After five straight road games across all competitions, D.C. United will face the Philadelphia Union in their first home game in over a month. That extended road trip didn't go well for United, either: Two straight last-gasp losses to rivals for the Supporters Shield have complicated the club's path towards a 14th trophy, and the last Black-and-Red player to score a goal in MLS was Conor Doyle's rocket in Chicago back on June 24th.
United's return home will see them up against a very familiar opponent. Philly has already played against DCU three times this season, winning twice at home while losing once on East Capitol Street. The historical trend of close, tense games between the clubs has continued in 2015; expect another one-goal decision.
Key player: Perry Kitchen
Just under a month ago, the Black-and-Red lost in utterly aggravating fashion to this Union side thanks to a collective inability to deny Cristian Maidana space and a failure to rob him of passing possibilities once he got the ball. After CJ Sapong's flimsy red card, Maidana was left alone up front in a 441 and played as both target man and playmaker. Despite playing with two fresh defensive midfielders, two athletic center backs, and two enthusiastic fullbacks - all which should have left Maidana with fewer gaps to play in - United never adjusted to Maidana's movement. His passes were far and away the most vital factor in 10-man Philadelphia dominating the game.
Shutting Maidana down is a job involving the entire defense and midfield, but the person who will have to carry the largest portion of that weight is undoubtedly Kitchen. The Union will be getting hard runs from both flanks all game long, and this time he'll probably have Sapong ahead of him for 90 minutes as well. Those runs have to be tracked, of course, but runs without service don't amount to much. Kitchen needs to make sure Maidana can't face forward, and he needs to pressure the Argentine enough that "Chaco" needs to use his first touch just to prevent a turnover rather than as a move to tee up a killer ball.
We've seen Kitchen put other MLS #10s - Kaka, for example - in his pocket at RFK. This evening, he needs to be the dominant central midfield player on display. If United can contain Maidana, Philadelphia will become far more predictable (Plan A: Long ball to Sapong. Plan B: Give it to Fabinho, see what happens). Given the Union's defensive frailty - their last shutout that didn't involve a Pacific coast club flying across country or a USL club was 9 games ago - keeping them at zero will probably mean a win for DCU.
Key question: Did the end of United's road trip mean the end of their inability to create chances?
One. Zero. One. Zero. One. That's how DC's goal totals read over the last 5 games, a span of time that includes 3 straight losses. It's been pretty dull on the attacking end of things for United for a while now, and a three-game month means United's substantial lead at the top of the Eastern Conference has been whittled down to four points. It's time to get back on track, and the Union - MLS's most generous defense in terms of goals conceded per game - are the kind of team you want to play in these circumstances.
Signing Alvaro Saborio will help, of course, but he's had a small handful of training sessions with United. It's too soon to expect Sabo to shift the attack into high gear, so the existing attackers need to make the difference. That means Fabian Espindola staying out of trouble with the referee, even when the Union try to provoke him. That means Chris Rolfe has to make more of an impact on this game than he's been doing in the past few weeks. That means Nick DeLeon needs to get himself into more threatening positions. The guys that have been in town for a while need to make things happen today if United is to get back to winning way.
Match date/time: Sunday 7/26, 5:00pm Eastern
Venue: Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium (Washington, DC)
TV: ESPN2 (English)
Online: WatchESPN (English), ESPN3 (English), ESPN Deportes+ (Spanish)
Check back in two hours for our gamethread.