Five things to watch: DC United vs. New York Red Bulls

November 3rd, 2012

By Kyle McCarthy

New York visits DC United to kick off the first of two Eastern Conference semifinal series Saturday night. Here are five points to watch ahead of the first playoff match at RFK Stadium in five years:

1. Steady as she goes: United must calm the inevitable bout of nerves likely to sweep through the side before the opening whistle. No projected starter has played more than eight playoff games. United can’t afford to let its inexperience in these matters show or provide too much space to Kenny Cooper and Thierry Henry in the early stages of this match.

2. De Ro or no?: Dwayne De Rosario rather surprisingly returned to training on Friday after missing a couple of months with a sprained left knee. It surely seems a bit too early for him to stake a claim for playing time, but his overall level of fitness (if his knee holds up) gives at least modest credence to the idea. United coach Ben Olsen must use De Rosario carefully to avoid placing the recently solid defensive work at risk.

3. Measuring actions and ambitions: United has succeeded in De Rosario’s absence by adopting a modest approach and keeping things tight at the back. Those measures may not suffice with the first leg at RFK Stadium, but Olsen and his players must guard against opening the game up too much and tempting the potent Red Bulls forward.

4. Taking the proper remedial measures: New York coach Hans Backe should pair Tim Cahill and Dax McCarty in central midfield whenever possible. They offer the right balance and supply solid two-way play in that department. Cahill, however, may miss out with a calf injury. If the former Everton man does sit, then McCarty should move into the middle from his peculiar spot on the right to shore up matters with Teemu Tainio in the middle. It isn’t the ideal scenario, but it will have to do.

5. Guarding against the defensive issues: United scored eight goals in three games against the Red Bulls this season. Backe has taken some steps to help matters (Heath Pearce now features at left back) and other steps to hinder the potential improvement (Rafael Marquez now partners Markus Holgersson to create one of the slowest center back tandems in the league) since the two teams last met. United probably won’t try to expose the lack of pace in central defense with its rugged and workmanlike forward options, but it will still pose some problems in the wide areas. New York’s best bet to avoid its recent defensive problems against DC United: maintain control of the game in possession and press forward to change the dynamic.