So far, the CONCACAF Champions League is going according to plan for D.C. United. Without having used many first-choice players, the Black-and-Red will be the first team to mathematically assure themselves of a spot in next year's knockout round with a single point tonight against Arabe Unido. However, this last step will probably be the hardest, as Arabe has no intention of meekly handing that quarterfinal spot over.
On the plus side, Ben Olsen will have the option of including some top players on his bench just in case this game needs to be pulled out of the fire. Winning the group tonight comes with the obvious advantage of being the point of this whole CCL endeavor, but it also means that Olsen can rest even his league play substitutes - not to mention give minutes to players like Travis Worra and Collin Martin - in the final Group H game at Montego Bay United.
First things first, though: United will need to avoid defeat against Panama's top club, and that will probably require a more engaged start to the match than we saw in the previous CCL match at RFK. Arabe has brought in reinforcements in the form of Armando Cooper and Luis Fraiz, and they know it's all or nothing today. If the Black-and-Red can't match that intensity, they could well be going to Jamaica needing a win.
Key player: Kofi Opare
I'm strongly tempted to select Miguel Aguilar or Michael Farfan here, but if United avoids conceding a goal they will be in the knockout rounds. As such, I'm going with Opare, who has been mostly solid in non-league games. I say "mostly" because in both CCL games, as well as in the Open Cup, he's made one dangerous mistake that mars an otherwise solid outing.
Today, Opare needs to make mistake-free soccer. Against Arabe Unido, that means dealing with plenty of attempted through balls from deep positions as well as attempts from Jose Gonzalez to slash into the middle and combine rather than stay out on the wing. El Expreso Azul may not be thinking attack-first tonight, but in all likelihood they're going to throw everything they have at United. Opare is going to need to be ready for a lot of work in the final half-hour.
Key question: Can the supposed reserves keep getting the job done?
United's back-ups have gotten more games as a group than they usually would, and they've delivered some good results too. Ben Olsen has maybe been a bit overly skeptical of some of his second unit in terms of what they could do with the first team, but when he's put them on the field they have shown no signs of nervousness that would imply a lack of trust from the coaching staff.
In some ways, this could be the biggest test for that group. Arabe Unido is not the best team they've played - I think the Chicago Fire are better by a hair - but they are the most desperate. They also don't know much about losing, having gone unbeaten in the first 9 games of the Panamanian season and winning their other CCL game. This is a proud team that has their back against the wall, and that means they could be really dangerous if United lets them take control of what kind of match we see.
The reserves need to make sure this game stays on United's terms. That doesn't mean "all defending, no chances or fun" as some would have you believe. It does mean that the tempo probably shouldn't be end-to-end, though, and that's the main thing to look out for. Arabe's penchant for playing killer balls means that the higher the pace, the more likely they are to have some success going forward.
Match previews: Steven Streff went to training to talk to some of United's likely starters about their CCL success thus far, while yours truly talked about the things United will need to do to win and the likely Arabe Unido starting lineup. And hey, this is a preview too!
Match date/time: Tuesday 9/15, 8:00pm Eastern
Venue: Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium (Washington, DC)
TV: Fox Sports 2 (English), Univision Deportes (Spanish)
Online: Fox Sports Go (English), Fox Soccer 2Go (English, requires subscription), Univision Deportes (Spanish)
Our gamethread will be up an hour before kickoff.