WASHINGTON, D.C. — When going down the long list of established sports clichés, it doesn’t take too long to find the one about how the next game also just magically happens to be the most important game of the season.
Well as worn out as that phrase might be, it certainly seems to be ringing true for D.C. United as the Black-and-Red play host to the Columbus Crew on Saturday night at RFK Stadium in what has suddenly become a very congested Eastern Conference standings.
D.C. United (10-7-3, 33 points) has played exactly two MLS regular season games at home since the final weekend in May. During that time United has taken just three out of a possible 12 points on the road and as a result the Black-and-Red have fallen from atop the standings all the way down to fourth place, a mere point ahead of the Chicago Fire who account for the final playoff spot.
If United want to end a four-year playoff hiatus, they will have to finish no worse than fifth position. In the ever changing climate of Major League Soccer’s playoff format, the fourth place team will host the fifth place team in a play-in game with the winner advancing to the conference semis, which will be played out over two legs.
That’s where Columbus comes into the picture.
As it currently stands, the only team on the outside looking in that seems to be any real threat to grab one of the final playoffs spot are the Crew (8-7-4, 28 points). Just two weeks ago Columbus defeated United 1-0 on a rare goal by Trinidadian international Chris Birchall in game that D.C. held a decided advantage in possession yet couldn’t get on the scoreboard.
In order to put more distance between themselves and their rivals from Ohio, United must find a scoring threat up top to go along with Dwayne De Rosario. The Black-and-Red haven’t scored in their last two games leaving Coach Ben Olsen with a big decision to make in his starting lineup.
Maicon Santos and Hamdi Salihi, who have combined for 12 goals this season, seem like the natural choices to partner up with De Rosario, but newly acquired Long Tan could be the dark horse selection.
Picked up in a trade with Vancouver on June 28 for a future supplemental draft pick, Tan looked good in his 18 minutes on the field in that loss to the Crew. Tan positioned himself well up top and as a result got off three shots, including one on goal, in his limited time on the field. No other United player put more than a shot on frame.
Tan followed up his short stint against the Crew with a 67 minute performance in last weekend’s 1-1 draw with French side Paris Saint-Germain that may have been a harbinger of things to come as United look to strengthen their playoff position.
No matter who Olsen ultimately selects for his starting eleven against the Crew in their pivotal eastern conference showdown, playing at RFK Stadium should provide a noticeably boost to the offense. In their ten previous home games, United have scored in eight contests while hitting for at least three goals on six occasions in amassing a 7-1-2 record.
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