A game between D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls is worthy of the old "this one doesn't need any extra hype" cliche. This time around, though, it's bursting at the seams with extras: The Red Bulls have games in hand on United, and a win would draw them within 2 points of leapfrogging the Black-and-Red. Furthermore, the Atlantic Cup is still up for grabs; United has to win by two goals to hang onto the trophy for another year. And finally, there's the Supporters Shield race: United is back in the lead with a victory today. You guys don't want to see LA finally pull level with DCU in terms of trophies won, do you? It's gross to even think about it.
There's also momentum, a harder quality to define. NYRB's loss mid-week ended a 6-game unbeaten run, while United has gone 3W-0D-4L in their last 7 outings. Throw in the nature of how those wins came about - down 2-0 after 4 minutes, down 2-0 after 21 minutes, and outshot 25-1 - and it's clear that United needs a good performance to get themselves back on track in general.
Key player: Perry Kitchen
It's tempting to list Bill Hamid or Fabian Espindola - both listed as probable on the latest MLS injury report - but I'm going with Kitchen for a couple of reasons. First of all, United will be at a numerical deficit in central midfield if they start their normal lineup. Winning in that situation requires will require a great defensive effort from Kitchen, obviously, but it also brings up big issues in possession.
Kitchen has shown the ability to shuttle the ball from side to side against teams playing 4231 before, and doing so consistently tonight will give United openings to attack NYRB more consistently than the sporadic two- or three-man raids they made on their last visit to northern NJ. The Red Bulls will surely be looking to harass Kitchen whenever United's defense tries to use him in passing out of the back, and he's going to have to a) be smart enough in his movement to make pressuring him difficult, b) clean enough with his first touch that he can move the ball along with his second or third, and c) nimble enough to turn out of crowds when they do form around him.
This game will turn on how the central midfield goes. Kitchen and Davy Arnaud (or Markus Halsti? Or maybe even Michael Farfan?) don't have to win an area they'll be 2v3 in most of the time, but they do have to hold it to a draw. Otherwise, someone like Espindola isn't getting much to work with while someone like Hamid will end up being far too busy.
Key question: Can United deal with the pressure?
There are two kinds of pressure here, and they're both tricky. United has been firmly in control of the East for what seems like forever, but that's no longer the case. Columbus is within 3 points of the Black-and-Red, while the Red Bulls are 5 back with 3 games in hand. This game is arguably the single biggest game of the entire season in the East, and the momentum is decidedly with NYRB even after their deserved loss in Chicago. United's last two truly big games - the first leg at Alajuelense and the Open Cup round of 16 game against Philadelphia - saw them fail to deliver. Today has to be different if United is going to win the East and remain a real threat to win the Supporters Shield.
There's also the more tangible pressure on the field today. United has been kind of erratic under Ben Olsen in dealing with it as a road team: For every game that featured 90 minutes of backs-to-the-wall defending, there's also a triumph to point to. The 2-0 loss at Red Bull Arena back in March wasn't fun, but United also countered a similarly aggressive Sporting KC to death last year on the road. If United can keep the ball moving and avoid turnovers in their own half, there will be spaces to attack and weak spots to exploit. If not, this may be another game where goalkeeping is the only thing keeping the Black-and-Red's head above water.
Match date/time: Sunday 8/30, 7:00pm Eastern
Venue: Red Bull Arena (Harrison, NJ)
TV: Fox Sports 1 (English), Fox Deportes (Spanish)
Online: Fox Sports Go (English), Fox Soccer 2Go (English, requires subscription), MLS Live (English, requires subscription, blacked out in the DC region)
Our gamethread will be up an hour before kickoff.