Welcome to Keys to Victory, our rebooted attempt at doing a scouting report for D.C. United's opponents without taking a run at "War and Peace" in terms of length. For our maiden voyage, we'll turn our attention to the Colorado Rapids, who are eight points out of the playoffs with only seven matches to play. In other words, this home game is one they cannot afford to lose. Here's what United needs to do to spoil the party:
Play while their legs will let them
Teams going on the road to play at altitude famously struggle in the final half-hour of games. United can't afford to be in the position of needing a goal to get a result when their legs start to leave them, and they probably don't want to be clinging to a draw for the full 30 minutes either. The Rapids may not be a strong team, but they've got a major advantage when it comes to playing a mile above sea level.
Instead of having to do their hardest work when running on fumes, the Black-and-Red need to be more positive than they normally are on the road in the opening hour. That's not to say they should furiously attack from the opening whistle; United should instead look to press higher upfield for 10-15 minute spells before then focusing on keeping things secure, preserving their legs and slowing the tempo way down. It's not easy to shift gears so often, but it's a tactic we see teams deploy regularly in MLS and elsewhere. Having the better of the early stages may also throw the Rapids off mentally, since their best run of form in 2015 was only just snapped at Vancouver mid-week. It's on United to make Colorado feel like that result is reality rather than the three-game winning streak that preceded it.
Make the Rapids defend the whole field
The Rapids are not the team you want to watch if you like goals. They're by some distance the lowest-scoring team in MLS, and they're also second to Vancouver in terms of defensive stinginess. This is a defense-first, conservative team that focuses on staying compact and not conceding more than anyone else in MLS. You see it in their midfield - where the wide positions are often given to players that belong in the center - and you see it in their back 4, which features 3.5 center backs (Maynor Figueroa is the tweener in this set-up, playing left back but having played just as much center back in his career).
As such, United is going to have to get them to stretch out and defend the full width of DSG Park. That's not an easy task, but it's one United has to succeed at if they're not just going to play for either 0-0 or have a set piece battle. This means runs forward from both fullbacks, and it means Fabian Espindola doing his favorite thing (peeling away from the middle and into wide positions to unbalance the defense). If United can pull the Rapids apart, they should be able to create some significant danger. If not, they're going to struggle to get anything going. The Rapids would love nothing more than to stay narrow and connected all game long.
Win the second balls, because there will be a lot of them
Colorado plays as many long balls per game as United does at home. That will mean a lot of aerial duels, and United can't let likely starting striker Kevin Doyle set his teammates up by winning headers. Never mind that the Rapids midfield is built to keep the ball rather than chase down second balls as Pablo Mastroeni has them doing; it's still something United needs to control. Doyle can't be allowed to win many headers, and United needs to dominate when it comes to the resulting knockdowns. NYRB were vastly superior in that latter category in United's last outing, and it can't happen again.
Take advantage of Colorado's poor discipline
The Rapids are second only to Vancouver in terms of their ability to pick up yellow cards. They tend to commit careless fouls that get them in trouble with the referee, and that could play to United's advantage. We've seen the Black-and-Red go on the road and get results in part because their opponents see players sent off, and the Rapids are prone to that sort of thoughtless play. Colorado will probably be picking up cards, and when a player gets on a yellow United needs to target whoever that is for the rest of the game.
Force long-range shots
United's defensive bread and butter is getting teams to settle for low-percentage looks at goal. Getting back to doing that was always going to be part of Ben Olsen's gameplan tomorrow, but it's especially important against the Rapids. Colorado already takes over 45% of their shots at home from outside the box, a recipe that's unlikely to succeed against Bill Hamid. United needs to make sure these two tendencies dovetail so that Hamid is facing contested, 20+ yard shots rather than the barrage of close-range looks the Red Bulls were creating two weeks ago.
This series is going to be somewhat flexible and experimental, so please let us know in the comments if there's anything you'd rather see added or cut.