So, it all comes down to this. DC will be playing for their playoff lives tomorrow night. Considering United has had as bad a season as could possibly be imagined way back in the heady days of January when the team was remade with a ton of new faces and foreign talent, a win would go along way towards hiding the multitude of sins they committed this season.
For Tommy Soehn, a loss in Unitedâ€™s final home match of the season two straight years might mean his walking papers despite two trophies won. For the team, a loss could easily mean a lot more roster changes this off-season. For the owners, a loss would mean a ton of money thought to have been well spent will have been wasted. And obviously, to the fans a loss would be almost catastrophic considering the promise that this season held so early on.
However, a win over the slumping and maybe complacent Revolution, and maybe even another win next week in Columbus against a team that literally has nothing to play for, and United could easily back into a playoff slot. And as everyone knows, the playoffs in MLS can be a wild and wacky ride as anyone could make a run for the Cup. But, just finishing with their heads held high under some pretty horrible conditions would be a graceful exit that could be tolerated if not exactly condoned.
However, it all starts with a win over one of the most consistently successful teams in MLS over the past five years. New England has been in the Eastern Conference championship five years running and in the MLS Cup the past three years. And with no love lost between the two long time eastern conference foes, NE would certainly love to knock United out of the playoffs in their own house.
But, it wonâ€™t be easy for the Revs as United has actually been pretty good at home this season despite their hideous overall record. In RFK, United is still 8-4-2 in MLS play. Yet the team is coming off a back-breaking 3-0 loss to Chivas last weekend, and hasnâ€™t actually won at home in MLS play in almost two months. Since beating Colorado August 23rd, DC did capture the Open Cup, but counting Champions League too, United is a shoddy 0-3-2 since late August.
However, New England has hardly been world beaters of late either. Since their Superliga win, they have stumbled quite dramatically both internationally and in MLS as well, and have far less excuses. Plus, they just lost their captain Steve Ralston to a broken leg in their last match.
NE was already reeling a bit lately with their own fixture congestion problems. Since their Superliga triumph, they have stumbled to a 2-5-4 record in MLS play and was the first team to ever lose to as well as be eliminated by a Caribbean team in CONCACAF qualifying. Over that stretch, theyâ€™ve been decidedly shaky on both sides of the ball, shutting out only one team, and being outscored 19 to 13. Also after going 6-1-1 on the road to start the season, they are winless away from the Razor since then going, 0-3-2 over the last two months.
Plus, despite their glorified system and supposed bench strength, Nichol has struggled to find a true set of starters and settle on a rotation, and adding Gabriel Badilla to the team has seemed to exacerbate the problems instead of alleviate them. Since the Costa Rican has joined the team, Nichol has waffled over playing four defenders or the three back system heâ€™s used for five years. Truthfully, neither system has looked very steady, nor been very successful, with or without Badilla, who has also really struggled to adapt to MLS.
But, losing Ralston might well sink them completely as he is arguably more crucial to their success than anyone else. With him on the field, the team is 10-4-6, and is 5-0-2 in games heâ€™s scored, as well as outscoring their opponents 33 to 21. Without him on the field, NE is 2-5-1 with the offense sputtering for only 6 goals while the team has given up a whopping 16 goals.
NE just hasnâ€™t figured out a way to play without him. Mauricio Castro has been painfully bad in the center and has been a disappointment overall with no goals and only two assists in 20 some games this year. But, Shalrie Joseph has been almost as bad for the offense when heâ€™s pushed up either in a 4-4-2 or a 3-5-2, and Nichol has been seemingly out of ideas, but will have to come up with something now that Ralston is out for the year.
But Nichol might play it safe as NE really doesnâ€™t have much to play for. While DC is literally playing for their lives, NE already knows they will face the Fire no matter what, so all thatâ€™s left is to settle on the miniscule home field advantage that really isnâ€™t that much help in the first round. In MLS, in the regular season, the more desperate team usually finds a way to get the result, and clearly United is miles more desperate.
DC United will also get a boost from two surprising draws this past week as well as the return of some starters too. The amazing point in Saprissa and the almost equally as shocking draw in Houston have to be something the team can build on. Especially as Emilio should be back in the starting lineup, and Jaime and Fred are almost certainly going to get some minutes if they are needed.
The only drawback is Namoff being out due to that asinine red card in Houston. He was jobbed on the delay of game call early on, then totally robbed as Brad Davis suckered another card out of that pathetic referee when he refused to jump and made a meal out of an accidental elbow that wouldnâ€™t have mashed a fly.
However, Soehn may well have had a divine revelation as he actually played two central defenders in the center of defense for the first time this season and was rewarded with those two ties. Late signing Greg Janicki played in both matches (as well as a solid match against Cruz Azul) and clearly showed he belongs on the field, so with Peralta back to full strength along side him, they should be OK against Twellman and Dube.
Which still leaves Soehn some good options to cover for the loss of Namoff. Martinez has played the right very well and should be able to get forward on that side of the field as Heaps and Khano Smith are hardly awe inspiring. Burch has re-found himself playing on the left where he is clearly more comfortable and should be fine against the speedy, but ineffective Nyassi. All in all, good options for controlling a NE side that is obviously laboring of late even though Twellman has been vicious to United over the years.
So with the defense set, Soehn can use McTavish on the right side of midfield, Vide or Simms in the center to back up Quaranta against Joseph and Larentowicz, and Guerrero on the left. Emilio and either Doe or Khumalo should start at forward which gives United a rare speed option up top as well as some solid attacking players all of which should do reasonably well against a NE backline that has been struggling.
Even the intangibles favor DC slightly. Now DC is historically horrible on Thursday night ESPN2 games, including winless this year at 0-2-1 with both those losses coming at RFK, but the tie was in NE. Even better, NE has not really fared that well in RFK overall. DC is 3-1-1 in the last five regular season games played here, and 9-3-3 since the turn of the century.
However, facts and figures and tendencies and rationalizations all mean nothing if DC doesnâ€™t play like their pride and their jobs are on the line. This team has no business missing the playoffs no matter what the excuses, but that might well be out of their hands at this point. NY and KC host the Crew and the Earthquakes respectively. Either can win and DC would still be behind the eight ball and need some help from the West. While DC finishes up the season at the Crew, NY goes to Chicago and KC goes to NE, so even if it came down to the last match, DC would almost certainly need still some help both from the East and West.
However, all that aside, DC simply has to win this last match at home. A win to show that they will still go down fighting in front of their supporters (and increasingly angry owners!) would go a long way to mitigating this disastrous season. But if they drop this last match at home, they deserve whatever repercussions are sure to follow.