A late season slumber by D.C. United that turned into a stumble and a six-game winless skid is now starting to seem more like a distance memory. On the heels of consecutive wins, United heads into a Sunday meeting against the Crew in Columbus in control of its playoff destiny.
With a win against the Crew, United will secure second place in the Eastern Conference and with it avoid the single-elimination knockout stage the third through sixth place finishers will have to face. A draw on Sunday and United could still finish in second place, but would need Montreal to win or tie in its home match against Toronto FC.
The Black and Red could drop as low as fourth place with a loss to the Crew, but on paper is in a better position to get a result. Columbus is missing offensive forces Kei Kamara and Federico Higuain because of card accumulation. Kamara and Higuain both received yellow cards in last week’s 2-0 win over Toronto.
United is coming off a resounding 4-0 win over the Chicago Fire last Sunday in its home finale. A crowd over 20,000 at RFK Stadium was treated to a performance that reminded fans why United spent most of the season on top of the Eastern Conference. It was the perfect encore for United to its playoff-clinching 2-1 win over New York City FC.
1. Finding the right mix. United head coach Ben Olsen has used the same starting eleven in the last two matches. It is quite a contrast for a United team that has had 29 different starting lineups this season. In both matches striker Alavaro Saborio was used as a substitute and in both matches he scored in the second half. With Saborio starting the game on the bench, it allows Olsen to partner Fabian Espindola with Chris Rolfe at forward. Simply put Rolfe, with 10 goals, is having a career year and he makes a difference being on the field. Chris Pontius is healthy and playing some of his best soccer in three seasons and has been joined in midfield on the opposite flank by Nick DeLeon who also has been in top form. Encouraging aggressive play by Pontius was rewarded with a goal last week and he has been working the right side to help him link up with outside back Sean Franklin. Just a few weeks ago it would be hard to imagine Saborio being used as a substitute, but now it might be the best option.
2. Beware of the weakened Crew. Make no mistake the loss of Kei Kamara and Federico Higuain is massive to the Crew. On 22 goals Kamara will not have a chance to compete for the Golden Goal. Toronto’s Sebastian Giovinco is also on22 goals, but has more assists. With eight goals and nine assists Higuain is the one who has dictated the offense for the Crew from his central midfield position. The Crew has yet to play this season without at least Kamara or Higuain on the field. Higuain’s only miss this season was a 2-2 draw with Vancouver in their fourth week and Kamara’s lone absence was a 3-0 loss to FC Dallas. The danger for United will be dealing with the Crew’s outside options. From the back defender Waylon Francis, with six assists, is capable of igniting the Crew’s offense and flank players Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram are a concern.
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