The Washington Times - September 1, 2012, 03:00PM

For the first time since mid-May, D.C. United tonight will face a Western Conference opponent. United’s trip to Rio Tinto Stadium to take on Real Salt Lake is a definite change of pace for a club that has faced a slew of crucial in-conference matchups in the past month.

But don’t be mistaken — this is a big game for United (12-9-5). At this point, they all are. The Columbus Crew (11-8-6) now are just two points behind United for the final playoff bid, and they have a game in hand on D.C. The Montreal Impact (12-13-3), meanwhile, also are just two points back, though they’ve played a couple more games than United.

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Although Salt Lake (13-10-4) is 0-3-1 in its past four, the club still has the fifth-best record in MLS.

Leading United tonight (9 p.m., Comcast SportsNet) will be Dwayne De Rosario, who will be playing his 300th regular-season game three days after notching his 100th MLS goal. In Friday’s paper, my story looked back on De Rosario’s milestone moment in Wednesday’s 2-2 draw with the New York Red Bulls.

SCOUTING REPORT

MVP candidate Kyle Beckerman (four goals, four assists) serves as Salt Lake’s midfield fulcrum, clogging opposing passing lanes better perhaps than any other player in the league. His play creates the space that allows playmaker Javier Morales (two goals, six assists) to operate at the top of coach Jason Kreis‘ diamond midfield.

Up top, poacher Alvaro Saborio is enjoying a superb season (14 goals) while partner Fabian Espindola (six goals, four assists) has been more streaky. Defensively, Salt Lake will hope to have center back Jamison Olave (hamstring) back in the fold after a monthlong absence. He is listed as questionable.

OLSEN’S OPTIONS

Here is the lineup I see United coach Ben Olsen going with tonight:

Hamid; Najar, McDonald, Dudar, Korb; DeLeon, Kitchen, Boskovic, Pontius; De Rosario, Pajoy

At center back, I really could see Olsen go with any combination of Brandon McDonald, Emiliano Dudar and Dejan Jakovic. Dudar and Jakovic have been up and down, and McDonald might need a break.

Considering Branko Boskovic has played just 75 minutes in United’s past four, it makes sense for him to step in at central midfield for Marcelo Saragosa. Up top, United will be a bit short-handed, with striker Hamdi Salihi sidelined by a hamstring strain, though the designated player has been out of favor recently anyway.