There’s no hiding the fact that, for both D.C. United and Orlando City, tonight’s game is the most important of the season. With five games to go, both clubs are outside the MLS playoff picture thanks in part due to the New England Revolution’s recent slasher movie villain-esque return from the dead and in part due to some pretty unimpressive form. United has one loss in nine games, but they’ve only won two in that same sequence. Orlando, meanwhile, is 2W-2D-4L in their last eight outings.
Currently, United only sits ahead of the Lions due to the second tiebreaker (goal difference), but it seems safe to say that they’re the team under more pressure to win tonight. Orlando hosts the Black-and-Red on the final day of the 2016 regular season, and given that United has just one road win on the year, DC probably needs to take the field that day holding an edge in points rather than simply relying on the tiebreakers.
To make that happen, a win today is paramount. Even a draw could see United fall as far as 4 points below the red line, while a win and a little help from the Red Bulls and Crew could put United back into 6th place (and just one point from 5th). This weekend looks sure to be one that we’ll look back on no matter what happens at the end of the year.
What kind of game can we expect? If United’s recent home form and Orlando’s season-long road tendencies are indicative of anything, we should expect goals. Here’s the good news: OCSC has given up 28 goals in 14 road games this year. They’ve managed to hold their hosts to one or zero goals just three times all year. However, the bad news is that Orlando has also scored 21 goals, and have scored multiple goals in eight different games. Say what you will about the Lions, but they don’t do boring.
United has been scoring quite a bit more regularly since making some mid-season moves, including 15 goals in their last six matches on East Capitol Street. However, three of the last four teams to visit RFK have managed to score twice, a trend that has seen United only manage to convert all those goals into three wins and three draws.
Key player: Luciano Acosta
It’s tempting to repeat last week’s discussion of right back, but with Sean Franklin out the situation is still the same. United doesn’t have any new ways to fix that problem, so let’s talk about how they can put some goals on the board. Acosta had probably his most subdued performance since United moved to the 4141 formation last week, and the Black-and-Red can’t afford a similarly passive outing in central midfield.
Orlando is particularly vulnerable to a good central playmaker right now. Jason Kreis has maintained the high line Orlando deployed under Adrian Heath, but the personnel involved are still slow. The best way to hide that weakness, if you’re going to insist on playing front-foot soccer, is to be excellent at intelligently pressuring the ball in the midfield. If you can prevent your opponent from playing too many vertical passes, the speed thing doesn’t crop up.
The Lions are not at all good at that, though. There’s no true ball-winner anywhere in their midfield, and their attacking midfield trio is ineffective trying to win the ball back. It’s not that they’re lazy; it’s that they don’t work in concert. Orlando will often have two players make an effort to press the ball, but they don’t take up complimentary angles, and there’s usually an easy pass to cut them out of the play.
Assuming United keeps the ball moving in deep positions, they should be able to find Acosta, who in turn should have more than enough time to find runners making penetrating runs. If Columbus could lay waste to the Lions in this sort of scenario without Federico Higuain and Wil Trapp, United can do the same through Acosta. And they’re probably going to need to create a ton of chances, because this game doesn’t exactly scream 1-0.
Location: Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium (Washington, DC)
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), plus YES Network
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.