D.C. United says it can weather the MLS playoff storm vs. Red Bulls


D.C. United and Lionard Pajoy hope to advance to the Eastern Conference finals. (Luis M. Alvarez/Associated Press)
November 6, 2012

The forecast Wednesday night at Red Bull Arena calls for frigid rain, maybe a burst of snow and cruel gusts as a nor’easter takes another swing at bruised New York and New Jersey.

The weather has meddled with the United-Red Bulls series from the start. Why not intervene again?

“It’s going to be nasty, which I am okay with,” D.C. United Coach Ben Olsen said. “I like our group with that stuff.”

It does seem like an appropriate environment for an industrious squad that has been grinding out results for two months.

Slick grass, patches of mud, unpredictable ball direction, difficult footing — it would fit in with United’s character for the second leg of the MLS Eastern Conference semifinals against the New York Red Bulls.

“I kind of like it,” midfielder Chris Pontius said. “Our team is built for that.”

The clubs played to a 1-1 draw in the opener of the two-game, total-goals series Saturday at RFK Stadium — a match that was moved to Washington because of Hurricane Sandy’s impact on the New York area.

Another tie Wednesday would require 30 minutes of overtime immediately following regulation and, if necessary, penalty kicks.

The winner will have to regroup quickly: The first leg of the conference finals is Saturday afternoon at home against top-seeded Sporting Kansas City or on the road against the No. 5 Houston Dynamo.

Houston won the first leg in that series, 2-0, and will visit Kansas City on Wednesday.

In the Western Conference, top-seeded San Jose is home against defending champion Los Angeles on Wednesday after winning the opener, 1-0.

Seattle and Real Salt Lake, who are even after a scoreless first leg, will conclude their series Thursday in Utah.

United’s Robbie Russell knows what it’s like to play a decisive postseason match in adverse conditions. Among his 12 playoff appearances with Real Salt Lake was the 2009 MLS Cup on a brisk, wet evening in Seattle.

He ended up converting the winning penalty kick in the seventh round of a shootout.

He likes what he sees from this D.C. crew, which missed the playoffs the previous four seasons.

“It’s a young team and we’ve had an incredible season, but there’s that hunger there, that desire for more that is crucial to every team,” he said. “We are not satisfied with what we have done.”

Russell, 33, might play a pivotal part in postseason again. With Andy Najar suspended after receiving a red card in Saturday’s game, Russell is the simplest solution to start at right back. He has played just 12 minutes in three appearances scattered over seven weeks since recovering from a foot injury.

Olsen said after Tuesday’s training session that he was still weighing his backline options. Another alternative is moving center back Brandon McDonald out wide, but Olsen seems reluctant to break up McDonald’s partnership with Dejan Jakovic.

Regardless, United is braced for New York’s early surge.

“You don’t want to [allow] a goal that early; we could be in trouble,” Jakovic said. “We know they are going to come out pressing hard. Calm the storm after 15-20 minutes and then the game is going to settle down and we will be able to start playing.”

United yielded few clear opportunities in the opener before relinquishing a second-half lead on goalkeeper Bill Hamid’s own goal.

The Red Bulls are more lethal at home, however, averaging two goals per game while recording an 11-2-4 record in Harrison, N.J., during the regular season.

They struck three times against visiting United in June.

United is 2-0-2 with two goals conceded in its previous four away matches and 5-0-3 overall since mid-September.

Coaches and players agree they were the superior side last weekend.

“They were excited about the way we went about it the other night but unfulfilled,” Olsen said. “We have a huge job ahead of us.”

United notes: Najar was named to the Honduras national team roster for a Nov. 14 friendly against Peru in Houston, but if United advances to the conference finals, officials will ask the Honduran federation to let him remain with the club.

Meantime, United is awaiting word on a possible multi-game suspension for Najar, who was ejected for hurling the ball at referee Jair Marrufo last Saturday.

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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