D.C. United took to the training grounds today in a spirited session before heading up the northeast corridor to face the New York Red Bulls tomorrow at 8 p.m. (NBC Sports Network) in Leg 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
If the Black-and-Red advances, then the team’s next home match will either be Saturday, November 10 at 3:30 p.m. vs. Sporting Kansas City or Sunday, November 18 at 4 p.m. vs. the Houston Dynamo.
If you thought that last Saturday’s 1-1 draw between the sides featured some hijinks, then the forecast for Wednesday evening’s game may very well deliver more. Currently projected to bring periods of snow and rain, with a low of 36 degrees (RealFeel® at 19 degrees), play could become dicey.
Said midfielder and current captain Chris Pontius: “The weather is going to be pretty nasty from what I hear and I kind of like that. I think our team is built for that.”
Pontius himself is no stranger to rising to the occasion in rain-soaked atmospheres. On April 22, he registered his first-ever MLS hat trick in a 4-1 victory over the Red Bulls. In fact, five of his 12 regular-season strikes came against New York this year. Pontius missed an opportunity to tally a crucial penalty kick on Saturday, and underlined the importance of capitalizing on chances in the second leg.
“Obviously, we gotta put the ball away a little bit better,” said Pontius. “I gotta do better with my PK from the last game. I thought we had opportunities in the first half to put the game away, and we’re gonna need to do that.”
WHOLE > SUM OF ITS PARTS
While the regular-season match-ups between the clubs have been goal-fests, with 14 total goals scored in three contests, Saturday’s match highlighted an organized defensive unit that has become a marker in United’s eight-game undefeated streak.
Despite fielding a lineup that includes the international likes of Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill, the Red Bulls could only muster two shots on goal against the Black-and-Red backline. After Andy Najar was sent off in the 71st minute and the side was reduced to 10 men, New York goalkeeper Luis Robles got more touches on the ball than Henry.
“You see a lot of players they have – they have a lot of stars on their team,” said defender Dejan Jakovic. “I thought we had the better of the game last game. I thought we were the better team, we had the better chances. And this is a team that we can beat – they’re nothing special. They have superstars, but we’re a team and we’ve been a run and we’ve been playing some great soccer.”
“I’ll take my players over their players any day,” Jakovic added.
RETURN OF RUSSELL
After being sidelined with a foot injury in July, defender Robbie Russell has worked tirelessly to regain full fitness and has only seen 11 minutes on the field since. With Najar suspended, Russell is a clear-cut option to insert into the starting XI on Wednesday.
Asked if he felt prepared to go the full 90, Russell said: “That’s the beauty of the playoffs – you’re ready for anything. The excitement is one of those things – I don’t know if it’s adrenaline, you can’t explain it all the time – but it’s the playoffs and there’s nothing like it and you give it all you’ve got regardless.”
As a player with valuable post-season experience amidst a team with a limited supply – only two players from last match’s starting lineup has played in the MLS playoffs – Russell possesses great insight into what will take. In fact, it was Russell in 2009 that converted the winning penalty kick to give Real Salt Lake its first MLS Cup.
“Every playoff team you play on is different, is unique,” said Russell. “And this team is the epitome of team. On any given night, someone else has stepped up for us big, and I’m looking forward to seeing who steps up big for us this coming game.”