VW Keys to the Match: D.C. United at Portland Timbers

United looks for critical road points in playoff chase

Chris Pontius vs Portland - 2011

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Though D.C. United hits the road this weekend with a five-point cushion in the Eastern Conference playoff race, there is little comfort on East Capitol Street that the club's playoff mission is secure. With three of four remaining fixtures to be played on the road, focus and effort are central to the Black-and-Red advancing to post-season play for the first time since 2007. United will play in one of the League's most hostile environments Saturday night and dcunited.com is here to provide some insight into how Olsen's Army might emerge with a result:

Road mentality
Moments after D.C. United had earned a gritty 1-0 win over Chivas USA, bench boss Ben Olsen entered a celebratory post-game locker room. His two points of emphasis to his charges? Enjoy the victory…and get your heads right for Portland. Following an 0-3 loss in Montreal late last month, the Black-and-Red were mired in a five-game losing streak away from RFK Stadium. United's technical staff employed some subtle travel and preparatory changes, all intended to improve players' focus, effort and results on the road. Performance improved at Real Salt Lake a week later, when the hosts were lucky to emerge with a 1-0 victory, and United stung its hosts in Philly, taking the full three points. That trend will need to continue on the West Coast this weekend, and next month in fixtures at Toronto and in Chicago, if United is to enter the playoffs with momentum.

Space and time
JELD-WEN Field has proven to be a difficult place for opponents during the course of Portland's first two MLS seasons. Part of the reason the home-standing Timbers frustrate opponents is the size of the field, as the narrow quarters reduce space for players to run at defenders and time on the ball. The result is often a game featuring increased physical play and increased importance on converting set pieces. D.C. United was successful in its only previous trip to Portland, a 3-2 victory May 29 of last year by scoring on set piece (a designed throw-in sequence) and a penalty kick before a late Josh Wolff breakaway sealed the result. The club would be well served to look at their game plan for that match in order to gain similar result this weekend. If physical players like Maicon Santos, Perry Kitchen and Brandon McDonald can impose their will on the match, United could very well return to the Nation's Capital with points in hand.

Where's Darlington Nagbe?
This is a question D.C. United should be asking all night tomorrow. With Kris Boyd out of the lineup for the Timbers, Darlington Nagbe is clearly the most imposing threat the hosts have to offer. No other Timbers players has scored more than three goals for the team this season. That in mind, United defenders must always be aware of Nagbe on the field. While his goals don't come in bunches, they do often come from seemingly nowhere and tend to include flashes of brilliance. Saturday night is no time for a lapse of focus on defending this budding MLS superstar.