Heading into Saturday's showdown with the Chicago Fire, D.C. United seems to have the upper hand on their Eastern Conference rivals. Chicago, undefeated against United this season, has lost stars Chris Armas and Anta Razov to long-term injuries, while influential Jamaicans Damani Ralph and Andy Williams will be away on national team duty.
But D.C. coach Peter Nowak clearly sees the potential of a Windy City ambush and has warned his players accordingly.
"You think it's going to be easier for us? It's not going to be easier, it's going to be harder. Don't fool yourself," said Nowak, who led the Fire to an MLS Cup championship as a player in 1998.
"In fact, this kind of situation is always very difficult because the team is very desperate at the moment, and they need every single point," he said. "They're going to miss some players, but if we're going to approach this game like it's handed to us, we've lost from the start."
With Wednesday's clutch 3-1 victory over Kansas City, the Fire lifted themselves out of last place in the East, and are now one point behind United with six games to play. The two sides will meet again on Sept. 18 in Washington, essentially meaning that 12 vital points are up for grabs over the next two weeks.
For their part, United may miss striker Alecko Eskandarian to an ankle injury, while defender Ezra Hendrickson has joined St. Vincent and the Grenadines for a World Cup qualifying match against Mexico.
But Hendrickson's absence will be balanced with the long-awaited return of captain and defensive mainstay Ryan Nelsen. "Nellie" has recovered from sports hernia surgery and will provide a huge boost to the Black-and-Red, despite lacking full fitness after a six-week layoff.
"This is such a key game, this game on Saturday," said the New Zealand international. "You see Armas out, Damani out, a couple more out, and you think, 'Great, brilliant, this is our great chance to beat them away.' But it's the old 'wounded animal' kind of thing -- they're going to know that, and they're going to come out all guns blazing."
Nelsen also has United's last trip to Chicago on his mind: a 3-0 walloping on June 5 while he was in Australia for World Cup qualifying matches.
"Last time in Chicago, the boys got a big-time beating, and that's playing on the mind," he said. "We need to have a good look at ourselves; I think a bit of revenge is needed for that game."
Undoubtedly, Nowak remembers that game too, and has pushed the Black-and-Red hard in training sessions this week in hopes of defeating his former club at a crucial moment in the season.
"I don't care what kind of situation they are in," Nowak said of the Fire. "I see what I can do to make my team better. I think they understand what to expect in Chicago: it's going to be a battle all over the place, and you have to win 50/50 balls. I expect that it's going to be a very difficult game for us."