bus to Red Bull Arena for the game that never was, and I made sure to bring a black russian in a water bottle to drink before the game (as opposed to buying beer at the stadium, because I'm not giving the Red Bulls money I don't have to give them). In the hopes of a repeat of United's 2nd leg performance that year, I'm doing the same thing today.
Prediction: I'm sticking with my prediction from earlier today: United is under intense pressure, but scores via a irnbaum header from a corner kick around the hour mark. NYRB throws the kitchen sink at United, but Hamid is unbeatable, so we head to extra time. There, Mike Grella scores a seemingly fatal goal fairly quickly only for United - as they've done all year - to score a late equalizer via Espindola. As away goals do not count in the extra time period, we head to penalties. Both GKs make big saves, but in the end Miguel Aguilar slots home the winning kick.
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