It really is a new season for DC United. After a less then steady end to the regular season, including a six-game winless skid and a 5-0 thumping by Columbus to close the campaign, United is energized after rallying to beat New England 2-1 in the Knockout Round.
United’s energy and confidence will be put to the test against the New York Red Bulls Sunday at RFK Stadium in game one of the two-legged aggregate goal MLS Eastern Conference semifinal series. The Red Bulls closed the regular season with four wins in their last five matches to not only claim first place in the conference, but the Supporter’s Shield for best record in the league.
United and the Red Bulls met last year in the Eastern Conference semifinals with the roles reversed from this season. United won the Eastern Conference last season and received a bye in the first round of the playoffs. It didn’t matter. The Red Bulls ambushed United at home in the first match of the series 2-0 and advanced after a 2-1 loss in Washington.
“I still believe this is the best rivalry in the league,” said United general manager Dave Kasper. The history between the two franchises in the playoffs goes back to the first year in 1996. There is no question the attitude around the club is we owe them (Red Bulls) from last year for putting off the playoffs and ending a promising season.”
To add to the challenge of United’s quest to avenge the 2014 playoff loss to the Red Bulls, defender Bobby Boswell will miss Sunday’s match. Boswell was suspended for one game by the league’s disciplinary committee for an incident in Wednesday’s match. Off the ball Boswell made contact with New England’s Juan Agudelo. Boswell at the time received a yellow and Agudelo was injured and was removed from the game.
- Living in the moment. Whether the players and coaches say it or not, United and Red Bulls want to play each other with something on the line. There really is an extra bite in training for United, and probably for the Red Bulls, leading up to a game between the two teams. It has to do with history. United is sore about losing to the Red Bulls in the playoffs last year. Three years ago in the Eastern Conference semifinals United recovered from a 1-1 draw with the Red Bulls to pull out a 1-0 win in the second leg on Nick De Leon’s goal in the 88th minute. The win in that series led to the now famous quote by goalkeeper Bill Hamid, “You can’t hold us back, we are United.” In short the mental approach by the players in this series might be just as important as the skill on the field.
- Dealing with the Red Bulls. In 2015 the Red Bulls won the Atlantic Cup, the regular season competition with United, by securing two wins and a draw. In its wins the Red Bulls outscored United 5-0 and in earning a draw with the Black and Red rallied from a two-goal deficit for a 2-2 final. The Red Bulls can score and found the back of the net 62 times this past season to United’s 45 goals. Without Thierry Henry providing this service Bradley Wright-Phillips did not score 27 goals, but he still had a good season with 17 goals. The Red Bulls have a strong midfield with Sasha Kljestan orchestrating the creative while Dax McCarty and Felipe offer a mix of distribution and defense.
- The United way. With Bobby Boswell suspended, it is likely United will go with either Kofi Opare or Markus Halsti in the center of defense with Steve Birnbaum. Over the last month Halsti has been starting in the center of midfield with Davy Arnaud recovering from a concussion and Alvaro Saborio has been used as a substitute. That might change against the Red Bulls because Chris Pontius has been dealing with some tightness in his hamstring since Wednesday’s match. Pontius scored against the Revolution and has two goals in his last three matches. It would be a blow to United as well as Pontius has been playing if he is forced to the sideline, but it would open up an opportunity for Alvaro Saborio to return to the starting lineup with Chris Rolfe and Nick De Leon on the flanks. While Saborio has played some of his best soccer with United when used as second half substitute over the last month, the playoffs would be the perfect for him to rekindle his magic with Fabian Espindola.