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Match primer: Chicago Fire at D.C. United

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For D.C. United (11-8-4), tonight’s match against the visiting Chicago Fire (12-7-5) is a big one. After dropping two points at home against Philadelphia on Sunday and going 1-3-1 in their past five, United could sure use a win at RFK Stadium (7:30 p.m., Comcast SportsNet) against a surging Chicago team to get back on track and secure their positioning in the tight Eastern Conference.

Although United’s place in the projected field is fairly comfortable for now (they’re a point up on sixth-place Montreal with four games in hand), keep in mind that the current playoff format rewards seeding more than in previous incarnations.

The fifth seed — where United currently stand — means opening the postseason on the road in a wild-card game. But the third seed — a spot D.C. is easily within striking distance of — means a bye to a home-and-home conference semifinal. Big difference.

The rising intensity in the United locker room as the season’s stretch run approaches has become evident, as I dive into in today’s print-edition story.

SCOUTING REPORT

On a three-game winning streak, the Fire are not a team anyone wants to face right now. The forward partnership of midseason acquisitions Chris Rolfe and Sherjill MacDonald is developing chemistry, Marco Pappa and Alvaro Fernandez provide threats from the wing, and Pavel Pardo dictates the tempo centrally. Chicago also offers the depth to bring players such as Patrick Nyarko and Dominic Oduro off the bench.

Defensively, German veteran Arne Friedrich has formed a nice rapport at center back with rookie Austin Berry, while Gonzalo Segares is arguably the league’s finest left back and Jalil Anibaba has settled in nicely on the right. Inconsistent young goalkeeper Sean Johnson remains a question mark, although his recent form did earn him a U.S. national team call-up.

One key absence for the Fire: captain Logan Pause, who is out with two broken ribs and a collapsed lung suffered earlier this month. He last weekend was replaced in holding midfield by Dan Paladini.

OLSEN’S OPTIONS

Here is my guess as the starting lineup United coach Ben Olsen will use tonight:

Hamid; Korb, McDonald, Jakovic, Chabala; Najar, Kitchen, De Rosario, DeLeon; Pontius, Pajoy

I’m thinking Mike Chabala will step into the back line, which will shift to replace the suspended Emiliano Dudar. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see Andy Najar at right back, a move that could open a spot in midfield for Lewis Neal or up top for Hamdi Salihi. With Branko Boskovic also serving a suspension, Dwayne De Rosario seems poised for a second-straight start in central midfield, though Neal could step in if Olsen wants to save his captain’s legs and play him up top.

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