Perception is capable of obscuring a lot. Around MLS (and even by fans of the club that have seen every game this season), D.C. United is perceived as struggling or mediocre. Never mind that 5th in the East, which is where they sit today, is the same place that they finished in 2015. No one's "well, actually" saying United is great, but the fact is that a win today would leave these supposed also-rans within 2 points of the Philadelphia Union, a team perceived as the Eastern Conference's only truly respectable team. Funny how things work out. United even has a game in hand, so a victory today sets up the potential to leapfrom the Union down the road.
However, talking about United and a road win must be seen for the act of optimism it is. The Black-and-Red have just one road win all season, and it came via a goalkeeping error against a KC team that otherwise probably did enough to merit a win on the night. Philadelphia, meanwhile, has the best home record (6W-2D-1L) in the East. Their last three results at home aren't great - 3-2 and 4-3 wins over struggling Columbus and Chicago followed by a 3-2 loss to Vancouver - but this is a venue in which United has lost three straight one-goal games. DC hasn't won in (OK, near) Philly since May 10, 2014.
Key player: Alvaro Saborio
Looking back for United's last road win against the Union also underlined how close these games are. Seven straight meetings between these two clubs have ended in one-goal wins for one team or the other. United's defense, between Bill Hamid's dominance and a team structure that has survived numerous changes at center back, will keep it in this game like it does just about every week.
The issue is the offense, and right now United's attack is heavily reliant on Saborio's play. In this new 4141 formation, Saborio's hold-up play is the difference between the Black-and-Red creating chances to really attack a team or being a side that is reduced to waiting for a set piece or a mistake. We may see Luciano Acosta as the main playmaker, and the system may create more of its chances from the wings than through the middle right now, but all of that is built on the foundation of Saborio being able to post up successfully against defenders, win plenty of headers, and find the room to lay the ball off to onrushing midfielders. If he's off, the gap between United's front line and midfield (which is too large to call this look a 433) ends up working in the opponent's favor.
Remember when I mentioned Philadelphia's recent home results? Columbus scoring two on the road is not very good, but it's understandable. Conceding three at home to the Chicago Fire, though? Or losing 3-2 to Vancouver, who came across the continent and started that game with Erik Hurtado alone up front? The Union are not actually defending all that well at home, even when the circumstances would point to a pretty comfortable shutout. Chicago has 15 goals on the whole season! You can't concede multiple goals to them and look in the mirror the next day.
Against an opponent having this sort of defensive trend, an involved Saborio could be the key to United's first multi-goal road game of 2016.
Location: Talen Energy Stadium (Chester, PA)
Kickoff time: 7:00pm Eastern
Available TV: NewsChannel 8 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 one hour before kickoff.