WASHINGTON – Last time D.C. United and the Philadelphia Union met on national television, there were multiple scrums, teammates barking at one another, nine cards (three red) handed out by referee Mark Geiger and a highly controversial encroachment call against D.C. captain Dwayne De Rosario on the would-be go-ahead penalty kick.
So, yeah, Thursday night’s matchup between the newest I-95 rivals at PPL Park should be a dandy (8 pm ET, ESPN2; LIVE chat on MLSsoccer.com).
While United are freshly reinserted into the Eastern Conference’s top five after a 2-1 victory against New England at RFK Stadium, Philadelphia are struggling to save what little hope they have left to make the postseason. And if not that, at the very least they can play spoiler for their southern neighbors.
To avoid that, United coach Ben Olsen will be looking for a better effort from his side than he observed last Saturday.
“To a man, we were rusty. It was a not a great game,” Olsen said after the match. “We’re going to have to do much better than that going forward if we’re going to reach our goal.”
While plenty changes in a month, there will be one very similar theme from the 1-1 draw in August that carries over to Thursday: how will Olsen’s forwards perform?
After last week’s news that De Rosario would miss the remainder of the regular season with a grade III MCL sprain, United must receive elevated contributions from former Union forward Lionard Pajoy, and the recently-healthy Maicon Santos and Hamdi Salihi.
Both Santos and Salihi found early-season success and have scored seven and five goals, respectively. But Santos hasn’t found the back of the net since May 26, while Salihi’s last goal came on June 30.
Santos started in place of De Rosario against the Revolution on Saturday and could again be paired up top across from Pajoy on Thursday.
“[We had] two forwards together who had never played together and you throw Branko [Boskovic] in the mix, so that was part of the rust. Our balance was maybe a little bit off [because] we’re missing a guy who’s played for us every game,” Olsen said.
Following the Revs match, Olsen was optimistic about the team’s only Designated Player, Salihi, in his 23 minutes of action.
“I thought Hamdi did a good job. It’s good to get him those minutes,” Olsen said. “I think that’s a very good role for him going forward, but he might have to start at some point in the near future. We have a lot of faith in him. He can score goals and I think he’s going to play a part if we have success in these next few games.”
Regardless, the match promises to be difficult for a D.C. side that hasn’t performed well outside of the nation’s capitol. Their last win away from RFK just so happens to have come at PPL Park on June 16, and United have dropped six straight road matches since.