Any Atlantic Cup matchday is a big one for D.C. United, as there are few things in life that feel better than putting one over on your odious, dastardly, unwashed rival. This one may not have the high stakes of a playoff match or an Open Cup game, but it will be a significant litmus test for both sides. United has yet to convince observers that they can create enough offense to win at last year's rate without the suspended Fabian Espindola. The Metros, meanwhile, have lost Thierry Henry, Peguy Luyindula, and Tim Cahill - well, that last one is a "loss" more than an actual loss - while also firing successful coach Mike Petke over apparent stylistic preferences higher up the org chart.
For United, the season started with a thud in Costa Rica before two one-goal wins at RFK hopefully proved that the annual CCL hangover that seems to hit MLS teams isn't going to be too rough. NYRB, meanwhile, out-pressed MLS's former gurus of high-pressure soccer in Kansas City but couldn't make that or a man advantage for half an hour add up to anything beyond a 1-1 draw.
Key player: Nick DeLeon
DeLeon has a history of coming up with goals against the Red Bulls - go ahead, soak it in - but that's only a part of why I think United needs him to deliver a big performance today. As I wrote yesterday, I think Jesse Marsch is going to have his team cheat a bit to one side so they can keep Chris Rolfe from having the freedom of attacking right back Chris Duvall all game long. That means they're going to hope that Mike Grella and Kemar Lawrence (on his MLS debut) are up to at least neutralize DeLeon and Sean Franklin without much help.
Grella has spent most of his career in England's lower leagues and isn't a natural left winger, while Lawrence was only just signed last week. Both have, in recent years, had failed trials with United; these are players that Ben Olsen and his staff know. I think it's a great chance for DeLeon - both on the dribble and with off-the-ball runs - to get himself into dangerous positions. If he pairs that with some better finishing than we saw in the preseason, he could well end up being man of the match.
Key question: Can United learn the harsh lesson from their last road game?
Down in Costa Rica, United let Alajuelense bypass the midfield from the start and never came to grips with the supercharged speed of play. While United might look back and think of a couple of missed chances on offense, the fact is that 5-2 was a fair scoreline that night. While the Red Bulls don't have the blazing speed on both wings that LDA did, nor the interest in bypassing the midfield in pursuit of a track meet-style game, they do want to create a hectic, high-tempo sort of environment.
United needs to be ready for an opponent that is going to be aggressive from the opening whistle. Marsch had his team pressing as much as is reasonably possible in the early stages against KC a couple of weeks ago, and that was a road game. At home, there's no reason to expect anything other than NYRB attempting to smother United with constant pressure. It's what they want to make into their defining characteristic, and it's also the best way for their current roster to protect what looks like a rickety back four.
United has to maintain some grip on the speed of play both for their own good and so that they can test the organizational ability of the vulnerable defense Marsch will be sending out.
Match date/time: Sunday 3/22, 5:00pm EST
Venue: Red Bull Arena (Harrison, NJ)
TV: ESPN2 (English), ESPN Deportes (Spanish)
Online: WatchESPN (English)