In one of the more surprising storylines of the early 2013 MLS season, DC United is sitting in the Eastern Conference basement and scrambling for answers.
But regardless of where Ben Olsen’s club may fall in the standings and whatever their struggles may be, the Union are preparing for a high-quality and tense bout on Sunday at RFK Stadium.
“We’re not even looking at their record right now,” Union defender Sheanon Williams said. “It’s early in the season and it looks like they’re a little slow out of the gates. But they’re definitely a good team. We know what they’re all about. We play them three times a year. They’re a team that if we take them for granted then they can come out and do some damage. Us knowing them so well, we know they’re a good team and we expect their best. They’re definitely going to be hungry for points.”
Competition is not the only thing the Union are expecting. With a combined 16 yellow cards and five red cards in four games against United in 2012, Hackworth wants his team to focus on the game and not get caught up in the typical emotion of playing bitter rivals (see story).
“We concentrate on the things we work on in training, we concentrate on our game plan and what we need to focus on to be successful versus DC,” Hackworth said. “We know each other really well. They’re a team that’s having a tough time right now but is much better than their record shows. We know how tough this is going to be. From the outside they might not be getting respect but we’re giving them a lot of respect.
“There’s a lot of emotion around it. You have to remind guys to keep that in check and use it in a positive way. We try to treat this like any other game. We have an opponent and we want to prepare for that opponent, and we’ll wait a little while longer before we let the emotions play into it.”
Yet, masking emotion might not be the Union’s biggest on-field worry. Although United, 1-4-1, has scored just two goals in six games this season, Hackworth has his team prepared for former Union strikers Lionard Pajoy and Carlos Ruiz to try and break the slump.
Pajoy has one goal on the season while Ruiz is still looking for his first.
“We know them really well,” Hackworth said. “When you look at Lio, he’s been really good against us. He’s had some frustrations this year and that’s a little scary because a player of his quality could be due. Carlos is the same way. He came in and is slowly ramping up. I expect him to play a big role on Sunday and he’ll be motivated. You have to prepare for those guys and the fact that we know them is good.”
“They’re good guys,” he said. “And on the field, they’re hard to play against. Pajoy does a lot of the hard work and the running and finding different channels to get the ball. And Carlos is a big body. He holds the ball up extremely well and links guys into play when he’s on. So definitely two challenges. If we see them both at the same time, I don’t know. But I’m sure at some point in the game we will see them.
“We know some of their tendencies but that doesn’t mean we can lock them down for the whole game. That’s obviously the objective but things happen during the course of a game. They’re good players, so they’re going to find ways to get behind us and do things to disrupt our defense.”
On the other side, the Union have clutch in their corner. After a frustrating stop-and-go contest against Toronto FC at home last Saturday, leading scorer Jack McInerney, who is tied for third in MLS with four goals, scored in stoppage time to preserve the tie.
The Union are 0-1-2 in their last three games and 2-2-2 overall.
“Any time you have a game like the one against Toronto, the first thing you think of is who’s next,” Hackworth said. “How can we rectify what we didn’t do well today? When’s our next chance to play? When you let points slip away, you have to get some back, you have to do that in this league. You’re going to lose some points when you don’t think you will and you have to find some when it’s not in your advantage to do so.”
While McInerney is the constant, Kleberson could be the wild card on Sunday. Brought in at the end of last Saturday’s match, the newly acquired Brazilian midfielder nearly scored the tying goal before setting up Antoine Hoppenot on a stoppage time breakaway. It was a brilliant start to his MLS career.
However, Hackworth is still not convinced Kleberson is starting material.
“Kleberson has put himself in a position where he’s definitely deserving of being selected,” Hackworth said. “At the same time, we need to make sure we’re putting the best possible team on the field. In the time that he played, Kleberson was good. He came on, lifted us up and created a couple chances. Those are things he does well. We still need to be patient and try to judge whether it makes sense for him to be a starter or come off the bench. I don’t think we’re ready to make that decision yet.”
No matter who Hackworth selects for the starting lineup, the Union players sound ready.
“They don’t like us and we don’t like them,” Williams said.
“Obviously you get a little bit more excited for these games. Also, it’s an Eastern Conference game, so any time you can try to grab points from somebody else and put yourself in a better position in the rankings, it’s definitely important.”