The Major League Soccers schedule makers must have a sense or humor. To be sure it must be a twisted sense of humor. The busiest stretch of Uniteds season, five games in 14 days, ends in a place where the Black and Red has only one win in seven tries.
To add to the challenge of Saturday's match in Salt Lake City, United is just not a good road team right now. For all its success at R.F.K. Stadium, only one loss, United has lost five consecutive road games. During that road slide United has been shut out three times and outscored 13-3.
Uniteds last win away from home was an unconvincing 1-0 victory in June at Philadelphia. To add to the concern, Uniteds last two matches at home have been ties that ended up stinging as much as losses. Wednesdays 2-2 draw with New York included Dwayne De Rosarios 100th career goal, but then the Red Bulls equalized in the 88th minute.
A point is okay. We continue to do okay at home, said United head coach Ben Olsen. Im upset we couldnt get a win on the day he (De Rosario) gets his 100th, but he lead by example and I thought it was a good performance from him.
De Rosario is reasserting his leadership role with United. After alternating for most of the season between withdrawn forward and attacking midfielder, De Rosario seems to have settled into a role closer to goal. In 25 games De Rosario has been a forward 12 times and a midfielder 13 times.
Now for United it is in part about finding a true strike partnership up top. Leading scorer Chris Pontius, who has appeared in ten games at forward, has been on the flanks in midfield for six of his last seven starts. Maicon Santos had a stretch of six goals in six games early in the season, but has been saddled with injuries and has only one goal since April 28.
The need for help at forward triggered United to trade Danny Cruz to Philadelphia for Lionard Pajoy. In four games with United Pajoy has one goal, but he has been active and also demonstrated a strength to be able to hold the ball in the final third. The final element for Pajoy, who had five goals in 20 games with the Union, is to develop chemistry with United.
Were very lucky we have him, De Rosario said of Pajoy. The amount of ground he covers is pretty impressive. Hes played more minutes this week than anybody and he just keeps going. He holds the ball up well and hes a handful for defenders.
It is also encouraging for United that rookie Nick DeLeon is healthy and seems to have emerged from a freshman slump. After scoring three goals in the first month of his career, DeLeon did not ignite again until August and now has two goals in the last four matches. In addition his assist on De Rosarios 100th career goal is of the highest quality.
In Real Salt Lake, United will have to deal with a high caliber team. Real is two wins away from becoming the first team since D.C. from 2005-2007 to win 15 games in three consecutive seasons.
Like United, Real had a fairly busy August with four league matches and one CONCACAF Champions League encounter. It was not the best of months for Real with a three game losing streak, including a 2-1 loss at home to Dallas, that was finally ended with a 0-0 draw last Friday in Philadelphia.
Getting a clean sheet and a point in Philadelphia provided a lift for Real. The 0-0 tie came at the end of a grueling stretch of three games in seven days, but also highlighted Reals offensive woes. In their last five games Real has only scored four goals with three coming from forward Alvaro Saborio.
Dealing with Reals midfield will be a high priority for United. U.S. Mens National Team star Kyle Beckerman provides support and wins balls to allow Javier Morales to be a creative force. It has not been an easy summer for Morales who has not scored since June 23rd and only has two assists since then.
For United as much as talent and skill against Real Salt Lake, they will need old fashioned grit and determination to break their road slide. Often in road matches United has unraveled at critical moments and needs to maintain focus.
I think the last five or six games weve been giving up goals on set pieces, De Rosario said. We really have to limit that. Someone has to commit himself, dive in front of the ball, jump in front of the ball, whatever the case is."