United playing for more than just pride

United playing for more than just pride
August 30, 2013, 10:45 am
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Silva: 'Defensively, we have to be sharper'

Following last Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Toronto FC, DC United head coach Ben Olsen’s press conference was late getting started. There was business to finish with a discussion in the locker room. It was a reminder that the emphasis on accountability remains high despite United’s last place position.

“Yes it is positive that we have chance at the U.S. Open Cup,” said Dwayne De Rosario who scored a world class goal Saturday. “But it is not just about that one game in October. We owe it to the fans and we owe it to ourselves to finish strong and build for the future. There are positive signs.”

To be sure United was not satisfied with a tie against Toronto and is hoping to atone for that result with a win on the road Saturday against New York. Regardless of position in the standings there always has been real bite in the rivalry between the Red Bulls and United. The last time these two teams met at Red Bull Arena the match resulted in a riveting 0-0 draw played with the fervor and energy of a Cup tie.

And there is a Cup at stake.  D.C. United is the current holder of the Atlantic Cup, the competition between the Black and Red and the Red Bulls. Back in April United lost at home to the Red Bulls 2-0 and needs to win by two keep the Cup.  Since the competition between the two sides started in 2002 United has won the Atlantic Cup nine times.

Beyond the incentive of the trophy United has a chance to keep their arch rivals in a tailspin.  The Red Bulls have the talent and have been a joy to watch this season, a season spent mostly in first place. Of late the Red Bulls have not been looking like a potential champion and are winless in their last three games including a puzzling 3-2 loss to Chivas USA.

On 39 points the Red Bulls are two points behind first place Montreal, but the Impact has played two fewer games. The Red Bulls recent form of two losses and one draw in their last three games has also put them close to falling out of playoff spot. Sixth place Houston, on the outside of the playoffs looking in, is only three points or one game behind the Red Bulls.

It was the NFL that gave us the phrase, “on any given Sunday”, as an explanation for the league’s parity and penchant for surprising results. As the Red Bulls know MLS offers the same kind of landscape. A week after an impressive 3-2 win over Sporting Kansas City, the Red Bulls stumbled on the road in a 2-0 loss to Columbus.

United knows better than take comfort in the Red Bulls recent stagnation. Led by Thierry Henry the Red Bulls have a potent attack and are the fourth highest scoring team in the league. There is pressure to be better and bigapplesoccer.com reported Henry and head coach Mike Petke were involved in an altercation at Thursday’s training and stormed off the practice field.

Will the anger and tension that seems to be building in the Red Bulls camp galvanize them or are they a team in disarray about to go into a free fall? That is the question that hovers over Saturday’s game. It is hard to imagine the Red Bulls going into free fall. There is too much quality on the Red Bulls.

Still United has a chance to put further doubt in the Red Bulls minds.   The Black and Red has played much better since a 4-1 loss in Chicago on July 20. The return of De Rosario to full health and the additions of Luis Silva and Conor Doyle have added confidence and purpose to United’s attack.

After being shutout in 12 of its first 20 matches, United has produced seven goals in its last six games and only been shutout once. Concern about United’s attack has faded, but critical mistakes on defense remain a watch point. Against the Red Bulls United will especially have to be organized and committed on set pieces.

“Saturday will be an opportunity,” Olsen said.  “We know the environment will be intense and we will have to be at our best because we know we will get their (Red Bulls) best.”

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