Clinching a playoff spot with a dramatic stoppage time winner was nice for D.C. United, but tomorrow's game against the Chicago Fire is still very important. At the time this is being written, Columbus is 45 minutes away from pushing United down into 4th place, while a win for New England or Montreal later today could see the Black-and-Red temporarily sitting in 5th place. Falling out of the top four means no home playoff game, and United has been pretty poor on the road all season long.
There are also some intangibles involved. United will surely want to enter the playoffs on a winning run rather than looking back on the victory over NYCFC as an outlier. There's also something to be said for overall morale at this stage in the season. Losing to one of MLS's bottom clubs - a team that hasn't won in 24 consecutive road games - is not going to be good for United's mental state just as the biggest games of the season approach. Here's how they can make sure they're heading into the season finale in a good place:
Win in transition
Chicago is fast. United is slow. This means that United's ability to get into good defensive positions when they've turned the ball over is going to be tested throughout the match. DCU can't afford to be sluggish about getting into their defensive structure, because the Fire are going to have an advantage whenever there's space to attack.
Going the other way, United should look to move the ball quickly following Chicago giveaways. The Fire are not a good defensive team and are not a good road team in general, and one of their issues is an inability to get back into their shape following a turnover. Throw in some positionally unsound players like Lovel Palmer and a central midfield that can be lacking in work rate, and there should be some inviting gaps for the Black-and-Red to attack.
Recent Fire road games have been crazy, as I discovered doing research this morning:
Part of this is a consequence of Chicago's tendency to end up chasing a lead. The Fire are second only to Portland in terms of shot attempts per game on the road, and they're way out in front in terms of shot attempts from inside the 18 yard box as the visiting team (7.1, a full 0.5 ahead of the Timbers in 2nd). That's all about game states. The Fire fall behind, so they have to take more risks. They are pumping the ball into the box with a bit more thought under Brian Bliss, but they still tend to lose themselves in the moment too often.
United is a bit of the opposite extreme. There have been more than a few games where DC fans are left wondering where the urgency is as the Black-and-Red play it cool when they're behind. However, as the home side and the clearly stronger team, United should be considered the more likely team to go up 1-0. I know, I know, at RFK we've seen a ton of early goals for visiting sides. Let's go out on an admittedly flimsy limb and assume that Chicago's 24 game winless streak on the road is a more compelling force than United's tendency to concede very early.
If that holds, then DCU needs to be ready for what is the norm when it comes to the Fire: Chaotic games that get stretched for long periods. United is far less suited to succeed at that sort of game because they are one of the slowest teams in MLS. Instead of letting this game become something like the second half of the 6-4 win over RSL, where everyone on the field thought they were sure to score, United needs to take control of the ball and let Chicago chase ghosts. The already panicky Fire are likely to lose their way if they don't at least get the manic game they've tended towards of late. That means mistakes to pick apart going forward for United, as well as predictable attacks from Chicago. The game United wants tomorrow is one where they remain in control of themselves and of the tempo.
Stay narrow and connected
Chicago really prefers to attack down the wings, which isn't a surprise for a team that has mostly played an empty bucket this season. Meanwhile, they're also pretty bad at defending down the middle due to a weak set of center backs and a central midfield that just doesn't cover enough ground.
United will be much better off if this game is played in a narrow footprint on the RFK pitch. The more open space this game seems to have, the more likely Chicago's speedsters - namely David Accam, Joevin Jones, and Patrick Nyarko - will be able to play a major role in proceedings. Conversely, if this game is played more down the middle, United's narrow wide midfielders and superior central midfield should see the Black-and-Red dictate the terms. That would also help United compress the space around Harrison Shipp, which is always important against the talented Homegrown playmaker.
Strong 1-on-1 defending
United needs to lower the number of times individuals are isolated against Chicago attackers on the ball, but there will be moments where it happens. In those instances, Chicago offers a huge threat. They're as fast as any team in MLS, and the numbers bear out how they like to use that speed. The Fire are 5th in successful dribbles per game with 7.5, and they're tied with NYCFC for the most penalty kick goals in the league this season with 7.
If Sean Franklin and Taylor Kemp are hung out to dry, they're going to have to respond with strong performances. This will mean different things for each player. Franklin, going up against Accam, will want to shepherd the Ghana international out to the touchline and prevent him from getting into goalscoring positions. Accam is more of a scorer than a set-up man, so this should help dull his influence. Nyarko, meanwhile, prefers to set people up. Kemp should look to be physical with the slightly-built Virginia Tech product. He's not really a fan of that kind of treatment and can be bullied into playing things too safe for Chicago's purposes.