After years of losses - most of which involved being shut out - D.C. United finally flipped the script on Sporting Kansas City in 2014. Ben Olsen's side took 7 out of a possible 9 points against the former Wizards, and conceded precisely zero goals in those games. The 3-0 win United recorded at Sporting Park may have been their very best performance of the season thanks to the efficient, ruthless nature in which they dispatched of their hosts.
United will hope to continue that kind of dominance tonight at RFK, but it won't be easy. Peter Vermes arrives with upgrades in the attack and in midfield. KC isn't just relying on Dom Dwyer to score all their goals this year, and as such they're a more complicated opponent to deal with defensively than last year. Of course, injuries and poor form have had a significant, negative impact on their defense. As a result, game might be more wide-open than typical DC-KC clashes.
Key player: Fabian Espindola
Facing a three-man central midfield featuring an MVP candidate, I'm tempted to go with Perry Kitchen. However, a) I did that last week and b) United's best non-goalkeeper gets a chance to line up against KC's worst starter (center back Kevin Ellis). Espindola's relentless movement and his cleverness are going to be a nightmare for Ellis, so expect to see him drift towards United's left side throughout the match.
Plus, KC's record defending set pieces this season is dreadful. Espindola isn't United's only set piece taker - this year at least, it almost seems to be based on who's been doing well in training the day before - but he's likely to get some opportunities tonight. Good service against the Sporks usually leads to goals, so hopefully he's feeling it tonight.
Key question: Which team's attack is going to dominate?
As established above, KC's defense has issues. Ellis is very weak, Jalil Anibaba has not helped him much at right back, and KC has form questions in goal and at left back. Oh, and defensive midfield has been a problem as well. And they can't defend set pieces well. I think that covers everything.
On the other hand, Benny Feilhaber is in wonderful form, Roger Espinoza is back in the fold, newcomer Krisztian Nemeth looks like a real find, and none of that makes mention of Dom Dwyer or Graham Zusi. KC's defense is such that they have to score goals - emphasis on that "s" - to win with any regularity. Yes, they won 1-0 last week, but it was a wide open game that could have easily finished 3-2 or 3-3.
As such, this game probably hinges on whether United can force KC to have to defend for significant periods of time. The Sporks looked very poor transitioning to defense against Chicago, but the Black-and-Red shouldn't reduce their options to simply paying a pure counterattacking game. If DCU is making KC defend for stretches rather than simply from time to time, it will also serve to take KC's attack out of the game.
Match date/time: Saturday 5/9, 7:00pm
Venue: Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium (Washington, DC)
TV: CSN Washington (English, DC region only), KMCI-38 Kansas (English, KC region only), MLS Direct Kick
Online: MLS Live