Saturday night 3-0 win over Montreal was the kind of performance Fire supporters have craved for years in vain - a thorough flattening, a no-doubter, a blowout, a rout. A chance to dance in the puddles as something other than a tactic to stave off despair. The couple thousand hardy souls who braved the weather got the greatest of rewards: Joy.
It is written into the cruel nature of professional sports that Saturday's joy is just that - Saturday's. As pleasant as it is to remember the way Kennedy Igboananike shrugged off Bakary Soumare, then fed Harry Shipp, who ... see, there we're doing it again. Saturday was great - transcendent, even. But Saturday was. Now it's already Wednesday. And rather than playing one of the worst road teams in MLS history at home, we're playing one of the toughest teams to beat in MLS, period, at their place.
Shaun Maloney has left for a two-week sojourn with the Scotland national team, and will miss not only this game but the following two. As Jeff Englehardt pointed out yesterday, this opens the possibility that Harry Shipp will play as a lone central playmaker, long considered his best position. Shipp's heralded offseason conditioning regimen is about to receive its first true stress-test - can Harry handle the strain of being the attacking pivot game after game, Wednesday, then Saturday, then Saturday again?
David Accam has apparently shaken off the hamstring tweak which saw him subbed against the Impact. Judging from his reaction, Accam didn't appreciate the early hook - doubtless anticipating further mauling the supine Montreal defense - but his importance to the side will dictate that kind of treatment. In further great-for-us-but-bad-for-David news, Ghana didn't select him for their opening AFCON qualifier, so he's here, ready to immolate Sean Franklin and make everyone in black slide juuuuust a step his direction, maybe two.
Rounding out the DPs - since we've already touched upon Maloney and Accam - is the recently disinterred Kennedy Igboananike, who as recently as two weeks ago was clearly a bust. Then a strange thing happened - in addition to pressing intelligently, keeping the ball cannily, and making intelligent runs, Igbo was involved in two scoring plays - and Fire Nation had a Saul of Tarsus moment: My god, he's actually pretty good.
The Fire are edging ever closer to full health. Yes, Mike Magee played 60 minutes for St. Louis on Saturday, yes; but it seems foolish to expect him to play again four days later. Michael Stephens has been ready for a couple of weeks, but Razvan Cocis' increasingly-assured displays have kept him on the bench. Matt Polster has planted his feet shoulder-wide in the starting XI, a clear ‘come at me, bro' on his face - he's a lock. The guess here is that Stephens slots in on the right side of midfield, keeps his passing simple as always, and does all kinds of subtle yeoman work to free up Shipp to wander the starlanes and bend time.
As successful as DC United has been since the start of 2014, they're missing a lot of the creative impetus in their attack (as I'll discuss below). If the Men in Red's defensive unit has improved in one area over last year's troubled group, it's in consistency - they're giving less away, and are quite content to make it hard to play if the opponent lacks the nous to pull the shape apart. Joevin Jones receives deserved praise for his attacking forays, but the swagger of his defensive play on the left flank seems to energize the whole unit. Adailton has been a fantastic partner to captain Jeff Larentowicz, his assured calmness spreading out like a cooling balm to the old pro in a new position.
The only questions in defense lie at right back and - almost unbelievably - in goal. The platoon of Eric Gehrig and Lovel Palmer offers the Fire different looks on the right. Either could start tonight. Fire manager Frank Yallop has also remained mum on the choice between the pipes, with Jon Busch preferred to presumptive starter Sean Johnson over the last two games. In Johnson's last start, the younger keeper did give up a terrible rebound on the New York City's first goal, a goal that lifted the hosts' spirits and set the stage for a deflating draw. Has two games on the bench been enough? Or has Yallop liked what he's seen from Busch enough to stick with the 38-year-old?
If Saturday's game was a statement about the aspirations of this team, today's is a check of their bona fides - one of the league's toughest teams to beat, in their uniquely crumbling home. Even in their weakened state, DC United is a team that will ask hard questions. Will the Fire answer them defiantly, or shrink back into the comfortable familiarity of mediocrity?
There's been a bit written about the state of DC United's attack, but it's best to disregard that straight away. Oh, sure, they signed Eddie Johnson to a DP deal, only to have him forced into retirement by a congenital heart defect. And, certainly, the Black and Red will become less various in their approach without Fabian Espindola (injured, although close to return), Luis Silva (injured), and our Prodigal Son, Chris Rolfe (suspended). That's a lot of ideas watching from the sidelines.
Disregard it all the same, because this team isn't built upon the frothy fantasies wrought around the penalty area. DC United is built upon the scorched-earth anchoring play of Perry Kitchen, the brutal calculus of Bobby Boswell in central defense, and the willing graft of their partnering platoons. The ability of that defensive square to make the center of the field a bone-littered no-man's-land is the distinguishing feature of this XI. Remember how Ben Olsen played, always stuck in, always grinding, the little tugs on the shorts, the little kick to the Achilles - it's his personality, worn like a mantle by the defending six, which defines the Black and Red.
Which means this isn't going to be easy. United are beatable, but imagining another 3-0 clowning is in the offing would be madness. Whatever the Fire take out of RFK this evening, they'll have to earn.
David Accam v Sean Franklin: One of the most predictable ‘hot matchups' every game is Accam vs. Whoever Lines Up Across From Him. Franklin is an astute and experienced MLS right back, which is another way of saying "He's going to have to foul early and often." At his physical peak, Franklin would've struggled with Accam's quicknes, and that peak is five years in the past. Watch to see how anxious Boswell is to help against Accam - if he gets into the habit of stepping early, that will open up the near-post run for Igboananike or a late-arriving Shipp.
Harry Shipp v the DC double pivot: It's possible that Shipp could draw a man-marking assignment here, with Halsti or Arnaud tasked to harass him; if not, the kid from Lake Forest will have to show that I haven't overhyped his ability to think about space. If he's floating into half-spaces with no hope of receiving the ball, the Fire are lost; should he manage the kind of trequartista masterclass he delivered last season against Houston last season, or Vancouver earlier this year, the Men in Red will be in fine shape indeed.
DC's front four pressing vs Chicago's defensive calm: What the remaining attackers for DC United lack in imagination, they make up in vigorousness. It is likely that they will sporadically press the Fire's defenders very high up the pitch in an effort to get a cheap look on goal. In years past, la Maquina Roja have struggled against this simple tactic - can they show those problems are behind them, step around the first runner and make a simple pass? If the Fire defenders are constantly banging aimless long balls forward due to pressure, the Men in Red are in trouble.
The bottom line
The world's combined betting lines (from BetBrain.com), unsurprisingly, have DC United a solid favorite - 43 percent to win, with the Fire taking a surprise away win just a bit more likely (29 percent) than a draw (28 percent).