Two likely playoff teams heading in very different directions will meet tonight, as struggling D.C. United is north of the border to face the Montreal Impact. The Black-and-Red badly need to get back on track with a win after picking up just one point for their last five games. Montreal, meanwhile, has gotten some wonderful early returns since incorporating superstar striker Didier Drogba into their lineup. With Drogba on the field as a starter, Montreal has 3 wins and a road draw against the LA Galaxy.
For United, it's not just about getting their first win since early August (coincidentally, their last trip to Montreal). The Impact are a likely Eastern Conference playoff side, and with United trending out of the top two these days it could well be that DCU-IMFC is a first round playoff pairing. With United's next three games against some of MLS's worst teams, this is a critical test for DC's ability to meet the level of play required in the postseason.
Key player: Steve Birnbaum
For weeks now, Birnbaum has been playing mostly good soccer, but a center back's job is to avoid being "mostly" good. You have to be solid and make as few mistakes as possible for 90 minutes, and those mistakes can't be big ones. That's where Birnbaum has been struggling lately. Most recently, he got locked in on Kei Kamara and forgot to see where the ball was going, which resulted in a bad angle that let Kamara in behind to score what turned out to be the Crew's game-winning goal.
It's not the first time in recent weeks that a target man has gotten the better of Birnbaum on the turn, and today United faces Didier Drogba. If ever there was a game where Birnbaum needed to improve upon the things he's struggled with, it's tonight. Drogba has been on a tear, and he doesn't even need to make a major mistake for the Chelsea legend to pounce. We need to see Birnbaum's best today if we're going to see United clinch a playoff spot by winning at Stade Saputo.
Key question: Can United get back on track without their first-choice central midfield duo?
Perry Kitchen is suspended, and Davy Arnaud is concussed. In the case of the former, that's really bad news. Since they drafted Kitchen in 2011, United has played 11 games in which Kitchen did not appear. Their record? 0W-4D-7L, with 7 goals scored and 21 conceded. The Black-and-Red will have to win without Kitchen for the first time since he joined the club in order to clinch their playoff spot tonight.
Arnaud's absence complicates things further, as the likely pairing of Markus Halsti and Michael Farfan won't be able to make up for the missing veteran's abrasive qualities. To beat Montreal with that central midfield, United is going to have to be cleaner with the ball and more confident in playing possession soccer.
Generally speaking, you'd think that missing crucial players on the road would mean going conservative, and this certainly isn't a call for United to play all-out attacking soccer (that's a game they're just not cut out to win with). Instead, United needs to play to their new central duo's strengths. That means keeping the ball and using possession as much for defensive purposes as anything else. United won't be able to defend in their normal fashion, so they'll have to adjust to a game in which they keep the ball in order to not have to defend so much or so deeply.
Match previews: Beyond what's in this piece, we have our predictions, a report from the last practice session before United headed up north, our still-sort-of-new feature Keys to Victory, and a look at Montreal's lineup.
Match date/time: Saturday 9/26, 5:00pm Eastern
Venue: Stade Saputo (Montreal, Quebec, Canada)
TV: CSN Washington (English), MLS Direct Kick (English, requires subscription, blacked out in the DC region), Eurosport 2 International (English), RDS (French, Canada only), TSN2 (English, Canada only)
Online: MLS Live (English, requires subscription, blacked out in the DC region)
Our gamethread will be up an hour before kickoff.