With a win over Columbus Crew SC tonight, D.C. United will seal a playoff spot for the second straight season. However, thanks to a strong back half of their season the Crew are in the same spot. Both clubs find themselves in the thick of what could become the tightest race for first place that MLS's Eastern Conference has ever seen. The Crew have the added advantage of suddenly having solved their previous road woes, with all four of their away wins coming in their last five trips away from Crew Stadium. United, meanwhile, were barely tested in becoming the first team in this year's CONCACAF Champions League to seal a spot in the knockout stages on Tuesday.
For both clubs, there's the feeling that this game serves as a litmus test. United has just one point from their last four league games and haven't won in MLS since August 8th. If this club is going to hit their stride in time for the playoffs, they need to take the first step today. The Crew, meanwhile, are arguably in their best form of the season but have largely been taking their points against the weaker teams in the East. This is an opportunity for them to prove - to themselves as much as anyone else - that they can do it against a playoff-caliber opponent.
Key player: Alvaro Saborio
It's put up or shut up time for Saborio, who after a promising start to his United career has done virtually nothing to justify his continued starting role. While his defensive efforts have been acceptable, we're talking about a striker here. Saborio has not been involved with much in terms of danger in weeks for United, and his hold-up play hasn't even let other players create things or help United build some possession. Since a calamitous turnover at midfield against NYCFC, it's been pretty much all downhill.
On the other hand, this is the perfect slump-buster for a physical striker who is excellent in the air. Columbus is as weak as they come in terms of defending in the air, and Sabo should have no problem bodying up to Michael Parkhurst and Tyson Wahl in central defense. Saborio needs to be the abrasive beast of a #9 he often was for RSL over the years in this one, because if he can deliver that level of play United is going to be able to create quite a bit going forward. He needs to be engaged from the start, though, and show more hunger and focus than he has in recent weeks. It's not good when Jairo Arrieta has consistently come off the bench in league matches to create more incident in 15-20 minutes than Sabo did in the previous 70-75.
United brought Saborio in to be an unquestioned starter, and this may be his last, best chance to head off inquiries about whether he actually has a spot in this team's best 11.
Key question: Can United dictate the terms?
These two teams follow very different paths towards success. The Crew are not going to be comfortable with the style of play United prefers, while the Black-and-Red simply can't afford to engage in a possession battle with Columbus. Every game is about the teams attempting to dictate the terms to one another, but tonight it's going to matter a lot more than usual.
If United can stay organized and compact defensively while making efficient use of their time in possession against a Crew team that is far more comfortable with the ball than without it, they're going to have a great platform to go on and win what is a huge game for both teams. If they're wasteful in possession, however, and/or they get pulled apart by the field-stretching Crew, they're going to have big problems.
Match previews: So this is a preview, but we went further in depth a few times this week. We called for United to take advantage of this rare opportunity to field a consistent lineup in league play while as a staff were rather inconsistent in predicting the outcome of tonight's game. Today, we outlined the things United has to do to take 3 points as well as discussed the likely Crew starting lineup.
Match date/time: Saturday 9/19, 7:00pm Eastern
Venue: Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium (Washington, DC)
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.