An emotionally charged defeat to the New York Red Bulls during the week saw D.C. United slip to fifth in the Eastern Conference standings with six games remaining. And now, beginning Saturday evening in Philadelphia, the Black-and-Red begin a stretch of three consecutive road matches that will go a long way toward determining the efficacy of this year’s playoff push.
“You can change the course of a season in a game,” coach Ben Olsen said earlier this week. “It can happen really quickly. So, you know, we go to Philadelphia and we try to win that game. And then we go to Montreal and we try to win that game. And that’s how we kind of dig ourselves out of this right now.”
Here’s what you need to know before kickoff:
Opponent: Philadelphia Union
Record: 13 wins, 8 losses, 6 draws
Standings: Second place in the Eastern Conference, level on points with Atlanta United
Last match: Loss, 2-0, @ Chicago Fire
Head coach: Jim Curtin; sixth season; overall record of 75 wins, 78 losses, 39 draws
Curtin spent two seasons as an assistant coach for the Union before earning a promotion to manager in the summer of 2014. By that point, Curtin had been a long-tenured member of the organization after spending four seasons with the academy ranks prior to joining the first team. Curtin guided the Union past the 50-point mark for the first time in franchise history last season. He also set a club record for most road wins in a single season. His success with the club earned Curtin a two-year contract extension signed earlier this summer. As a player, Curtin made more than 150 appearances for the Chicago Fire, from 2001-07, and then spent two years with Chivas USA to finish his career.
Player to watch: Ola Kamara, forward
As first impressions go, Kamara made a beautiful introduction to the starting lineup Wednesday night against the Red Bulls. He was described by Olsen and winger Paul Arriola as the best player on the field in 69 minutes and provided a stunning goal on a curled effort from outside the box, nearly doing enough to earn United a point on his own.
Perhaps even more impressive were Kamara’s willingness to work and his desire to get on the ball. Though not considered a true target player, Kamara willingly battled the Red Bulls’ back line to give United an outlet when fellow striker Wayne Rooney dropped into the midfield. Kamara also found opportunities to check back and demand passes to his feet for give-and-go exchanges that tested the New York’s defensive shape. He finished with 34 touches in 69 minutes to outpace opposing striker Daniel Royer, who managed 33 touches in 71 minutes.
“I thought he had a great game,” Olsen said. “I thought he was the best player on the field. His holdup play was better than I imagined, and the goal scoring stuff, we know he can do that. His work rate is contagious, and it’s really nice to have a forward who can score, stretch the line and put the work in and the miles in that he can do. It really helps the guy behind him.
“Listen, it wasn’t a sub because he wasn’t in good form and we didn’t think he could score another goal. It was a sub because we didn’t want his hamstrings to pop, and we need him for the rest of the year. Those are tough decisions to make when you’re in the heat of the game. But you have to step aside and make the right call for him going forward. And with the quick turnaround and the fact that he hasn’t had a lot of 90-minute games over the last couple months, we’re in that red zone where it’s a little scary.”
United will need another exemplary performance from Kamara on Saturday against the Union with Rooney serving a suspension. Kamara will likely lead the line as a sole striker — a position he is more than comfortable with at this stage in his career — and serve as the primary target for whichever collection of wingers Olsen chooses.
Storyline to follow: United’s energy level from the start
Olsen spent the majority of his post-match news conference Wednesday lamenting the penalty kick awarded to the Red Bulls that resulted in the game-winning goal for Royer. But before he launched into a discussion about officiating, Olsen voiced his frustration over another slow start for the Black-and-Red.
There have been several games this summer in which United has entered a game nonchalantly and failed to awaken until after the opposition took a 1-0 lead. The trend Olsen noted is reinforced by the statistics: Of the 18 goals United has conceded since June 1, six of them have occurred inside the opening 20 minutes of a match. And four of those six took place inside the opening 10 minutes, including a sixth-minute strike for the Red Bulls on Wednesday night.
“We didn’t show up for about 10 or 15 minutes,” Olsen said. “And we didn’t understand — I’m not sure how — but we didn’t understand what it was going to take to get through those early minutes against them. And then the goal changes us, and we start to have the right balance of soccer, but also competing. And then the game is a circus.
