The fist pump from coach Ben Olsen told the story last Sunday as the final whistle blew on a 1-0 victory over the Portland Timbers, all but assuring D.C. United will reach the playoffs after emerging from a summertime slumber. His was the unbridled joy that accompanies back-to-back victories for the first time since May, long before United’s season teetered and a once-promising campaign began to flicker.
For Olsen and the Black-and-Red, hope had been restored.
“We got out of that little slump we were in,” Olsen said earlier this week. “But everybody goes through these times throughout a season. It comes down to when you have them and how far deep do you go into those little slides. The Montreal game was big to get out of that summer funk that we were in, and to piggyback it with a gutsy win against Portland away, two shutouts, it shows that we’re a pretty good defensive team. Now can we push the offensive side a little bit and just find that balance. That’s kind of the challenge that we face.”
The challenge of stringing together three consecutive victories — something United hasn’t done all year — begins Sunday evening at Audi Field against the visiting Seattle Sounders, a side that has lost only once in its last six games and climbed all the way to second in the Western Conference standings.
Here’s what you need to know before kickoff:
Opponent: Seattle Sounders
Record: 14 wins, 9 losses, 8 draws
Standings: Second in the Western Conference with 50 points, second only to LAFC’s 64 points.
Last match: Draw, 0-0, vs. FC Dallas
Head coach: Brian Schmetzer; third season; overall record of 55 wins, 38 losses and 25 draws
Schmetzer was named head coach on Nov. 2, 2016, after serving as interim manager since late July of that year, replacing the organization’s first-ever manager, Sigi Schmid. He reinvigorated the Sounders and dragged them from ninth place in the Western Conference to a playoff berth by the end of the season. And then, roughly five months after assuming control of the team, Schmetzer delivered the franchise’s first MLS Cup.
Schmetzer’s ties to the Pacific Northwest were well-established by the time he took over as coach. Born and raised in Seattle, he had spent the past eight seasons as an assistant coach for the Sounders and worked previously as the USL Sounders manager. His playing career included stints with the Sounders, the Tacoma Stars (indoor) and the Seattle Seadogs (indoors), a team for which he eventually served as an assistant coach.
Storyline to watch: Playing on short rest
While United has settled into a closing stretch featuring nothing but Sunday games — the regularity of which coaches and players wholeheartedly appreciate — the Sounders will play their third match in seven days. Schmetzer’s squad dispatched the New York Red Bulls last weekend before drawing with FC Dallas on Wednesday night. That both matches took place in Seattle certainly eases the strain of their difficult week.
Wednesday’s match against Dallas ended after midnight Eastern Standard Time, by which point the Sounders had approximately 90 hours until kickoff against the Black-and-Red. A compressed window of rest, recovery, travel and tactical analysis means the Sounders probably have relied on lighter training sessions in preparation for United, who have enjoyed a complete week of preparation.
This weekend will mark the 11th time the Sounders have played an MLS match with four or fewer days to prepare. Their record in the previous 10 matches has been fairly pedestrian: 2 wins, 3 losses and 5 draws. The team’s last victory on short rest was July 6 against the Columbus Crew.
Fatigue could very certainly be a factor for the visitors Sunday night.
Lineup question: Wayne Rooney, Ola Kamara or both?
With Kamara scratched from Sunday’s victory over the Timbers due to a hamstring problem, United rolled into Providence Park with Rooney as the lone striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation, the organization’s preferred alignment. Rooney logged 79 minutes before giving way to backup Quincy Amarikwa, and Olsen managed the situation much like he did before Kamara arrived earlier this summer.
It’s possible Olsen will face a more complicated choice this weekend if Kamara recovers from his hamstring issue. On Tuesday, Kamara worked off to the side of the field with various members of the medical staff during a practice open to the media. A decision about his status likely won’t be made until gameday depending on how Kamara responded to his rehab.
