D.C. United is set to host the first of two matches with the New York Red Bulls in their Eastern Conference semifinal series on Saturday night. Given all that has happened across New York/New Jersey and the DC metropolitan area in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, kickoff for this marquee match-up will provide a welcome distraction to soccer fans throughout the Northeast.
The League's oldest and fiercest rivalry will undoubtedly take American soccer's center stage for the next week and only one team will emerge with passage to the conference finals. If that is to be D.C. United, a result at home on the weekend is of upmost importance. Heading to Red Bull Arena with a goal(s) in hand provides valuable confidence and strategic options for the Black-and-Red. Here are three areas of focus for Ben Olsen's charges this weekend that could see them do exactly that.
Manage the moment
Among those available for duty Saturday night, only Mike Chabala, Stephen King, Brandon McDonald, Robbie Russell, Maicon Santos and Marcelo Saragosa have appeared in an MLS playoff game. Combined, they total 29 games, none with D.C. United, and Russell accounts for nearly half (12) of the overall games played. That's a big deal when facing the crucible of pressure that playoff soccer brings. Adding that five of Olsen's likely first eleven are under the age of 25, and the coach himself is guiding his first post-season club as manager, handling the magnitude of the playoffs becomes more of an issue.
Success in this bonus derby with New York will be predicated on how United manages the moment. The club has proven time and time again this season to be wise beyond it's years. Bill Hamid is a budding superstar in goal, Andy Najar and Chris Korb have developed into dynamic outside backs, Perry Kitchen is a dependable and durable midfield general and Lionard Pajoy provides a possession-oriented forward that proves of great use in pressure packed moments. All have excelled in high pressure situations to date and fans of the Black-and-Red should expect more of the same ahead. It's also no coincidence that this club's steely disposition mirrors that of its manager. As a player, Olsen excelled in hot games when the weather cooled. That disposition has been most evident since the loss of Dwayne De Rosario to injury in early September, a stretch in which United has gone 5-0-2 (17 points). Continuing that form could end with a United result on Saturday.
Follow the leader
As news of Dwayne De Rosario's injury spread, it was obvious that United was going to need each player on the roster to raise their level of play to compensate for the loss of their captain. One player, in particular, knew that effort would extend from the playing field into the locker room and Chris Pontius has taken the armband and provided leadership in both areas as the Black-and-Red have raced to the finish of the 2012 MLS regular season. Pontius is enjoying a career year, in which his 12 goals leads the club. Five of those came in games against the Red Bulls, including three in a virtuoso performance on April 22. Pontius will need to again lead by example on the field and behind the scenes for United to advance to the Eastern Conference finals.
In three games against New York this season, United had a mixed bag of results - going 1-1-1 in those matches. Among the positives to take from the games were the eight goals scored in those matches. As mentioned earlier, Chris Pontius netted five of those, but Nick DeLeon (2) and Dwayne De Rosario also scored for the Black-and-Red. The common thread among many of these goals? A direct attack.
In all three matches this season, New York was able to see a majority of the ball. United, however, was able to win possession at critical times and in key spaces. Doing so allowed for quick and direct counter-attacks - the kind that can prove lethal. Indeed, the Black-and-Red scored in all manners of quick-strike fashion. If United can again gain possession and quickly attack gaps in the New York back line, the Black-and-Red could be in position to take a lead into next Wednesday’s second leg of their semifinal series.
D.C. United hosts the New York Red Bulls in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals this Saturday, November 3 at 8:00 PM - PURCHASE TICKETS