When D.C. United on Wednesday agreed to sacrifice home-field advantage by swapping home playoff dates with the New York Red Bulls, many factors came into play.
There chiefly were concerns over the New York metropolitan area’s ability to recover promptly from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. Competitive factors also merited consideration.
And, of course, one can’t ignore karma.
“I’ve got a lot of catching up to do in the karma department,” United coach Ben Olsen joked. “I don’t know if this one’s going to put me over the top.”
Second-seeded United originally earned the right to be at home for the second leg of their two-game, total-goals Eastern Conference semifinal. Now, third-place New York will host the decisive match Wednesday, giving the Harrison, N.J.-based club four extra days to prepare.
“It’s bigger than soccer,” center back Brandon McDonald said. “We can’t look at ourselves and be selfish from our standpoint. People’s lives are at stake over there, people have lost houses and family members. So for us, it’s something we gladly accept.”
But any feel-good sentiment attached to United’s agreement to play Game 1 at RFK Stadium on Saturday isn’t expected to last past kickoff.
“The goodwill will probably go out the window once the whistle blows, but that’s great,” Olsen said. “That’s what we want. We want an energetic, passionate game and series.”
Short on experience
With four-time MLS Cup champion Dwayne De Rosario sidelined by a sprained knee ligament, United boast just one player in Olsen’s typical starting lineup who has seen playoff action: McDonald, who started three games for the San Jose Earthquakes in the 2010 postseason.
In the physical center back’s opinion, D.C. needs to look no further than the Houston Dynamo, who ousted Chicago 2-1 in Wednesday night’s knockout game, to understand a winning playoff mentality.
“You look at that team, when it comes playoff time, it’s animals on the field,” McDonald said. “I’m trying to instill that in the guys here. I’m like, ‘Look man, playoffs isn’t pretty soccer. It’s who is going to bite their teeth the hardest and have the most grit on the pitch.’”
While United’s four MLS Cups still top the league, Olsen, who won titles as a player in 1999 and 2004, is the only remaining link to that era.
“That’s why Ben’s here,” goalkeeper Bill Hamid said. “He can bring that experience into the locker room and give us that faith that we need, that courage and desire to work hard.”
Team vs. individuals
There is little doubt when it comes to sheer talent and pedigree, the Red Bulls have United beat.
New York, with the league’s highest payroll, is led by Thierry Henry, a French icon who has won a World Cup and a UEFA Champions League title. Mexican defender Rafa Marquez and Australian playmaker Tim Cahill, meanwhile, have five World Cups of experience between them.
“They’ve got more World Cup games than I think we have playoff games,” Olsen said. “We’ve got a good group, and sometimes that gets you through and gets you past teams that have great individuals. I kind of think that’s what this is about right now: a team versus some really experienced, good individuals.”
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