D.C. United will face their recent trade partners Real Salt Lake tonight on East Capitol Street looking to maintain their push for the Supporters Shield. For the visitors, meanwhile, a recent uptick in form will leave them with hope that they're not too many games away from jumping back into the Western Conference playoff picture. However, even with their better play of late it's fair to say United will take the field as favorites thanks to a dominant home record (particularly when compared with RSL's 2W-2D-6L road record and their 6 road goals thus far in 2015).
Both clubs will take the field missing several big names due to injury, but in both cases the teams have been dealing with those absences for long enough that we should still see a quality game. United will likely need to overcome a numerical disadvantage in central midfield to neutralize Javier Morales and the RSL attack, while Real will be looking to protect a defense that will be short two or three key players.
Key player: Alvaro Saborio
All eyes will be on Sabo as he faces his former club barely two weeks after being traded. The whispers of a breakdown in the relationship between club and player should only add to Saborio's motivation to prove that the trade was one that RSL could end up ruing.
There's also the less dramatic issue of how he matches up against RSL. Real is missing their top two center backs in Jamison Olave and Chris Schuler, and one of their deputies (Elias Vasquez) will give away quite a bit in the air when compared to Saborio. United will want to feed the bear, so to speak, by putting in plenty of crosses while also finding him with his back to goal. Saborio should be able to post up on Vasquez and Aaron Maund, which means more opportunities for the rest of United's attack.
Key question: Will every United player be ready to answer the opening whistle?
Despite a strong 8W-3D-1L home record, United has conceded 6 goals in the opening 30 minutes of games played at RFK Stadium. Now, it's great that United has come back to win each of the 5 games in which those goals were conceded, but you don't need to watch too much soccer to realize that's not a sustainable way to keep winning. United's start against Philadelphia last week was flat-out unacceptable, and Ben Olsen was right to bring it up despite the feel-good factor of coming back to win 3-2.
RSL's most glaring weakness for this game looks to be their injury-ravaged defense rather than their attack, so for United the job needs to be starting positively and forcing the visitors to defend. Under Jeff Cassar, RSL is a more pragmatic team than the principled possession side Jason Kreis was putting on the field. What that means here is that if RSL gets out to an early lead, they're not necessarily going to keep taking the same risks. United will find them tougher to break down than the Union thanks to having a higher team-wide soccer IQ, so another bad start is probably a bad idea.
Match date/time: Saturday 8/1, 7:00pm Eastern
Venue: Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium (Washington, DC)
TV: CSN Washington (English), KMYU Utah (English), MLS Direct Kick (English, blacked out in the DMV)
Online: MLS Live (English, blacked out in the DMV)
Check back in two hours for our gamethread.