Last week's road draw still feels like a very mixed bag for D.C. United. They showed far more nerve and intelligence in San Jose than they did when they more or less handed FC Dallas a rout in their previous game. United had to hang on for the first half hour, to be sure, but from there they were more than a match for the Earthquakes. They scored once, and were very unlucky to not get another early in the second half. A draw may have been a fair result, but this set up in a way that United should have turned into three points
However, the very avoidable 88th minute equalizer mitigated a lot of those positives. For a team that has now gone seven competitive games in 2016 without a single win, getting that close only to come home with a draw stings. Today, against the Vancouver Whitecaps, the pressure to get a win is surely going to be on. The East is wide open enough that, somehow, the Philadelphia Union are in first place. Just one win, and United could easily find themselves above the red line by the end of the weekend.
It's a great moment to be playing the Whitecaps. Their gifted playmaker Pedro Morales is out injured, while their defensive midfielder Matias Laba - who belongs in any discussion of best #6s in MLS - is suspended. They haven't scored a goal from open play in 2016 (with their last 4 goals all coming via Morales penalty kicks). No opponent will come so far to play a game at RFK this season.
In other words, it's time.
Key Player: Lamar Neagle
Last Saturday, Neagle had one of the best games any individual United player has offered thus far in 2016. He created numerous good scoring chances - including a pinpoint cross for Patrick Nyarko's goal - was heavily involve defensively, hit the crossbar on a direct free kick, and may have differentiated himself as the Black-and-Red's best option to take corner kicks. Neagle gained a reputation in Seattle for being hot or cold that has, in a very small sample here, held up. However, against the Quakes, he was the best player on the field, and hopefully it's the start of a run of good form.
Neagle is a good fit for what Ben Olsen needs out of a left midfielder in a 442, and he'll have an opportunity to build on how things went last week today. Vancouver has been a model of defensive organization since Carl Robinson took over, but this season they're young at right back. Steven Beitashour was allowed to leave, and in his place the Whitecaps have more often than not turned to 21 year old Fraser Aird. The Montreal Impact showed the way here, with Ignacio Piatti shifting wide to dribble at the Scottish-Canadian. Piatti scored two goals, and the entire Whitecaps back four struggled because one side couldn't hold up to the pressure.
To be sure, Piatti is a more gifted dribbler than Neagle (and virtually anyone else in MLS), and his approach down the left will be more simple than having Piatti, playing centrally, constantly angling himself out to the wing. Neither of those facts should stop United from feeding Neagle the ball, though, because Aird is clearly the weak link in the Vancouver defense. The former Sounder has had success against the Whitecaps in the past as well (including 3 goals in 2 CONCACAF Champions League games against VWFC last fall). United is going to need him to once again be a big factor if they're going to find a way to score some goals on a very stingy opponent.
Location: Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium (Washington, DC)
Kick-off time: 5:30pm Eastern
Available TV: WJLA ABC 7 and regional affiliates (check the link for the over-the-air alternate channel in your area)
Available streaming: MLS Live for those outside the blackout radius
For listings in other countries, check out LiveSoccerTV.com.
Our gamethread will be posted an hour before kickoff.