United tumbled to a 2-1 defeat in their inaugural trip to Rio Tinto Stadium last month, forfeiting the early lead granted by Luciano Emilio's first-half header and directing only one other shot on target all game. But that setback remains D.C.'s only loss of the campaign as Tom Soehn's side has shown steady improvement in the ensuing weeks, building an eight-game undefeated streak.
Since that trip to the Wasatch Front, the United attack has shown consistent menace even with a variety of personnel and circumstances but the back line, while much improved from last season, remains prone to inopportune breakdowns.
Pointing to the growing understanding along the back line, veteran Bryan Namoff sees ample reason for optimism but has lamented his team's inability to lock down opposing offenses for the full 90 minutes, as the Black-and-Red have only two clean sheets to their credit in 2009. Blanking Real remains his top objective this weekend.
"We've put together really good halves. Right now we just need to bring those two together to have a full, complete game," said the D.C. right back this week. "And the one area that's in the back of my head right now is the shutouts: we haven't had a shutout in what's going on seven games. So looking towards the league for Saturday, that's definitely one of my goals, especially as we're going to be at home against an opponent that beat us."
Year after year, United seem to remain an inherently attack-minded outfit and their struggles to maintain defensive focus were vividly displayed in Wednesday's U.S. Open Cup play-in match. D.C jumped out to a 4-0 lead over New York, only to yield three goals and a bevy of chances as the Red Bulls nearly hauled themselves back into contention in the second half.
"It seemed to be in character for us," said Namoff. "One of those fluky goals and a couple other ones, too. It was a frustrating couple of goals. I thought defensively we were pretty solid, pretty sound in the first half.
"Second half, we started to lose our momentum because of our pressure up top - we sat in a little bit and they started to counter on us. We didn't string enough possession in the second half and that's when they started to get into the attack - they started to play in our end and any time you're going to let another team play in your defensive end, they're going to create opportunities."
Goalkeeping is obviously of the most crucial variables in the defensive equation and United's netminding rotation looks likely to continue against RSL. Josh Wicks earned the start on Wednesday but neither he nor his cohorts Louis Crayton and Milos Kocic have staked a dominant claim to the starting job. Each represents a different set of traits for the United back line to adjust to from game to game, though by this point Soehn expects his defenders to be familiar with all three.
"They do train every day and you get to learn about every guy every day, and what his strengths and weaknesses are. Just like one piece coming in or out, you always have to adjust to what's given to you," said the United boss, "and it's up to one of those guys to separate themselves from the rest."
As their next opponents can verify, it could be worse for United. Until recently, Real Salt Lake had been blessed with an embarrassment of goalkeeping riches, with D.C. alum Nick Rimando keeping his nose ahead of talented youngster Chris Seitz. Rimando sustained a grisly hand injury in Real's 2-0 loss to Colorado on May 2 but Seitz lasted just three games before being sidelined by a separated shoulder last week.
Now understudy Kyle Reynish is slated for his first-ever MLS start at RFK, where the home side - recalling the torment they inflicted on Red Bulls keeper Danny Cepero in Wednesdayís first 26 minutes - will be eager to give him a baptism by fire.
"We just have to make sure that we take what we did in the first half and apply it to Saturdayís game," said Namoff. "And weíll sweep the second half underneath the rug."