Soccer fans in the DMV know the pattern by now: D.C. United wins a game, and then does not win the next game. This is what United’s form has looked like within MLS play since their first win of the season: WLWTLWLWLTW. The scores when United has gone for a winning streak have been remarkably similar: Two 1-0 losses, a 1-1 tie, and a 2-0 loss. Tonight against Real Salt Lake, United will look to finally (finally!) get themselves on an actual, honest-to-Moreno winning streak.
They’re probably playing RSL at the right time, too. The Salt Lake City club - notorious for investing emotionally into cup competitions in a manner other MLS clubs simply don’t - fell to Seattle on penalties Tuesday night in the Open Cup. That means 120 minutes just three days ago, which was just three days after their 2-0 loss at FC Dallas.
Head coach Jeff Cassar rotated out all but one preferred starter for that latter game in an effort to have his first-choice team available for the Open Cup. On top of that, he only used two subs on Tuesday: Luke Mulholland was replaced in the 72nd minute by Jordan Allen, and Justen Glad was substituted in the 119th minute for Chris Wingert (likely to take RSL’s fifth PK, which never ended up happening). Of RSL’s best eleven, only Wingert and Nick Rimando will be adequately rested.
That’s not to say that RSL will definitely be sending out the lineup that played in Texas last weekend. They’ve understandably kept their plans quiet. United could be facing a mix of regulars and second-choice players, or the full first team. What is certain is that the home team has won every regular season game in this series dating back to United getting a 1-1 draw on the road in 2011. Open Cup magic aside, Rio Tinto Stadium has not been a happy hunting ground for United. That’ll have to change if DC is to finally avoid the valley that has come after every peak in 2016.
Key player: Marcelo Sarvas
Let’s assume that last week’s successful implementation of a 4141 formation was not a one-off choice tailored for New England. Given that United’s previous form playing out of a 442 was not good, it seems likely that the new look will hold. The most important part of that alignment’s success for the Black-and-Red was not Lamar Neagle’s 1 goal/1 assist performance, or Jalen Robinson’s standout showing in his first-ever MLS start (as important as both of those players were last weekend).
The key to United succeeding in this formation is Marcelo’s ability to shuttle the ball from the defense into the midfield without playing too direct or taking too long to do so. His vision and his ability to turn out of tight spaces allows that to happen in theory, but in practice against New England those traits were not tested. The Revs simply never made a concerted or intelligent effort to make his life difficult. United won pretty easily, and that tactical victory was a huge factor.
It’s hard to say for sure what kind of lineup RSL can put together tonight, but one thing we do know is that they aren’t going to ignore the tape from Saturday. RSL, after years of asking Kyle Beckerman to do the same thing for their possession game, will know just how important it is to pressure Marcelo into hurried passes or forcing him to play backward.
This is the real test of whether United can play in this 4141 going forward. The first thing teams are going to do to stop the Black-and-Red from playing is to take this link between defense and midfield out of the equation. If Marcelo can still be effective in the face of that, DCU is in business. If not, we might see United forced into a more familiar road style, which eschews possession in favor of security. United has avoided defeat in five of seven road games, but realistically they have to find a way to do something more than grind and hope on the road if they’re to move out of MLS’s middle class.
Location: Rio Tinto Stadium (Sandy, UT)
Kickoff time: 10:30pm Eastern
Available TV: UniMas (Spanish), Univision Deportes (Spanish)
Available streaming: Univision Deportes app, plus MLS Live for those outside the blackout radius
For listings in other countries, check out LiveSoccerTV.com.
Our gamethread will be posted one hour before kickoff.