After two weeks to lick their wounds, D.C. United returns to action tonight with a road game against the Colorado Rapids. United was finally overtaken at the top of the Eastern Conference last night, but could go back into the lead with a win tonight in the Rockies. Regardless of the standings, Black-and-Red desperately need a good performance to get back on track after losing three straight (their worst league run since a four-game losing streak split evenly by the last two games of 2013 and the first two of 2014).
For the home side, anything other than a win would be damaging to their already bleak playoff hopes. The Rapids are eight points beneath the red line with just seven games left to play; losing today wouldn't formally eliminate them, but it would probably leave Colorado needing to win four or even five of their remaining games (and we're talking about a team that only has eight wins on the season). The playoffs will be a longshot even with a win, but a defeat today will leave Colorado on life support.
Key player: Fabian Espindola
No surprises here. United got through the first 6 games of the season without their Argentine talisman, but during his more recent injury-related absence they struggled badly. Espindola's return is crucial in several ways: Obviously he's the club's best and most creative attacker, but he's also the best set piece taker on the roster - something that means a lot for United - and the emotional inspiration for his teammates on top of all of that.
So United needs Espindola in a general sense, but today they need him for some specific reasons. Only Vancouver has given up fewer goals than Colorado this season, and it doesn't appear likely that the Black-and-Red will be able to open them up without their best attacking players all delivering. That puts the onus on Espindola to be his crafty, feisty best. United will also need to see him pulling off the front line and into wide areas to throw off what is an organized, compact Rapids side.
Key question: Did United make significant progress towards fixing their problems?
From where I sit, the last time United played sound soccer that was reasonably likely to succeed was mid-to-late June. I'm not saying they were great - we're talking about a stretch where a USL team took the Black-and-Red to overtime; where the Revs had a 1-0 lead well over an hour into a game at RFK; and where the two road MLS games were mostly defined by grimly hanging on - but there were few mistakes. United earned their points in those four games. Since being dumped out of the US Open Cup by a 10-man Philly side, all of the following things have happened:
- Two straight road losses via very late goals
- Two straight home games in which United trailed 2-0 very early
- A game in which DCU was out-shot 25 to 1
- A loss to a sloppily put-together NYCFC side
- A home loss to a team from the Pacific coast not named the Galaxy
- A savage beating at the hands of the club's most bitter rival
There are plenty of issues United needed to address during this two week gap between games. First and foremost, in my book at least, is to be more secure between the lines. United has been too easy to play against and too generous in terms of space. A very close runner-up is simply connecting on passes more regularly; the Black-and-Red were pretty bad in possession through July and August.
We'll see fairly quickly how much progress United actually made during the bye week. It might take a few minutes to get back into the groove of playing a competitive game, but from there United needs to be that smart team that controls where their opponents attack from. They need to be that team that doesn't give the ball away in their own half, who doesn't let teams camp out in their own end, and who gives teams a reason to think twice about being too aggressive going forward. If those issues aren't fixed, United won't do much more in 2015 than stumble into the playoffs. We might not see a perfect solution to all of these problems in today's game, but it's got to be markedly better than it has been over the past two months.
Match previews: Our customary lineup prediction is up first, followed by a report from training that finds United as healthy as they've been in quite a while. Keys to Victory debuted earlier today to give you an idea of how DC can beat Colorado, while Opposition 11 outlines who the Rapids are likely to start.
Elsewhere, MLSsoccer's preview reports that today's referee Sorin Stoica has given 19 red cards and 20 penalty kicks in just 40 career games as an MLS head official. Over at the Washington Post, Steve Goff went into further detail about United's play with and without Espindola.
Match date/time: Saturday 9/12, 9:00pm Eastern
Venue: Dick's Sporting Goods Park (Commerce City, CO)
TV: CSN Washington (English), MLS Direct Kick (English, requires subscription, blacked out in the DC region)
Online: MLS Live (English, requires subscription, blacked out in the DC region)
Our gamethread will be up an hour before kickoff.