Tomorrow afternoon, D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls will start their fifth MLS playoff series in twenty years, and they'll end the season having played each other five different times. These being the two teams that have played each other more than any other pair of MLS clubs, it's safe to say that familiarity is a huge factor. However, I'd argue that United - who have not been able to field Fabian Espindola against NYRB at all this season - has not shown their best selves to the Red Bulls yet. Here's how they can make that happen and get themselves a home win they pretty much need if they're going to spring an upset and get to just their second conference final in nine years:
Escape the defensive third
The one defining quality of this NYRB team is their endless pressure. Home, away, in a tied game, or 3-0 up, it doesn't matter: They're going to press you deep in your own end. It's designed to create the sort of game that leads to this:
On the left is a chart of United's defensive actions at Red Bull Arena back in March. The right side is from United's trip north in August. In both cases, United ends up having far too many clearances, and they come from very deep positions. That's a very bad sign. Even taking into account that United defends deep on a regular basis, these maps indicate a team that spent almost the entire game on the back foot.
United is going to have to find a way to play out of the back without losing the ball so regularly. That's going to require a few different things: Successful long ball play is a start, particularly with Alvaro Saborio likely coming in for Chris Pontius. A few successful flick-ons for Fabian Espindola - especially in wide areas - will force NYRB's fullbacks to be more cautious. Once that happens, there will be more space and fewer white jerseys flooding the midfield, which means an easier time passing out of the back the normal way.
The back four will need to clear the ball with a purpose for this to work, but it also requires a lot of focus and effort elsewhere. Saborio has to stay mobile and win a big chunk of his aerial battles, while everyone running onto the flick-on/knockdown/second ball needs to get moving early in the play. If United is having to defend deep, the wide midfielders will have a lot of ground to make up to support a long ball attack. This is a physically demanding tactic, but United doesn't have the technical quality in the back to simply pass through and around NYRB's smothering full-field press.
Make the early chances count
Both of United's losses to NYRB this season have gone down in the history books as relentless, 90 minute shellackings that could have gone worse if not for Bill Hamid. That's not really an accurate picture of either game once you zoom in on them, though. In every meeting between the clubs, United has created a good early chance that was wasted.
In the first game, Chris Rolfe probably should have scored in the 32nd minute but his shot stayed on the grass and lost enough momentum that Luis Robles could make a (somewhat sloppy) save. It's hypothetical obviously, but getting back into the game so quickly would have likely sapped the Red Bulls of some momentum and buoyed United. It's not hard to imagine a game in that alternate history where the game is played a bit more in NYRB's end and in the middle third.
At RFK, United saw Jairo Arrieta badly scuff a 32nd minute shot from the penalty spot. Coming 6 minutes after Perry Kitchen had put DC up 1-0, this would have been a great chance to bury NYRB early and prevent their late comeback. In August, with the score 0-0 and the field not yet entirely tilted toward United's goal, Pontius stripped Connor Lade inside the NYRB box but the help he required to turn those circumstances - a loose ball and a scrambling, unprepared defense - into more than a blocked 26 yard shot from Nick DeLeon. Quicker, more connected play from United there potentially becomes a great chance.
United has had their chances to turn these games into something favorable early, and they've made mistakes every time. With their amazing record of giving up early goals at RFK and NYRB being MLS's highest-scoring team, it seems safe to expect United to find themselves needing 2 or even 3 goals to have a favorable result to take with them to New Jersey. Converting these early chances would do an awful lot to help.
Be the better team on set pieces
United has deservedly gained a reputation as one of MLS's most fearsome set piece sides on the attacking side of the ball. However, in this series in 2015 it's the Red Bulls - the smaller team, and the team that has less of a need to create from such situations - that have scored more from free kicks and corners. Given that both of their goals at RFK came via that path, it's something United has to address.
In particular, it's the defensive side of things that should worry Ben Olsen and the rest of the coaching staff. United has created several point-blank chances against NYRB on set pieces this year, with Kitchen's first goal in the 2-2 draw a perfect example. That side of the ball is just about execution. Defensively, United needs to be more alert. There was no good reason for Damien Perrinelle to be open in that same draw to pull a goal back, and while Hamid did spill a free kick on the late equalizer it's worth noting that no one arrived to help out the man who has bailed his teammates out so often for this club. It has to be better from all 11 players on the field when the Red Bulls are standing over a dead ball, because in Felipe and Kljestan they will get the delivery right fairly regularly.
Don't cross the line
United's games with the Red Bulls have historically been physical games, and in recent years we've seen the hot atmosphere end up provoking a bad reaction from someone in black. Against New England, I urged United to play mean without playing dirty, and they clearly went a bit too far. It ended up working anyway because the Revs were poor defending through the middle all night, but after Bobby Boswell drew a suspension it's likely that referee Fotis Bazakos is going to be keeping United on a very tight leash.
However, United still needs to have some bite to their game. This is a team that thrives on being tough and gritty, and those things require playing with an edge. The Red Bulls play their best soccer when everyone on both sides is on a calm, even keel; if they get to play their best soccer, United has a problem. DCU needs to be an unpleasant opponent for the Red Bulls, but they need to do so without getting themselves into trouble with Bazakos.