“We weren’t comfortable with Ola’s situation and throwing him into that game (in Portland),” Olsen said after the open practice. “Now we have a day or two to really evaluate this thing even further and make sure that he’s not going to have a setback. So today (Tuesday) was that first step and then tomorrow (Wednesday) he’ll have another step and then we’ll see how the week goes.”
There appear to be three options from which Olsen can choose should Rooney and Kamara both be available for Sunday’s game: 1) He could stick with Rooney in the starting lineup and use Kamara off the bench 2) He could slide Kamara into the starting lineup and shift Rooney to the bench, which was the plan for Portland prior to the hamstring issue 3) He could start both Rooney and Kamara by sliding the former into a deeper midfield role and relying on the latter as the lone striker atop the line.
The rationale behind those options, Olsen said, is a desire to maintain the same 4-2-3-1 formation the club has relied on the last two months. He and his staff have voted in favor of continuity over constant change. They want to avoid mixing and matching alignments on a weekly basis as playoffs loom.
“We made that decision a few weeks ago,” Olsen said. “We said, OK, we have to drill down on who we are, who we’re going to be. And again, with new players, it takes a little adjustment period and you don’t have a lot of game time to figure that out. But we do think it’s important to have a structure with the ball and without the ball that everyone is really well-rehearsed in at this point in the season.
“That’s not to say we’re not going to adjust at times throughout the game and to the opponent in order to have success, but again, I think everyone is very clear. And whether Ola comes in or Paul (Arriola) goes out wide or whatever adjustment it is, we’ll stay within kind of that structure for now.
Interestingly, Kamara has performed extremely well against the Sounders during his prior stint in MLS with the Crew and LA Galaxy. He’s netted 2 goals in three starts against Seattle dating to May 2017 and fired four shots on goal across those three matches.
Kamara had also scored 3 goals in his last three games for United before tweaking his hamstring during training in Portland.
“We have some depth in the attacking positions right now, and it’s nice to have that,” Olsen said. “We haven’t had that type of quality in a long time here. It was no secret I was rewarding the team that won out in Montreal (by intending to keep the same lineup in Portland), and if you want to look into the future, I don’t know, you can probably make a guess on what’s next.
“But again, we haven’t made any decisions and these are always long weeks. There’s certainly some areas I think we can improve on right now, and that might be mixing the lineup up.”
Scouting the opponent: Sounders boast multi-headed attack
A few weeks ago, United traveled to Philadelphia for a date with the Union, arguably the most balanced scoring team in the league. This week, United will host a Sounders team with arguably the best collection of goal scorers in the league.
Seattle is the only team in MLS to have six or more players with at least 5 goals this season, led by designated player Raul Ruidiaz, who has scored 11 times in just 19 games. His running mates include winger Jordan Morris (9 goals in 23 games); attacking midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro (7 goals in 27 games); midfielder Cristian Roldan (6 goals in 26 games); defender Kelvin Leerdam (5 goals in 26 games); and midfielder Harry Shipp (5 goals in 24 games).
Even more impressive is the group’s potency in August and September, launching the Sounders up the table and making them a legitimate threat in the Western Conference. Consider each player’s recent scoring form:
Ruidiaz — 3 goals in his last five starts
Morris — 2 goals in his last five starts
Lodeiro — 2 goals in his last five starts
Roldan — 3 goals in his last five starts
Leerdam — 0 goals in his last five starts
Shipp — 2 goals in his last five starts
As a team, the Sounders rank fifth in goals scored since Aug. 1 with 17, three shy of New York City FC’s league-leading total of 20. Seattle has lost just three of nine games during that stretch.
“It’s a massive game for us,” center back Steven Birnbaum said. “I know if we win this game, we’re in (the playoffs). It’s one of those things where we have to just be tuned in. They’ve got an attacking core that can punish you if you have that mental lapse or something. It’s one of those things where you just have to stay tuned in and keep track of all the guys because they interchange a lot with those front three.”