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D.C. United, Red Bulls set to open semifinal series

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After five years, the D.C. United faithful Saturday night will finally see playoff soccer again — four days earlier than expected.

Despite the unexpected scheduling change triggered Wednesday by Hurricane Sandy, a raucous, black-clad crowd still is expected at RFK Stadium (8 p.m., NBCSN) to see United back in the postseason after missing the playoffs four straight years. Not a single player remains from the D.C. roster during that run, with 2009 draft pick Chris Pontius now the club’s longest-tenured player.

The New York Red Bulls, on the other hand, are stacked with veterans boasting playoff games aplenty, as well as some World Cup and UEFA Champions League experience courtesy of Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez.

On the plus side, United captain Dwayne De Rosario — a four-time MLS Cup champion perhaps known as the most clutch player in league history — was upgraded to questionable on the injury report Friday.

Although the reigning MVP is just seven weeks into what was projected as a 10- to 12-week layoff after spraining his MCL, De Rosario has looked fine running on the side and doing some ball work with teammates this week. While minutes Saturday might seem like a stretch, I wouldn’t be surprised to see De Rosario in Wednesday’s second leg.

For New York, Australian playmaker Tim Cahill has been downgraded to questionable with a calf injury.

Ahead of the match, I have plenty of reading material for you from this week’s print editions:

Red Bulls have no trophies; United want to keep it that way
Goodwill — until United-Red Bulls series starts
Sandy prompts switch; United will open playoffs at home
D.C. United grab No. 2 seed, draw rival in playoffs 

SCOUTING REPORT

Here is the lineup I expect Red Bulls coach Hans Backe to use:

Robles; Lade, Holgersson, Marquez, Pearce; McCarty, Tainio, Cahill, Lindpere; Henry, Cooper

Marquez’s return to health has allowed All-Star Heath Pearce to slide over to his natural left back position, where he should have quite the duel with United winger Nick DeLeon.

In midfield, Backe’s puzzling insistence on starting veteran Teemu Tainio means Dax McCarty will be pushed to the flank, where his effectiveness is limited. The strategy also keeps the dangerous Sebastien Le Toux and Jan Gunnar Solli on the bench for New York, though one could step in if Cahill can’t go.

Of course, the Red Bulls’ bread and butter is that lethal forward combination of Henry (15 goals, 12 assists) and Kenny Cooper (18 goals).

OLSEN’S OPTIONS

Here is the lineup I expect United coach Ben Olsen to use:

Hamid; Najar, McDonald, Jakovic, Korb; DeLeon, Kitchen, Saragosa, Pontius; Santos, Pajoy

This is the lineup Olsen has leaned on in recent weeks, with there only being one real question: Will the coach start Maicon Santos as a second striker, or will Branko Boskovic get the nod as an attacking midfielder in front of Perry Kitchen and Marcelo Saragosa?

FREE KICKS

— After D.C. sacrificed home-field advantage in the series, swapping home dates to accommodate the New York metropolitan area’s recovery from Hurricane Sandy, United, the Red Bulls and MLS will provide free buses and match tickets to United supporters for Wednesday’s second leg at Red Bull Arena.

— The Newseum has caught playoff fever, with a prominent display featuring the United logo and colors.

— United midfielder Lewis Neal (calf strain), defender Daniel Woolard (concussion) and forward Long Tan (ankle sprain) all are probable. Forward Josh Wolff (lower back disc herniation) remains out. New York defender Brandon Barklage (plantar fascia) is out.

— The match will be officiated by Jair Marrufo. United will be in all black, while New York will be in its white jersey with red shorts.

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