Playing a team five times in one season might seem like a bit much, but that's exactly the situation D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls find themselves in today. It hasn't gone well for United, who other than the first 67 minutes on April 11th have been outplayed comprehensively by their oldest rival. There are a few things that have to change, because United hasn't even come close to getting a draw at Red Bull Arena (much less winning, as is required today). Here are four vital things that United has to accomplish if they're going to advance in these playoffs:
Win the set piece battle
We'll start here because it's been gnawing at me all season with these two teams. The Red Bulls are not a particularly big team, especially once you move away from their center backs. Sacha Kljestan is the only other even above average player in their starting lineup when it comes to defending through the air, they don't score a ton of set piece goals, Luis Robles can be effectively boxed out, and United finished the season as arguably MLS's most dangerous set piece team.
And yet, across 4 meetings this season, the Red Bulls have outscored United 3-1 in these situations. Last week, the winning goal came from the smallest player on the field. It should be aggravating to every United player, coach, front office member, and fan. This should be a distinct advantage for DCU when these teams meet, but the Red Bulls have flipped the script through their own inventive approach to set pieces and by simply taking advantage of mistakes.
United needs to create more set piece opportunities, and they need to do better with them when they come. The service needs to be consistently good from Fabian Espindola (and possibly from Taylor Kemp, if he gets the chance). That's a minor worry in my book compared to the lack of invention shown by United in comparison to the Red Bulls. NYRB knows they have to be clever to make up for their lack of size, so they do stuff like have a decoy over the ball, or attempt more than one run-up to strike the ball, or set picks, or use all their targets to draw attention away from someone like Dax McCarty.
United used to be very clever about this sort of thing, with Ben Olsen crediting Chad Ashton for some rehearsed set pieces over the years. Whatever tricky play the coaching staff has drawn up on a whiteboard or scrawled onto a restaurant napkin somewhere, now's the time to let loose. United needs to be hungrier and more aggressive attacking the ball, of course, but they also need to be more unpredictable. In all likelihood, their season is depending on it.
Bill Hamid needs to be brilliant
This one isn't complicated, and it's not really fair either. That's the life of a goalkeeper on a team that leans heavily on the man between the sticks to save the day. Hamid has a rare gift in being able to play at a level far beyond what even MLS's best goalkeepers can produce. I still maintain that his performance in Orlando on April 3rd was the single best 90 minutes by any MLS player this season. In a game that United must win, against a team that has scored a ton of goals and seems to have the Black-and-Red's number right now, Hamid will most likely have to be man of the match if DC is to play any more soccer in 2015.
Don't just defend deep
United's one non-loss this season against NYRB came early in the year, and it involved a more positive approach from the Black-and-Red than they've produced in the ensuing three meetings. United will have an extraordinarily hard time winning this game if the plan is to defend deep and wait for counter-attacking opportunities or set pieces. The Red Bulls have seen that approach a lot at home this season, and they know how to break a bunker.
It is essential that United give the Red Bulls something to think about. An unending barrage of long balls mitigated NYRB's high pressure approach, but United wasn't good at making the long ball game work for anything but that narrow goal. DC needs to press back and take a more positive approach, particularly in the opening 15 minutes. An early attacking push obviously has huge risks, but it's plain to see that the patterns of previous trips up there are not viable paths towards a United win. The visitors need to give the Red Bulls something to be cautious about to make them think twice about pressing so high or with so many players.
The Red Bulls are in all likelihood thinking this will quickly become yet another offense vs. defense drill like United's other trips to Harrison were, but in both of those games the Black-and-Red created an early look at goal before falling back completely. It's after those games became defined as NYRB battering down the gates that things went wrong. The time to strike may well be early, before the game takes on a rhythm that doesn't suit United.
Fight like hell
In the history of this rivalry, United has usually had the better team in terms of skill. However, even more often they've had the better team in terms of mentality. This was never better summed up than 2012's snow game, where an agitated Ben Olsen repeatedly and firmly said that his team wanted to play in the conditions present while Hans Backe blandly said he felt the game should be rescheduled. Body language and "messaging" are overrated, but the next night United - playing with the mettle Olsen showed in wanting to defy the weather - won mostly because they were the stronger team mentally.
Under Mike Petke and now Jesse Marsch, the ready-to-fold Red Bulls are a thing of the past. This year's NYRB is a mentally tough team who will not get rattled easily and will not just concede in terms of fighting spirit. United has put in as much effort as the Red Bulls in their trips to Red Bull Arena, but being roughly equal in the mentality side of the game isn't going to cut it here. The Red Bulls are the more techincally gifted team in nearly every position on the field, so United is going to have to be the harder working team, the tougher team, the unshakable team in this game. United can't just edge the intangibles side of the ledger; they have to decisively win the fight for 90 (or maybe 120?) minutes if they want to win the game.