By Charles Boehm
With a modest three-game unbeaten streak under their belts, D.C. United are set to enter a packed stretch of matches against MLS Eastern Conference foes, with four important games in the next two weeks, starting with a trip to Foxborough, Mass. to face the New England Revolution Saturday (4 p.m. ET, broadcast live on Comcast SportsNet+).
D.C. then return home for a quick turnaround ahead of a three-game homestand which figures to test the team’s roster depth. On Wednesday night the Montreal Impact, the league’s newest club, hit RFK Stadium, then Thierry Henry leads the high-scoring New York Red Bulls to the nation’s capital on Sunday, April 22 before the month wraps up with a visit from the defending Eastern Conference champion Houston Dynamo on April 28.
“We’re going to need as many bodies as possible over the next two weeks,” head coach Ben Olsen told reporters after practice on Thursday. “I think everybody’s charged up and realizes how important this stretch is to us.”
United have recovered from a woeful 0-2 start to the season and now sit in the middle of the East standings with a 1-2-2 mark, having given up just one goal in their past three matches.
“I think you’re starting to see an identity, which is important,” said winger Danny Cruz. “One thing that I think Ben’s been instilling in us is that at the end of the day, the 11 of us are going to be really tough to break down all together. All 11 of us are doing everything we can on both sides of the ball. It’s starting to really come together.”
This weekend the Black-and-Red will try to get up to full speed on both sides of the ball against old rivals who are going through a rebirth of their own under new coach Jay Heaps, who, like Olsen, is a popular longtime player who jumped almost straight into his club’s head coaching job not long after retirement.
Both are trying to revitalize their respective teams with new, more dynamic playing styles and New England turned heads around the league with their comprehensive 3-1 defeat of the defending MLS Cup champion Los Angeles Galaxy in California earlier this month.
“They look like more of a soccer team than the traditional New England smashmouth team and that’s a credit to what [Heaps] has done,” said Olsen, who was an occasional teammate of Heaps in the U.S. National Team system during their playing days. “I’ve had a lot of history with Jay, as a teammate and playing against him, clearly. In a lot of ways we’re cut out of the same mold, we’re both highly competitive, and surely obnoxious players on the field.
“I think he’ll agree with me that he was just as competitive and feisty, and he was a great player in this league for a long time so it’s exciting to see him doing what he’s doing there.”
United will welcome rugged center back Brandon McDonald from a one-game suspension imposed by the MLS disciplinary committee last week and goalkeeper Bill Hamid will be in uniform, though probably not starting, as he recovers from an ankle injury sustained during the U.S. Under-23 National Team’s unsuccessful Olympic qualifying campaign.
On the other side, inspirational Revs central midfielder Shalrie Joseph will have to sit out Saturday’s clash due to a retroactive suspension of his own for a dangerous tackle on Dallas midfield Ricardo Villar over the weekend.
“We’re going in to win the game,” said Cruz. “They’re going to be missing their captain, which is obviously very important for them…They’re going to have to have guys step up, but we’re definitely not going to take them lightly.”
Noting the tight confines of the artificial-turf field at Gillette Stadium, Olsen and his players expect a hectic, physical tone to be set in the latest chapter of this often-heated rivalry and Joseph’s absence in the middle of the park leaves former United stalwart Clyde Simms with a tall task. Simms joined the Revolution over the winter after seven seasons in D.C. and will be eager to put in a good shift against his old team.
“You’ve got to be sure you’re keeping your width and utilizing every inch,” said Olsen. “The field is small, just like a Portland field or a Houston field. It’s still a game about 50/50s and winning the little battles, being aggressive in the [penalty] box and opportunistic. A lot of these [D.C.-New England] games aren’t that beautiful to watch, if you like a lot of passing and possession. So we’ve got to be ready for a battle.”