Week after week, the stakes keep rising for D.C. United. Last week's comprehensive home win over Dallas was a vital boost not only for the points, but also as a confidence raiser for a squad that had gone a month between victories.
With the Chicago Fire coming to town on Saturday, United will now try to accomplish something they have failed to do all year: win back-to-back regular-season games.
Their ability to do so hinges on a strong defensive performance against a potent Fire attack. The Fire have had D.C.'s number of late, having won all three meetings thus far in 2004 after sweeping the Black-and-Red in last year's playoff series.
Two weeks ago at Soldier Field, Chicago stole a 3-1 win despite missing several key players. This week's meeting is more important than ever, because with both teams jockeying for playoff position, a rival's loss is just as significant as your own victory.
"It's a six-point game for us; we need to get that," said United goalkeeper Nick Rimando. Added defender Ezra Hendrickson, recently returned from a hamstring injury: "It's such a close race. We have five games left, three of them at home, and we basically control our own destiny."
Rimando, who wrested the starting 'keeper spot from Troy Perkins last week -- for now -- expressed grudging respect for the Fire.
"Chicago's a good team -- they're a very organized team. Usually it doesn't matter who's on the field; you don't always have to have the best players on the field to win," he said. "That was proved the last game. A lot of their stars were out injured and with national team duty, and they were organized and beat us at their field.
"Now it's our turn. They have all their players back, and that's what we want -- we want to beat them when they have all their players -- no excuses."
Chicago's front line, led by Jamaica international Damani Ralph, poses a dangerous threat to opposing 'keepers, and Rimando is aware that his height may be perceived as a weak point.
"Yeah, definitely," said the Montclair, Calif. native. "You know about strikers who score goals and hold the ball, and do those things well under pressure. You look at how strong he is, and Nate Jaqua has been great for them too, holding the ball.
"They're probably going to look at me as well, and say, 'Listen, if Nicky's in goal, put the ball in the air.' But that's something I know, and that's something we've been doing all week -- crosses, crosses, crosses. If they want to do it, let them do it. That's something that they look down at me on, and I've just got to be ready."
Rimando hopes that last week's 3-0 shutout will give him an inside track on the starting role, but admits that it is a neck-and-neck competition with Perkins.
"Hopefully I get the nod again, but I don't call the shots," he says. "If it was up to me, I'd be playing every game."
United head coach Peter Nowak is notoriously secretive about his lineup, and Saturday's starting netminder may not know it until just before game time. But against a team that has burned United for seven goals in three games this year, that decision could determine D.C.'s fate.
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.