Brian Straus previews the MLS first-round playoff matchup between D.C. United and the New England Revolution.
It’s the only knockout round matchup pitting MLS originals (or teams that have been in the league for at least half its 20 seasons, for that matter), and Wednesday evening’s RFK Stadium showdown between D.C. United and the New England Revolution (7:30 p.m. ET; UniMás, TSN2, MLS Live, RDS2) will have a retro feel.
Start with the setting—the aging edifice may be the butt of jokes, but it’s home to so many playoff memories—and add two clubs coached by local legends who rely heavily on smart investment in American players and MLS vets, and it won’t be hard to recall playoff tilts from years past. Among their three meetings was what many still consider the best game in MLS history, the epic 2004 Eastern Conference final that D.C. won on penalty kicks after a seesaw 3-3 draw.
The winner of Wednesday’s match will open the conference semifinals this weekend and still will have a lot of work to do if it hopes to make history. The loser will face the abrupt end to a campaign that fell short of expectations. New England is the reigning Eastern Conference champ and D.C. earned the top seed in 2014. Both clubs stood relatively pat last winter, hoping to go one step further this year. For one, it all ends Wednesday.
Here’s a closer look at the postseason matchup:
4. D.C. United (15-13-6, 51 points)
United’s margin for error has been slim during the past year and a half, and that showed as coach Ben Olsen’s club slid from first place over the summer.
D.C. lost striker Eddie Johnson to illness before the season and only one player, Chris Rolfe, scored more MLS goals in 2015 (10) than Johnson did in 2014 (seven). Injury and suspension held Fabián Espíndola, D.C.’s other offensive game-breaker, to just 15 starts. Midfield engine Davy Arnaud, who had such a profound influence on United’s structure and approach, has been out since late August with a concussion. Meanwhile, the rate of improvement slowed for the likes of Perry Kitchen, Steve Birnbaum and Nick DeLeon. They’ve yet to find their next level.
United’s slow starts—no club allowed more goals in the first 15 minutes than D.C.’s 12 (the next highest total was Toronto FC’s nine)—and inability to hold the ball narrowed that margin further.
If not for another sterling season from 24-year-old goalkeeper Bill Hamid, who finished second in MLS in save percentage, D.C. would be on the road or packing its bags this week.
United, which went 1-0-1 in the season series vs. New England, finished its campaign on a 2-6-1 slide that was capped off by Sunday’s historically awful 5-0 whipping by the Columbus Crew. Its only hope is that it can quickly turn the page.
“I’m fairly confident,” Olsen told reporters on Sunday. "You can go two ways with this. It can fuel you, piss you off a little bit as I’m sure most of these guys are feeling right now, or you can put your heads down and let this affect you. I’ve known this crew now for two years and I know there’s enough character and experience in that locker room to understand that in some ways this may be a get-out-of-jail-free card. And now we have a new lease against a very good team in New England that has to come to our building—come to RFK, where we’ve been pretty successful."
United owns the league’s fourth-best home record (11-3-3).
5. New England Revolution (14-12-8, 50 points)
Like last year, which ended in an overtime loss to the LA Galaxy in the MLS Cup final, New England’s 2015 season has been one of streaks. There was the 5-0-4 run from March to May, then the five-game losing string in June and July and the 7-0-1 surge that followed. Sunday’s 3-1 win over hapless New York City FC clinched a playoff berth and ended a 0-3-1 slide, leaving the Revs feeling a bit better about themselves heading into RFK, where it’s lost four of its past five games.
This isn’t a fifth seed to take lightly. Lee Nguyen, an MVP finalist last season, leads a dynamic midfield that remains capable of causing havoc centrally, in the channels or out wide. Striker Charlie Davies (10 goals, four assists) has enjoyed a bona fide renaissance and should create problems for United’s revamped back four, while Juan Agudelo (seven goals), Kelyn Rowe (seven) and Diego Fagundez (six) are legitimate threats.
It’s worth noting that New England has lost twice as many games without Jermaine Jones in the starting 11 (eight) as it has when he’s available (four). The veteran should be ready to go Wednesday and if United can’t establish any rhythm, he’ll have more freedom to roam with Scott Caldwell behind him.
The Revs haven’t always clicked this season, but hitting the playoff road may be a relief rather than reason for stress. After all, New England won at Columbus and New York on its way to last year’s final.
“Experience is crucial at this time of year,” defender Chris Tierney said. “The experience of last year I think will help us. But every year is different. Every game is different. So hopefully, we’ll be ready for whatever this game throws at us.”
Key Matchup: New England’s Lee Nguyen vs. D.C.’s Perry Kitchen
There were times over the past couple years when Kitchen seemed like the international heir apparent to Jones or Kyle Beckerman, but he hasn’t had the same impact this season. While Arnaud’s absence and D.C.’s problems with possession certainly are a factor, Wednesday is an opportunity for the 23-year-old to step up on the big stage.
Nguyen hasn’t been scoring goals like last year (seven compared to 18 in 2014) but his assists have doubled to 10 and he’s still drawing fouls and taking plenty of shots. When he’s stifled, New England often is as well. D.C. is the second-lowest scoring team among the 12 in the playoffs. United is going to have to shut New England down and prevent Nguyen from bringing his skilled teammates into the game. On Wednesday, that will start with Kitchen.