D.C. United faces the Portland Timbers in a game that both teams kinda-sorta need to do well in. For United, two flat performances in a row have seen the Black-and-Red squander a chance to jump way out in front of the pack for the Supporters Shield, and a third would officially make this the worst period of 2015 thus far. Portland's in a much more dire spot: Tied for 9th in a competitive Western Conference, the Timbers could finish the weekend as many as 6 points out of the playoffs with losses tonight and in Colorado Saturday. Desperation is starting to creep in for PTFC, especially with Diego Valeri picking up an ankle sprain last week.
Key player: Markus Halsti
United got their first glimpse of what Halsti can do in league play against Philly last week. Individually, he looked pretty good: His defensive positioning was smart, he won some challenges, and his passing seemed acceptable enough (especially on a day where most United players did not meet the "acceptable" bar). The problem seemed to be that his good individual play didn't necessarily fit into United's structure. It was almost like he was on an island in the middle of the field at times.
That seems mostly like a product of simply lacking familiarity in games with his teammates. We can be pretty sure that he's starting tonight - Davy Arnaud stayed home to rest and to avoid picking up a yellow card that would see him suspended - so United will need to see him more in sync with the rest of the team. With United's slow play in possession, Halsti and Perry Kitchen would do very well to keep the ball moving at a higher tempo. Otherwise, prepare for a lot of "hopeful" long balls and a very low possession number.
Key question: Does United have any scoring punch right now?
Last week, United managed 1 shot on goal in 180 minutes of soccer. They only attempted 12 shots in those two games, or about half as many as is reasonable. There have been problems with technique and decision-making, but much of the issue is simply a lack of vision.
Tonight, United will take the field in Portland without Fabian Espindola, Luis Silva, Nick DeLeon, and Michael Farfan due to injury. On top of that, Chris Rolfe has been left at home to rest for Saturday's match against Philadelphia. That means Chris Pontius needs to do more as a provider. It means Miguel Aguilar needs to find the game early and often. It means Jairo Arrieta needs to consistently involve himself in build-ups rather than simply looking to run in behind. It means Conor Doyle has to deliver more on the ball than he did against the Revs. Facundo Coria did pretty well against 9 tired men in New England, but United is going to struggle if they have to wait for him to come in against a depleted opponent tonight. They're also going to have problems if the attack consists of "pass to Taylor Kemp, wait for cross" and nothing else.
Yes, United is running low on healthy players in the midfield and up top. Yes, times are tough. Yes, MLS's other Shield contenders are slipping up too. None of that matters for United in Portland tonight. If this game is entirely about United's defending against Portland's attacking, in all likelihood we're looking at another loss. The Black-and-Red are facing a team that skews towards panicky at the back, and they need to make sure that's a factor tonight. The players that are available are better than we saw against the Union or the Revs; tonight is when they need to prove it.
Match date/time: Wednesday 5/27, 10:30pm EST (7:30pm local)
Venue: Providence Park (Portland, OR)
TV: CSN Washington (English), MLS Direct Kick (English, blacked out in DC region)
Online: MLS Live (English, blacked out in DC region)
Check back in two hours for our gamethread. In the meantime, go make yourself a cup of coffee or strong tea so you can stay up for #DCUAfterDark.