The Washington Times - August 11, 2012, 12:43PM

The Eastern Conference is tight. Really tight. As things stand, just six points separate first place in the conference from the fifth and final playoff slot. Considering the MLS postseason format gives a crucial first-round bye to the top three teams, the stretch run will be key — much more so than in past years when the playoffs were more forgiving to lower seeds.

Tonight, two teams right in the middle of that mix will face off when D.C. United (11-7-3) travel to face Sporting Kansas City (12-7-4) tonight at 8:30 on Comcast SportsNet. With a win, United will be two points back of first place with three games in hand. With a loss, D.C. will be seven points behind.

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On the plus side for United, Kansas City played 120 minutes Wednesday before claiming the U.S. Open Cup title with a penalty kicks win over Seattle. But some updates Friday night to the injury report don’t bode well for D.C., as midfielder-forward Dwayne De Rosario was downgraded to doubtful with a shoulder injury while strikers Hamdi Salihi (viral infection) and Maicon Santos (toe soreness) are now out.

That means Long Tan is almost certain to get another start up top for United. The reduced minutes for Salihi and Santos amid Tan’s emergence was the focus of my story that ran in Friday’s paper.

SCOUTING REPORT

United have lost just one game at RFK Stadium this season: a 1-0 result against Kansas City in the season opener. In that contest, Kansas City’s 4-3-3 formation overwhelmed United in midfield, with Graham Zusi dictating the tempo and C.J. Sapong coming off the bench to nod home the late winner.

Look for a couple changes to Kansas City’s lineup from the team that defeated Seattle on Wedensday. Aurelien Collin — suspended for the Open Cup final — should step in next to Matt Besler at center back. Michael Harrington will likely start for Seth Sinovic (ankle) at left back.

With Zusi clearly uncomfortable in the flank position he played Wednesday, look for him to tuck back inside, with perhaps the fatigued Roger Espinoza getting the night off after returning from the Olympics to play all 120 minutes Wednesday.

With Bobby Convey (hamstring) questionable, Sapong seems poised for a start on the left, joined in the three-man front line by Teal Bunbury and Kei Kamara.

OLSEN’S OPTIONS

Here is the lineup I see United coach Ben Olsen rolling out tonight:

Hamid; Korb, McDonald, Dudar, Chabala; Najar, Kitchen, Boskovic, DeLeon; Pontius, Tan

United’s lack of options up front combined with the return of Andy Najar from Olympic duty makes shifting Chris Pontius to forward an enticing choice, though Olsen also could toss player-coach Josh Wolff a start against his former team.

Defensively, newly acquired left back Mike Chabala will likely be thrown right into the fire with incumbent Daniel Woolard sidelined by a concussion.

Although Olsen rarely diverts from a 4-4-2 formation, he has in the past gone to a 4-3-3 to match opponents using that alignment. In fact, he did so in the season finale last season against Kansas City, a 1-0 loss at RFK. So I wouldn’t be shocked to see Olsen use a Pontius-Tan-Najar front line and add Marcelo Saragosa as an extra defensive midfielder.