D.C. United needs win vs. New York Red Bulls before another tough stretch


D.C. United Coach Ben Olsen knows his team has to win its few remaining home matches, including Sunday’s against the New York Red Bulls. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

With a fifth match in 15 days, D.C. United will complete the most congested stretch of the 71 / 2-month schedule Sunday afternoon against the New York Red Bulls at RFK Stadium.

The club will then catch its breath and begin planning for the most demanding travel period of the season: Vancouver, New York, Jamaica and Chicago over two weeks.

The recent past and near future have amplified the present: United’s need to secure three points at home against the rival Red Bulls.

“Here, we have got to win, no matter what,” forward Fabian Espindola said. “We have to do our job here.”

With eight weeks left in the regular season, United (13-8-4) remains atop the Eastern Conference, one point ahead of Sporting Kansas City. The unforgiving schedule, however, threatens to strain Coach Ben Olsen’s resources and place greater emphasis on the few home appearances in August and September.

United is 8-2-3 with a 23-11 scoring margin at RFK in league matches and recorded 10 goals in the past three home dates.

Despite a 4-1 loss at Los Angeles on Wednesday, the squad returned home mostly satisfied with a week-long trip. Last Saturday’s 3-0 victory at Kansas City was more important than earning points against the surging Galaxy because it came against another club contending for the conference lead.

“You tell me we get three points out of away games against Kansas City and L.A., and we come back for a home game fairly healthy, I think we are in good shape,” Olsen said. “I don’t know why we are now expected to win every game. There are going to be times where we lose games.”

Whether or not Olsen likes it, the expectations have risen around United, which won four straight in July and, after a pair of away defeats, claimed two league matches and the CONCACAF Champions League opener.

Despite the schedule demands, Olsen and the players are encouraged by the general health of the roster and the opportunities to periodically rest regulars. Three reserve midfielders started against Los Angeles and the emerging front-line duo of Espindola and Luis Silva logged only 29 and 56 minutes, respectively.

Espindola and Silva are expected to partner against the Red Bulls, a decision that would relegate Eddie Johnson to the bench. Johnson scored against Waterhouse (Jamaica) in the CONCACAF Champions League opener Aug. 20 and was involved in the scoring sequence Wednesday — it was ruled an own goal — but does not form the same chemistry with the other forwards as they do with one another.

The first-choice midfield is also likely to return after inspiring the victory at Kansas City. Nick DeLeon (18 minutes vs. L.A.), Davy Arnaud and Chris Rolfe (neither played) are well rested, while Perry Kitchen (90 minutes) never seems to wear down.

United will need to recalibrate the defense after conceding a season-high four goals. The club had arrived in Los Angeles with the second-best goal against average among MLS’s 19 clubs. Two Galaxy goals were suspect — a possible offside infraction and a baffling penalty kick call by referee Kevin Stott — but goalkeeper Bill Hamid was under assault all night and D.C. did not generate chances until the second half.

The Red Bulls (7-7-10) will present problems with three of the league’s top attackers: MLS leading scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips (20 goals), French star Thierry Henry (11 assists) and Australian World Cup forward Tim Cahill.

Wright-Phillips and Henry scored twice apiece against Montreal last weekend and sat out a 2-0 Champions League victory over FAS (El Salvador) on Tuesday.

United notes: In pregame and halftime ceremonies, the club will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the 2004 league championship. Olsen and Red Bulls Coach Mike Petke were members of that team. Several other former players are scheduled to attend, including MLS Cup MVP Alecko Eskandarian, now an assistant coach for the second-tier New York Cosmos.

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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