What we have today between D.C. United and the Montreal Impact is a game between two teams that are largely opposites right now: United won the Eastern Conference last season; Montreal was dead last. United opted for stability in the offseason; the Impact, as ever, made a bunch of changes. Sounds great for the Black-and-Red until we get to the most recent opposite: DC is out of the CONCACAF Champions League despite playing an Alajuelense side that would be on the MLS playoff bubble if they were an American or Canadian club. L'Impact, meanwhile, upset Liga MX's Pachuca and are the only MLS team left in the competition.
Nonetheless, United will step onto the field today as strong favorites over Montreal. Ben Olsen's side will be far more familiar with one another than Montreal, and it seems fair to say that Frank Klopas would trade rosters on a pure talent basis. That's not to say that this Impact team is just like last year's, particularly if Ignacio Piatti is able to play on short rest. Montreal isn't trying to reinvent the wheel at the moment, but sometimes the teams that keep it very simple can be surprisingly effective. This could be a deceptively tricky test for United against a team with little to lose.
Key Player: Chris Rolfe
With Fabian Espindola suspended, someone has to key United's attack. The job will likely fall to Rolfe, especially as Chris Pontius and Michael Farfan have not yet hit their stride in terms of generating chances for others. It will be interesting to see how Olsen adjusts to life without Espindola, as there's enough positional versatility available to allow for multiple looks. Will Rolfe continue at left midfield? And if so, will Olsen be tempted to choose Conor Doyle over Pontius? After all, Doyle paired quite well with likely starter Jairo Arrieta in preseason play.
Or maybe Rolfe plays with Arrieta, which leaves left midfield open. It could be Pontius there, or Farfan, or Miguel Aguilar. Or maybe Nick DeLeon moves to the left and Aguilar is on the right? No matter what Olsen does with his interchangeable pieces, Rolfe is going to be the most vital player in terms of picking the lock, and that's huge today. Montreal looks to have staked out an early-season identity as a defend-and-counter team, so they'll have enough numbers that cleverness and skill will be required to break them down. Everyone will have to do their part, but Rolfe has the heaviest load to carry.
Key question: Can United recover - both physically and mentally - from their CCL elimination?
Wednesday night was not long ago. This game will kick off 63 hours after Alajuelense's loss-that-was-a-win at RFK, and Olsen played most of his starters in that one. The science on recovery these day consistently points to four days being the minimum amount of rest for soccer players to recover without a) risking overuse injuries and b) maintaining their level of play. Montreal has 24 more hours of recovery time in the bank, but it counts for a bit less having had fly down to the District to play.
Perhaps just as noteworthy is United's need to recover their belief. There was a real emphasis on trying to be an MLS pioneer by winning the CCL, and it's all over now. I think it was quite important for the Black-and-Red to win Wednesday's game, even if it isn't good enough to advance. Winning and losing become habits in most sports, and I suspect that Olsen's United is more prone to this than normal. The ugly loss to Dallas that closed out the preseason sent up some red flags that weren't corrected in Costa Rica; the second leg wasn't a great performance by any means, but the bad habits were cleaned up to a certain extent.
Between rotating players and emphasizing the good things from the second CCL match, Olsen can do something about the short rest. He can't completely eliminate the heavy legs or the unpleasant fact that one trophy is already off the table, however. The players on the field this afternoon have to dig deep and find their way to a good performance regardless.
Match date/time: Saturday 3/7, 3:00pm EST
Venue: Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium (Washington, DC)
TV: CSN Washington (English), MLS Direct Kick (English)
Online: MLS Live (English)