Tonight's game between D.C. United and the Philadelphia Union is kind of an odd situation. United is just one point off the Supporters Shield lead, while the Union enters the game in 7th in the East and 16th overall. On the other hand, Philly is on a two-game winning streak, while United has taken one point from three games (including a loss to the Union).
It's an intriguing challenge for United, whose attack has struggled badly of late. The Union, meanwhile, have had success by sitting deep and playing counterattacking soccer, which means United is going to come up against a massed defense that requires breaking down. In other words, the Union are not going to make it easy for United's offense to get back on track, and if the Black-and-Red send too many numbers forward Philly will be a major threat to score on the break.
Key player: Chris Pontius
We all know what United lacks right now: Creative attackers who are healthy. With Fabian Espindola and Luis Silva injured and Facundo Coria playing his first games in months over the past week, the weight of carrying the attack has fallen on Chris Rolfe and...well, pretty much Chris Rolfe. Jairo Arrieta has met expectations, but there's a reason he was brought in as respectable depth at forward rather than as an improvement over existing starters.
However, in Rolfe's last two appearances we've seen two things: First, teams are doing a better job of keying on him defensively. Rolfe's a great player, but he's not going to have success every game if teams are comfortable with shorting other areas of the field to make sure he's constantly surrounded. Second, Rolfe has looked just a bit tired. That may have been cured by not having to fly out to Portland, but I would guess that there's something mentally exhausting about knowing you have to deliver for your team to have much of an attacking threat.
That's why I'm looking to Pontius for this game. United's longest-tenured player has been making incremental progress of late, particularly in terms of his first step and the aggression in his decision-making. He looks less hesitant than he did in the early weeks of the season, and now's a good time to begin ramping up expectations on Party Boy. The Union have been defending well lately by collectively dropping off, but someone like Pontius - who can beat people on the dribble and is also good in the air - offers multiple ways to break a bunker. It's time we saw him take some of the weight off Rolfe's shoulders.
Key question: Are the last three games just how things are going to go until everyone is healthy?
There has been some attacking progress in each of the last three games since United's injury outbreak really began, but given that the first of those matches was a miserable display, that's cold comfort. It's hard to win games in which you just don't get into scoring positions, and that's been a major issue for United of late. In the last three matches, United has only taken 23 total shots, which is bad enough by itself. Making matters worse: Only 8 of those shot attempts have been inside the 18 yard box. Only 3 of the 23 were shots on goal, indicating both that United is taking more difficult, long-range shots and also is lacking some quality from the available shooters.
That has to improve. Against the Union and Revs, United was unwilling to take a chance from long range too often, and without that threat (not to mention a lack of ability to penetrate on the dribble and a too-slow passing game) those sides could just sit in knowing that there was little space to do anything else. In Portland, we saw something of the opposite problem: United would run out of ideas within 25 yards and just settle for any sort of shot. Granted, a couple of these came close - Conor Doyle's snapshot in a crowd nearly dipped over Adam Kwarasey, for example - but it's still a low-percentage way of scoring.
Today, United's attacking players need to move the ball more quickly and be better without it so they're getting open inside the Union's penalty area. It's stating the obvious, but that's where you go if you want to score goals. Furthermore, it's time for United to get back to being a threat on set pieces. Markus Halsti's corner kicks were pretty decent against the Timbers, but United didn't win enough battles inside the box to capitalize (and the one time they did, Steve Birnbaum missed an empty net). Between these two categories, United needs to be producing a lot more inside the box regardless of personnel.
Match date/time: Saturday 5/30, 7:00pm
Venue: Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium (Washington, DC)
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.