“What do I tell my guys in there that worked their (butts) off for 80 minutes and gave everything? Again, one message is that, you know, 80 minutes ain’t good enough and you’ve got to play every minute and not put yourself in that spot by having a better start. But after that I was extremely proud of the effort and the fight.”
Of course, the Union have also played a part in this frustrating trend. Midfielder Alejandro Bedoya opened the scoring in the 3rd minute when Philadelphia traveled to Audi Field earlier this month and silenced the home crowd almost immediately. Avoiding a similar letdown will surely be part of Olsen’s team talk prior to kickoff Saturday night.
Stat to know: Union have the most balanced attack in Major League Soccer
There are generally two types of attacking threats in professional soccer: the teams whose primary scoring threat is so potent that one player accounts for the overwhelming majority of goals — a la Atlanta United (Josef Martinez), LAFC (Carlos Vela) and the LA Galaxy (Zlatan Ibrahimovic); and teams whose success hinges on the collective efforts of several players sharing the goal-scoring responsibilities in a more even split.
Under Curtin, the Union embody the latter better than any team in the league, and this season they have eight players with at least three goals to their names: Kacper Przybylko (11); Marco Fabian (6); David Accam (4); Fabrice-Jean Picault (4); Jamiro Monteiro (4); Ilsinho (4); Sergio Santos (3); and Bedoya (3).
Here’s how the Union’s attack compares to the other 13 teams in playoff positions entering the weekend:
Players with at least three goals this season
8 — Philadelphia Union
7 — Minnesota United
6 — New York City FC, New England Revolution, LAFC, Seattle Sounders
5 — Atlanta United, D.C. United, Real Salt Lake, San Jose Earthquakes, Portland Timbers
4 — Orlando City, New York Red Bulls
3 — LA Galaxy
Key to victory: Improve finishing in the final third
Among the frustrations for Olsen and his players has been the team’s collective struggle to convert quality opportunities. Even down a player against the Red Bulls, who enjoyed a man advantage for more than 20 minutes in the first half, United found ways to create legitimate scoring chances both from open play and through set pieces, with midfielder Felipe Martins providing service in the absence of Rooney. And then in the closing moments of the game, after the fourth official signaled there would be eight minutes of stoppage time, attacker Lucho Acosta whipped in numerous teasing crosses begging for someone to knock them home. A final shot from winger Lucas Rodriguez — one that goalkeeper Luis Robles barely tipped over the crossbar — might have been the best opportunity of the night.
But unfortunately for the Black-and-Red, none of them found the back of the net.
“There’s still plenty of chances, plenty of looks throughout that game for us to get more out of it,” Olsen said. “And that’s been the theme lately is we get good looks, we’re still getting chances, and we’re just not seeing them through.
“Things I don’t think have gone our way, but that’s just talk. We’ve got to do it. We’ve got to figure out the best group. We’ve got to have guys make sure they show up each game and play at the level that they can. We’ve got to finish off plays. I think there’s a group in there that can do it, but it’s got to happen soon.”
The good news for United is that the rest of the Eastern Conference has been similarly untidy for much of the season, with the exception of New York City FC. One way to measure a team’s offensive potency is to compare the expected goals (xG) total generated by a mathematical algorithm and compare it to the actual number of goals scored. Teams with the most ruthless finishers will wind up exceeding their xG totals by the widest margin, capitalizing on the greatest number of opportunities.
In that regard, United have ranked near the middle of the pack among teams in playoff positions entering the weekend:
1. New York City FC — 1.45 xG per game; 1.88 actual goals per game; + 0.43 margin
2. New York Red Bulls — 1.38 xG; 1.54 actual; + 0.16 margin
3. Philadelphia Union — 1.59 xG; 1.74 actual; + 0.15 margin
4. Atlanta United — 1.49 xG; 1.61 actual; + 0.12 margin
D.C. United — 1.14 xG; 1.26 actual; + 0.12 margin
Orlando City — 1.18 xG; 1.30 actual; + 0.12 margin
7. New England Revolution — 1.41 xG; 1.46 actual; + 0.05 margin