D.C. United is one result shy of guaranteeing a spot in the 2012 MLS Cup Playoffs. Though the club's four-year post-season drought have many calling this Saturday's game the biggest in five seasons for the Black-and-Red, United manager Ben Olsen sees the contest as an opportunity for young players and staff, alike, to prove their mettle in a pressure-filled situation.
The Columbus Crew will be no easy out this weekend. The visitors have been a hot side since bolstering their roster with mid-season transfers. Jairo Arrieta and Federico Higuain have joined Eddie Gaven in the attack while Chad Marshall continues to anchor a stingy Crew backline. Columbus also enters this game with a tiny margin of error, as they remain the only Eastern Conference team outside of the current playoff picture with a chance to advance into the second season. In need of help, a full three points is the only result that will please them. This is not a club to take lightly.
United, however, has seen success against the Crew this season and, armed with knowledge from those contests, we examine how D.C. United can find itself back in the playoffs at the final whistle Saturday night.
See it through
In February, written on a whiteboard in the D.C. United locker room amongst other pre-season goals for the 2012 MLS campaign: Take Back RFK. That message has been taken to heart by Ben Olsen's charges in the months since. Despite yielding a stoppage-time game-winner in a season opening loss to Sporting Kansas City, United is unbeaten at home since, going 11-0-4 during a franchise-best 15-game streak. East Capitol Street is again a tough place to earn points.
Much like seeing a game through the full 90 minutes, D.C. United can not afford to blink at this point in the schedule. Lessons learned and good habits formed will need to remain in place in order dispatch the Crew. Fans and players both will have to bring a ruthless mentality to RFK Stadium Saturday night to see the goal through to the end and continue United's winning home ways.
Keep the ball
Though not always the key to victory, possession has played a key part in results between Columbus and DC this season. The teams have split 1-0 decisions played two weeks apart this Summer, but the balance of play throughout was clearly in favor of the Black-and-Red and their ability to keep the ball. In Columbus, United saw 64.4% of possession. In DC, the hosts held possession for 54.3% of the time.
Given the make-up and style of the opposing attackers, maintaining this particular stat is important to the success of the Black-and-Red. Saturday night's hosts will look to build the attack with style and in numbers, a method made all the more potent with consistent possession and pressure. Columbus will look to find Arrieta and counter quickly and the fewer opportunities presented to the Costa Rican striker and his attacking partners, the better.
Though statistics show Arrieta and Gaven as the most potent offensive threats on the Crew roster, it is Higuain that has the greatest ability to change the course of Saturday night's fixture with a single strike of the ball. The older brother of Real Madrid and Argentina National Team star Gonzalo, Higuain has three goals and six assists in 11 matches (nine starts) since signing mid-season with Columbus. Two of his strikes have come by way of free kicks, his wicked right-footed blasts besting Matt Reis twice from distance on August 25 alone.
When Higuain is not focused on goal, he will likely target defender Chad Marshall, who remains among the League's most dangerous players on set pieces. Either way, United will be wise to be organized and intelligent in defense, as unnecessary fouls in the defensive third will provide opportunities for this lethal finisher. Keeping Higuain off of the score sheet is important in assuring a positive result and a coveted post-season birth for United.