Coming off a tenuous 2-1 win over the visiting New England Revolution last Saturday, D.C. United will look to further improve its playoff position when it heads north up I-95 to take on the Philadelphia Union Thursday in a nationally-televised clash.
Philadelphia may be just what the doctor ordered for a United side that is now lacking its most creative player in Dwayne De Rosario, who was ruled out for the remainder of the season after suffering a grade III MCL sprain. Philadelphia has not won since July 20 – a 2-1 win over New England – and is just 0-3-5 since. The Union has failed to score more than a single goal in all eight matches, which included being shutout on three occasions.
United, though, is still adjusting to life after DeRo, and the growing pains showed in Saturday’s game against New England.
“We were rusty. It was not a great game and we were probably a little lucky,” said United boss Ben Olsen after the match. “It could have gone either way. They had plenty of chances and we had some good looks. We are going to have to do much better than that going forward if we’re going to reach our goal.”
The goal from the beginning of preseason has been the same for Olsen and his men – make the post-season. With only six regular season games remaining for the Black-and-Red, every point counts in the crowded Eastern Conference, and full points over the club’s closest rival would go a long way towards ending the team’s four-season playoff drought.
Key to D.C.’s success, both on Thursday night and for the rest of the season, is finding the right combinations on the field. On Saturday, former Union man Lionard Pajoy was paired with Maicon Santos up top, while Nick DeLeon, Branko Boskovic, Perry Kitchen and Chris Pontius filled out Olsen’s midfield. It remains to be seen if the technical staff will choose to reward Saturday’s offensive substitutes – Lewis Neal and Hamdi Salihi – with a starting spot during a packed week that also sees United host Chivas USA on Sunday.
Nearly eliminated from playoff contention, Union players are playing primarily for pride – and perhaps their jobs. After serving in an interim basis following Peter Nowak’s firing in June, John Hackworth has been given the full-time responsibility of managing the third-year club. Hackworth was less than impressed with his team’s effort last Saturday in a 1-1 draw with bottom-dwellers Toronto.
“We didn’t play very well today, it might have been one of our poorest first half performances this year,” said Hackworth after the draw. “It’s a little bit frustrating, because it felt like our team was ready to play much better than that after the break and we had a good two weeks of training.”
The Union’s task of getting back in the win column is further complicated by the fact that the team will be without one of its most influential players. Michael Farfan leads the Union with four assists and 46 shots on goal, but will miss Thursday’s contest due to yellow card accumulation, which carries a one-game suspension.
The team will instead likely rely on Freddy Adu (three goals), Jack McInerney (four goals, two assists), and perhaps Gabriel Gomez (five goals), to generate some much-needed offense. Former United player Danny Cruz – who was dealt in the trade that brought Pajoy to D.C. – has been dealing with toe sprain, but played 90 minutes on Saturday. An emotional player, Cruz is likely to come out firing on all cylinders against his former club.
The last time United visited PPL Park, Cruz was playing for the visitors and United was outplayed for long stretches of the match. The team maintained defensive shape to limit the Union’s chances, however, and in the late stages of the game, Pontius got on the end of a superbly taken Boskovic free kick and helped D.C. escape with full points.
“We got our asses kicked and ended up stealing a win," defender Dejan Jakovic told the Washington Post about the team’s June 16 win over Philadelphia.
Undoubtedly, the hosts will have felt robbed and will be pushing for a different outcome on national TV Thursday. Should the Black-and-Red hope to repeat the feat this time around, the prescription for success will likely require the front six to find a better offensive rhythm and more frequently test goalkeeper Zac MacMath, who has been prone to mistakes in his second professional season.
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