This time last year, D.C. United was firing on many cylinders: attacking and finishing in the final third, pressuring the opposition’s top offensive threats, and when falling behind, finding a way to come out of the match with points.
Replicating last year’s late-season success is the priority for the United, beginning Sunday night at Audi Field against the first-place Philadelphia Union.
This weekend’s bout is a crucial opportunity to pick up three points at home: United has 36 points from a 9-6-9 record, sliding but in third place in the MLS standings, just three points away from both the Union at the top and from the seventh and final playoff spot in a wide-open Eastern Conference. A win Sunday could be precisely the jolt United needs after a lousy performance in Chicago that resulted in a scoreless tie. United has won only two of its past 12 matches, and players understand the importance of breaking out of stalemates to earn wins — and points.
“We have some ties at home that need to be wins,” United assistant coach Chad Ashton said. “We need to take that step forward and maximize points at home during this really important stretch.”
United is on the verge of a deal intended to increase its punch. The club is in the final stages of acquiring Norwegian forward Ola Kamara from a Chinese club for a transfer fee estimated at $2.5 million, multiple people familiar with the deal told The Washington Post on Friday. Kamara, 29, has played for Shenzhen since February after three seasons and 48 goals in MLS with the Columbus Crew and the LA Galaxy.
It was a midseason acquisition — a much more high-profile one, of course, for English superstar Wayne Rooney — that boosted United to last year’s playoffs. As last season wound down, United capitalized on eight home matches out of its final 10 of the regular season and racked up points, finishing 7-0-3. This season, it hasn’t been nearly as effective in Washington. Before hitting the road against Cincinnati, Atlanta and Chicago, United hosted the New England Revolution on July 12. D.C. erased a two-goal deficit at home to escape with a 2-2 tie. But it was a wasted opportunity to pick up three points.
The meeting Sunday against Philadelphia begins a 10-game stretch to close the regular season, with five at home. The stakes are amplified because D.C. plays the Union again Aug. 24 on the road, United defender Steven Birnbaum said Friday, following a team recovery session. He said the team’s current lull could be put to rest with a strong outing Sunday, when the game plan hinges on pressuring the Union when it has the ball.
“Not let them get passes that will spread our defense out,” Birnbaum said. “We have to be compact as a group and know when to press and when to sit back.”
“We know this is a big game,” Birnbaum added. “It'll be important to get this win at home so we're not forced to pick up points on the road in Philly.”
The Union sits atop the conference at 11-7-6 (39 points) but is coming off 4-0 losses in each of its two previous road matches, at Salt Lake on July 13 and at Montreal on July 27. Still, Philadelphia has attacked opponents on the road, controlling the majority of possession even away from home and then pouncing with a deep, fast and powerful front.
“That’ll be a big key — who can get ahold of the ball early in the game,” Ashton said. “We want to keep them in front of us.”
Ashton said the scheme United has come up with for Sunday is based, at least in part, on the teams’ June 12 matchup in the U.S. Open Cup that United won, 2-1, behind late goals by Chris McCann, who this past week parted ways with the club, and Rooney.
With 10 more games on the schedule, opponents will come on fast. United knows it must reset and recharge for this crucial stretch, which starts with the Union on Sunday night.