Among the things professional athletes adore is clarity. They want to know exactly what they have to achieve and what the implications of those achievements will be. The simpler the scenarios, the more unilateral their focus can be.
Which is why the visitor’s locker room inside Red Bull Arena was fairly joyous Sunday evening following a 1-1 draw between D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls, because that single point against their Atlantic Cup rival was enough to ensure the Black-and-Red control their own destiny in the season finale this weekend: A win over last-place Cincinnati at Audi Field guarantees United a home game in the first round of the MLS playoffs.
It’s a scenario the players and coaches gladly accepted.
“One last game here and the goal is to win, as it is most home games,” coach Ben Olsen said. “This one has a little bit more weight to it because of what’s at stake the week after, and we certainly want to reward our fans with another home game after this weekend. We don’t want this to be the last time we play at Audi Field.”
Here’s what you need to know before kickoff:
Opponent: FC Cincinnati
Record: 6 wins, 22 losses, 5 draws
Standings: 12th place in the Eastern Conference
Last match: Draw, 1-1, vs. Orlando City SC
Head coach: Ron Jans; first season; overall record of 1 win, 5 losses, 3 draws
Jans became the club’s third coach of the 2019 season when he replaced interim coach Yoann Damet on Aug. 4. Damet had taken over for coach Alan Koch, who was fired in early May after a dismal start to the campaign. Damet was subsequently retained by Jans as a member of the new coaching staff.
A Ducthman, Jans spent the majority of his playing career in the Netherlands with PEC Zwolle, FC Groningen and Roda JC, two of which he went on to manage after transitioning into coaching. The move to Cincinnati marks Jans’ ninth club as a head coach but the first time he’s moved outside of Europe, where his experience was split between the Netherlands and Belgium. He arrived in the United States with 546 career matches as a manager and 220 victories.
Jans also served as technical director at FC Groningen from 2017-19.
Stat to know: Cincinnati has the worst defense in MLS history
If you’re wondering why an expansion franchise needed three managers to navigate its first season in MLS, this is a good place to start.
A stoppage-time goal by Orlando City last week marked the 75th goal allowed by Cincinnati this season, exceeding Orlando’s own total of 74 goals allowed last season to set a new league record for defensive futility. Nobody else in the Eastern Conference has conceded more than 60 goals this season (Montreal Impact), while the leakiest defense in the Western Conference sits at 61 goals allowed (Sporting Kansas City) entering the final weekend of the regular season.
Blowouts marred Cincinnati’s backline all year. The team conceded three or more goals in 11 games this season (exactly 33 percent) including a stretch of four consecutive defeats from Aug. 17 to Sept. 7 in which the goal differential reached a staggering tally of -11 during a three-week window. Cincinnati’s worst performances of the season came against Orlando City (5-1 loss), New York City FC (5-2 loss), Minnesota United (7-1 loss) and Toronto FC (5-1 loss).
“They don’t have a lot to lose, so that’s always dangerous,” Olsen said. “They come in here playing free and wanting to spoil kind of the ride we’re on because they’re competitors and they’re professional soccer players. So we’ll expect their best and we’ll prepare for a good team.”
Player to watch: Emmanuel Ledesma, attacking midfielder
The 31-year-old Ledesma established himself as a bright spot in what has been a dreary season for Cincinnati, harkening back to the most fruitful years of his career with Middlesbrough in the English Championship from 2012-14. He guided Cincinnati through its transition from the United Soccer League, where Ledesma scored 16 goals and had 16 assists in 2018, to its debut in MLS, where he ranks second on the team in goals (6), first in assists (4), first in shots (47) and second in big chances created (7) this season.
Advanced statistics demonstrate how reliant Cincinnati has been on Ledesma. The website American Soccer Analysis tracks the number of possession chains for each team and breaks them down into specific categories that demonstrate an individual’s influence — or lack thereof — on certain aspects of the game, especially in the final third of the field with shots and goals.
