D.C. United and the MetroStars will close out the regular season with their fourth meeting of the year on Saturday, but the old adversaries have just begun to fight. The two teams will meet again in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs less than a week later, with the winner of Saturday's game earning the second seed and its accompanying home-field advantage.
Some would argue that with playoff pairings essentially set, the game's importance is diminished, but you won't likely find a United player to agree with that sentiment. Having won four of their last five, the Black-and-Red are eager to continue their present run of form while sending a strong message to their Atlantic Cup rivals.
"It's going to be a bloodbath, pretty much," said defender Bryan Namoff. "There's always been a rivalry with New York, more than any other team."
Namoff and the rest of United's back line have been impenetrable of late. They shut down the Metros' fluid attack on their own turf two weeks ago, grinding out a 1-0 win at Giants Stadium, and have surrendered only two goals in their last five matches.
United's defensive resurgence has been paced by the steady play of Namoff and Mike Petke, combined with captain Ryan Nelsen and goalkeeper Nick Rimando returning to top form after debilitating injuries. Nelsen credits the improvement to United's increased focus on team defending.
"Early on we looked at what we were going to do when we had the ball, how're going to score goals and this kind of stuff," he said. "That was our whole emphasis in the first half of the year, and now we're looking at what we're doing without the ball. When you can keep a zero at the back, with the players that we have, you'll normally get a win out of it."
Assistant coach Mark Simpson echoed that sentiment, praising his players' intensity and intelligence.
"We're doing better as a collective 11," Simpson said, "we're still putting pressure on the ball, making sure that nobody can get behind us. We're limiting the amount of space the team has to play in, and everybody's taking care of business back there, taking it personal."
Said Namoff: "I think our communication has been a lot better in the back, showing the players in front of us where to go, when to step. You could see that our fight, our drive was there, whereas in some games defensively we would play pretty well in spurts and then would be vulnerable at times."
Now D.C. has to face the MetroStars' attacking-oriented philosophy for three consecutive matches, with the threat of playmaker Amado Guevara dominating their preparations. Nelsen and company will focus on denying the Honduras international space and forcing him to work hard for his touches.
"Amado's a good player," said Nelsen. "The further you get Amado away from the goal, the better. I think we did that very well in New York (two weeks ago). You want him picking the ball up from the center backs, not the strikers."
Simpson said United eyes will certainly be trained on the Metro dangermen, but within a team-oriented scheme that assigns man-to-man shadowing in certain areas of the field.
"Everybody knows about Guevara and (Eddie) Gaven, so everybody kind of matches up and takes care of their own individual battles," he said. "You'll see one or two guys gravitate more towards Guevara, just to make sure he receives the ball as far away from goal as possible, but we don't do anything special -- it's more of a team unit-type defending."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Soccer or its clubs.