Even on short notice, there are still some advantages to D.C. United hosting the first leg of its two-game, total goals Eastern Conference semifinal series against New York. But that won't make the Red Bulls any easier to handle.
After being switched from hurricane-ravaged New Jersey, United's first postseason game since 2007 now falls at home on a Saturday, a day of the week on which United traditionally has had far more success selling tickets. That has left the team hopeful for a lower bowl sellout (19,647 capacity) of RFK Stadium. Giving up the higher seed edge also feeds into United's belief that it is already perceived as a playoff underdog despite the third-best record in Major League Soccer.
"To be honest, I don't mind being here, the first time in five years at RFK on a Saturday night in the playoffs," United defender Brandon McDonald said. "With that, it's great for us, but you want the second game at home. There's nothing we can do. You're praying for the people in New York and New Jersey."
|Red Bulls at D.C. United|
|MLS Eastern Conference semifinals|
|When » Saturday, 8 p.m.|
|Where » RFK Stadium|
|TV » NBC Sports Network|
The biggest sacrifice for United (17-10-7) is that if the teams finish tied after 180 minutes, overtime and penalty kicks will take place at Red Bull Arena, assuming it is ready Nov. 7.
No matter where the matches are played, United faces a team with a huge advantage in both experience and salary. The highest-paid player in MLS, Thierry Henry (15 goals, 12 assists, $5.6 million), not only has been in the MLS Cup playoffs but also World Cups and European championships. Rafa Marquez ($4.6 million) and Tim Cahill ($3.5 million) are the second- and fourth-highest paid and also have top international experience.
Out of its starters last week against Chicago, United had a combined 11 games of playoff experience -- in two players: Marcelo Saragosa (eight) and McDonald (three).
Tactically, Henry and Kenny Cooper (18 goals) give the Red Bulls (16-9-9) no fear in pushing the ball forward, but New York has allowed a league-worst 12 goals in the first 15 minutes of games. United has made some conservative adjustments without Dwayne De Rosario but had nearly 60 percent of possession against the Fire. The teams have combined for 14 goals in three contests this season.
"I like this matchup," United defender Dejan Jakovic said. "Obviously they have some big names, some guys that are getting paid big bucks. But I feel like we've done a good job against those guys. Those guys aren't the ones who have hurt us."
Bill Hamid has been both steady and spectacular in front of United's net, building confidence for a defensive unit that has had its share of nervous moments.
"I'm not a hundred percent sure that we're getting the respect that we need," Hamid said. "But we're going to fight for it."
It will be far harder to deny should United overcome the additional hurdle put in its path to the MLS Cup final.
"I do think we are doing it for the right reasons, and I do think there's some good out of that," United coach Ben Olsen said. "I think both teams feel the good will, and the good will will probably go out the window once the whistle blows."