Viewed through this lens, Ledesma is indispensable: Cincinnati earns a shot on more than 29 percent of the possession chains in which Ledesma participates in some fashion, highest on the team among players with at least 1,500 minutes. He also takes a shot of his own on 11.5 percent of possessions in which he participates, another figure that leads the team among players with at least 1,500 minutes.
And perhaps most crucially, Ledemsa leads the team in percentage of chains in which he makes the final pass before a shot is taken at 8.7 percent, some 2.6 percent higher than his next-closest teammate, a stat reflective of his playmaking responsibilities.
Ledesma is who makes Cincinnati’s offense tick.
Lineup question: What will United do without Wayne Rooney?
A game the franchise hoped would serve as a celebration for Rooney, who will exit the club to join Derby County during the January transfer window, veered in another direction when Rooney received a yellow card in the second half of last week’s game against the Red Bulls. That card triggered a mandatory one-game suspension for yellow card accumulation and prevents Rooney from participating Sunday at Audi Field. And if United fail to secure a home game in the postseason, Rooney’s last involvement in front of the home fans will have been a 2-0 victory over the Seattle Sounders on Sept. 22, a night in which he logged 77 minutes and chipped in an assist.
Without him, Olsen will likely choose between strikers Quincy Amarikwa and late-season acquisition Ola Kamara to lead the line in the 4-2-3-1 formation that has sparked a resurgence the last few weeks. A third option would be utilizing attacking midfielder Luciano Acosta as a false nine, which Acosta did earlier this year when Rooney was absent for a trip to Atlanta.
By selecting either Amarikwa or Kamara — two players who serve as traditional strikers — Olsen can keep the majority of his structural and tactical plans the same from lineups featuring Rooney, who fills a similar role whenever he’s on the field. A shift toward Acosta might warrant adjustments to United’s shape both in possession and out of possession at a time when the consistency from the last few weeks has suited the side well.
“We became a tougher team to beat, right?” Olsen said of the four-game unbeaten streak. “That’s been our mantra, our staple that we would get back to not giving up goals cheaply and making teams earn goals. And again, that’s a good foundation to have. Within that, we’re trying now to push the offensive side and making sure we’re also a threat and understanding the times when we can now dictate the game and just find that right balance of making sure we’re very disciplined defensively but also dangerous going forward.
“(It’s about) every guy on the field working their (butts) off out of possession. And if you see someone that’s in trouble, you get down there to help. If it’s your turn to block a shot, you put yourself in harm’s way and you block a shot. When you’re tired in the 90th minute and we turn the ball over, you sprint 60 yards back to make sure we’re in a spot where we don’t give up a goal. It’s that stuff, OK? That’s been the difference over the last month.
“And when you have every guy doing that, you give yourself a good chance to put up shutouts and, as I said before, be tough to beat. And everyone is buying into that.”
Another important question is whether Kamara can return to fitness after missing the last three games with a hamstring problem. He tweaked the hamstring during training the day before a 1-0 victory over the Portland Timbers on Sept. 15 and has been working his way back ever since. He appeared on track to play against the Red Bulls last weekend before scratching at the last minute and remaining in Washington, D.C., while his teammates traveled to New Jersey.
Kamara had scored three goals in three games prior to the injury.
“Day to day,” Olsen said. “We’ll keep pushing him and evaluating him after we push him. We have to be smart but we’re also getting to that point where we need to start pushing him. We have a good sports science department, a lot of guys putting a lot of time and effort and thought into what’s best for him, and they’ll guide us.”
It’s possible Olsen will feature Amarikwa in the starting lineup with the hope of introducing Kamara in the second half. Amarikwa has played 90 minutes just once this season during a 2-0 win over the LA Galaxy in August — Rooney was ill that evening — and averages 15.7 minutes per game in 22 appearances as a substitute, making a complete game a rather difficult task.
In other words, the ideal replacement for Rooney might be a combined effort from both Amarikwa and Kamara — assuming the latter is healthy.
“For this weekend’s game, we’re playing at home and we want to reward the fans with another home game,” Olsen said. “And it’s in our control. We’ve done a great deal to get to this point and we don’t want to spoil it. The foot is still on the gas, and it needs to be that way for the rest of the season.”