The Lions travel to the newly minted Audi Field to face off against D.C. United for a third and final installment of the year between the two sides. The first clash, the season-opening 1-1 draw, was marred with controversy concerning a questionable Victor “PC” Giro sending off and an even more questionable spot kick awarded to D.C. with both coming as a result of video review.
The second iteration came in the form of a Round of 16 match in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup — one that was ended by the heroics of a new man in between the sticks, Earl Edwards Jr., and his spectacular saves during the ensuing penalty kick shootout after yet another 1-1 draw through regulation and extra time. The boys in purple advanced on the evening, but unfortunately for the Lions, they were knocked out of the quarterfinals by the Philadelphia Union.
This time, however, things are going to be just a little bit different. First of all, I expect D.C. United to come out inspired. United has recently been acquired by a new ownership group and just opened (albeit with some major issues) its new, soccer-specific stadium, Audi Field.
The team also added a former all-world talent to its roster by the name of Wayne Rooney. Now, you may have seen that name before. I mean, I don’t know, maybe when he was winning the Premier League with Manchester United? Perhaps the Champions League? In fact, at the club level in England, Rooney has won every single honor available to him with the exception of the European Super Cup. That means he’s won the two aforementioned honors, the English FA Cup, the League Cup, the UEFA Europa League, and the FIFA Club World Cup. That’s a lot of silverware and a lot of medals to adorn Rooney’s personal trophy cabinet.
Back in mid-June (a time in which the Lions were six deep in their eventual nine-match losing streak), I analyzed what had changed between the clubs’ first and second meetings, but with recent developments on D.C.’s side, I’m taking another dive into the match-up to examine what’s new, what we can expect, and what the Lions will need to focus on if they intend to steal the full three points on the road at Audi Field.
Quite frankly, not that much. Oh, besides the fact that a struggling Orlando City back line has an incredibly experienced striker and set of talented midfielders to keep track of. With Yamil Asad, Luciano Acosta, Paul Arriola, Wayne Rooney, and Darren Mattocks possibly roving around an already broken back line, I fully expect United to light up the scoreboard. The question for me is whether or not the Lions will be able to keep up with them. My honest guess? No. Dom Dwyer will do his best, buzzing around the opposition’s back line and taking smart shots as always, but unless James O’Connor has a few aces up his sleeves, then the boys in purple could be in for a rough evening.
A new addition that wasn’t available for the previous two clashes is center back Shane O’Neill, who I fully expect to start the match. He’s proven to be one of the Lions’ best man markers, and I wouldn’t be surprised in the least bit to see him pacing back and forth throughout the back line tracking Rooney.
Oh, and one last thing: Audi Field. Finally having a ground for D.C. to call its own is massive for a club that’s been a flagship of this league since its inception, and one should never underestimate the influence of a packed stadium chanting their side on to victory. For a player, representing your club at the highest level is already a momentous honor in which the player aspires to live up to lofty expectations, but representing your club in a brand new stadium could incentivize athletes to perform even better, and I think it could add some flare to the evening.
What Can We Expect?
The pessimist in me expects a Rooney brace, a Mattocks breakaway goal (after coming on for Rooney after, say, an hour), and a controversial VAR ruling that goes against Orlando City, ending the evening with a disappointing 3-1 loss, with Dywer scoring the lone goal for the Lions. The optimist in me says we’ll see a third consecutive 1-1 draw, with Rooney and Dwyer matching each other’s strikes. Unfortunately, I think the pessimist in me is kicking the optimist's ass right now. If there’s one thing that I feel certain of, it’s that the officiating will be awful. Bet the house on it.
Here’s the lineup United went with against Montreal on Aug. 4. I expect a similar look; definitely in the form of a 4-1-4-1 — the same formation used against Orlando City in the previous two clashes.
The Lions’ Keys to Three Points
The Lions’ plan for victory is simple: stop Acosta, Asad, and Rooney (until Mattocks is brought in for him, then Mattocks). With Rooney on the field, I expect United to possess well, move the ball up the pitch slowly, and then find its target man in Rooney wherever and whenever possible. Once the transition to Mattocks is made (assuming I get the sequencing correct here), I anticipate a change in tactics from United and could see the Lions take command of the match with United content on sitting back and hitting on the break, as Mattocks is one of the fastest strikers in MLS. Regardless, the real key to success for the Lions will be dependent upon their ability to defend, and then adjust to my anticipated tactical changes from United.
Rooney must not be allowed the time and opportunity to turn towards goal with the ball at his feet. There needs to be a purple shirt within a foot of him when he’s receiving passes, every single time, even if he’s only there for holdup play, in which case Rooney has a knack for putting in long-range efforts with ease, and if he’s permitted the time and space, he’ll make the Lions pay.
The same should be said of Acosta and Asad. If the boys in purple can hamper the play of Asad, Acosta, Rooney, and Mattocks, then there will be hope. But if the dangerous trifecta and Mattocks isn’t shut down, the Lions are going to be in for one hell of a frustrating night. That said, the Lions have yet to lose to United this season in both league and cup play, so maybe this is the hurdle that the Lions truly need to get back on track and make a push for the playoffs. The optimist in me is fighting back.
Lastly, the Lions need to put some in the back of the net early. I expect at least one from Dwyer and I’m hoping to see Mohamed El-Munir find his first as a Lion as well. I feel he’s close to a breakthrough after coming off of his assist two games ago at LA and his presence in the attack.
What do you anticipate from the impending clash at Audi Field? Do you think the Lions will have trouble with the legendary Englishman, or do you see things playing out differently? Let me know what you think by commenting below!