For a brief moment at the conclusion of Thursday morning’s cold, windy, overcast training session, Dave Kasper, Ben Olsen and Kevin Payne stood next to one another facing their players.
As D.C. United’s powerful trio – General Manager, Head Coach and President & CEO – surveyed their club warming down and firing some last-minute shots on goal, it was clear they were preparing for much more than just another weekend.
This was a playoff weekend. The first such weekend for D.C. United in five years. And it comes in the form of a two-leg series against the bitter rival New York Red Bulls that begins Saturday night (8 p.m., NBC Sports Network) at RFK Stadium.
“Having these fans behind us, it’s going to be a special night,” said center back Brandon McDonald. “It’s going to be a packed house. I think it’s going to be a special time.”
After the League, in conjunction with both clubs, swapped home playoff dates because of Hurricane Sandy’s impact on New York and New Jersey, the Black-and-Red are now home for the first leg of the series on Saturday instead of the originally-scheduled date of Nov. 7. Though the venue was altered, United’s mission remains the same.
“We’re not down about it, we’re not frustrated at all,” said goalkeeper Bill Hamid, who made eight spectacular saves in United’s 1-1 draw against Chicago in the final match of the regular season. “It’s a decision that was made and we’ve got two games to play. We want two wins and that’s what we’re going to fight for.”
Being at RFK, whether it comes in the first or second leg of the series, is far from a bad thing for United. After a sellout crowd watched D.C. beat Columbus to clinch a playoff berth on Oct. 20, United’s home unbeaten streak was extended to 16 matches (12-0-4 since March 10). Overall, the Black-and-Red are unbeaten in seven matches (5-0-2) since losing captain Dwayne De Rosario to an MCL strain.
However, the playoffs present an even tougher challenge and if anything might present an obstacle to D.C.’s youthful group, it’s experience. Last week’s Starting XI has logged a combined 11 games in the MLS Cup Playoffs (eight for Marcelo Saragosa and three for McDonald).
“We have a fairly young team, but at the same time, they’ve got to grow up quick,” McDonald said. “For the guys who have experience, we’ve got to share it. When it comes time to play and the whistle blows, we’ve got to fight.”
Conversely, New York brings with it plenty of experience and offensive firepower. Namely, Thierry Henry and Kenny Cooper. Cooper and Henry have combined to score 33 goals this season and Henry has raised his game significantly of late, recording four goals and four assists in his previous six matches.
“Guys like Henry are playing at their tops. He’s playing better than I’ve ever seen him play in America. We’ve got a big job ahead of us. No question,” Olsen said. “I’d like to think we’re a bit better balanced [than New York] right now, but make no mistake, their attack is real.”
And that’s without mentioning world-class midfielder Tim Cahill or midfield workhorse Joel Lindpere. Olsen wasn’t kidding when he said this following Thursday’s training session:
“They’ve got more World Cup games than I think we have playoff games,” he said. “It’s a great group. They’ve put together a star-studded lineup and they’re playing very well right now.”
That’s not to say, however, that United isn’t playing well. And they’re doing so using the defensive-minded mentality installed by Olsen once De Rosario was injured. A system in which every player, on the field and on the bench, buys into their role. A system that, as Olsen said, pits individuals against team in this tantalizing playoff matchup.
“I think that’s what this is about right now,” Olsen said. “It’s a team versus some really experienced good individuals and we’ll see what ends up happening.”
» ANALYSIS: Volkswagen Keys to the Match
REFEREE: Jair Marrufo.
AR1 (bench): Craig Lowry; AR2 (opposite): Adam Wienckowski;
4th: Jorge Gonzalez
INJURY REPORT: NEW YORK RED BULLS -- OUT: DF Brandon Barklage (L plantar fascia injury); GK Ryan Meara (L hip surgery); MF Lloyd Sam (R knee PCL injury) ... D.C. UNITED -- OUT: FW Josh Wolff (lower back disc herniation); MF Dwayne De Rosario (L knee MCL sprain); DOUBTFUL: MF Lewis Neal (L calf strain); QUESTIONABLE: DF Daniel Woolard (concussion-like symptoms); FW Long Tan (L ankle sprain)
DC 31 wins (1 SO), 116 GF ... NY 20 wins (1 SO), 87 goals ... Ties 8
2012 HEAD-TO-HEAD: NY 1 win, 6 GF; DC 1 win, 8 GF; 1 tie
AT RFK STADIUM:
4/22: DC 4, NY 1 (Pontius 8, 32, 69; DeLeon 36 ñ Henry 72)
8/29: DC 2, NY 2 (DeLeon 21; De Rosario 68 -- Lindpere 19; Conde 88)
MLS CUP PLAYOFFS: NY 1 win, 4 GF ... DC 5 wins, 11 GF ... 1 tie