The last weeks of the regular season are normally a time when D.C. United has a playoff spot wrapped up. After all, the Black-and-Red had claimed the Supporters' Shield the past two years. But 2008 has been anything but normal for D.C. Injuries, a congested schedule and some dubious player acquisitions have all conspired to leave the capital side two points out of a playoff spot with two games to play.
On this week's edition of MLS Primetime Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2), United will make what could be their last push for the playoffs, and standing in their way is a New England Revolution team that has had a packed schedule and injury problems of its own. The Revs have already secured a playoff spot, but home-field advantage in the first round is still to be decided, meaning New England will be plenty motivated to earn all three points.
Five story lines to follow
1. United, a team barely alive
The Black-and-Red currently reside in sixth-place in the Eastern Conference, and are winless in their past 10 games in all competitions. Incredibly, a win on Thursday could vault them over New York and Kansas City and back in the playoff hunt. While United has certainly struggled recently, coach Tom Soehn was encouraged by the gritty 0-0 draw his team secured in Houston on Sunday.
"We've let go of the crutches of talking about who is missing and how many games we are playing," said Soehn. "We're just focusing on what we have and making sure that we put our best effort forward and that's been real positive."
2. New England stumbles towards the finish
New England at D.C. United
7:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2, ESPN360.com)
The Revs haven't fared much better of late, managing only two wins in their past 11 league contests. After a summer that included SuperLiga, U.S. Open Cup, CONCACAF Champions League and MLS games, head coach Steve Nicol had hoped that the fatigue his team encountered would be gone by now, but it hasn't worked out that way.
"Getting over the fixture backlog, it just takes the steam out of you," said Nicol. "With a great first part of the season, we really got the juice taken out of us. We just haven't got that sharpness in the legs and sharpness in the brain as well."
3. United's attacking blackout
The Black-and-Red have been struggling with injuries all year, but the attacking side of the ball has been especially hard-hit. Midfielders Marcello Gallardo and Fred are out for the season, while last year's MVP, Luciano Emilio, has been struggling with a hamstring injury. The result is that United have been shut out in each of their past three league contests.
4. Can New England rally without Raly?
The Revs' aim of making it to their fourth consecutive MLS Cup final took a huge blow when attacking midfielder Steve Ralston suffered a broken right fibula during last week's 1-0 loss to Kansas City. The question now: Does New England revert to the 4-4-2 formation they toyed with earlier in the year, or do they stick with their normal 3-5-2 and try to have another player fill Ralston's role? Nicol isn't even sure (or more likely isn't telling) what he'll do at this point.
"The fact is that we don't have anyone else who has the qualities that Ralston has to play in there," said Nicol. "We have a couple of games before the playoffs to nail down what we want to do."
5. United get some unexpected help
The USL's second division -- the third tier of American soccer -- isn't a place where MLS teams normally go to find help. But in plucking midfielder Boyzzz Khumalo and defender Greg Janicki from the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, United has been able to plug some of the gaps on their roster, and both players have made solid contributions.
"Given the situation we've been in with so many guys out, they've done a great job of stepping in and figuring out exactly what is needed of them," said Soehn of Khumalo and Janicki. "Their comfort level in each training session is getting better and better."
Five players to watch
1. Shalrie Joseph, M, New England
With Ralston now out, more of the creative burden will fall on Joseph, regardless of the formation employed by Nicol. Lately, the Grenadian has seemed short of his best form, and a previous stint in a creative role didn't go well. Still, he'll need to step up in order for the Revs to generate any sort of momentum heading into the playoffs.
2. Jaime Moreno, F, D.C. United
While the status of Emilio is still unclear, one certainty is that Moreno will return to the lineup on Thursday after serving a two-game suspension for a red card he received against Dallas back on Sept. 28. Given the thin complement of attacking players DCU has at the moment, Moreno's return is most welcome.
"It's an emotional lift for everybody knowing [Moreno] is on the field," said Soehn. "Offensively, he gives teams so much more to worry about, whether it's him scoring or setting up goals."
3. Taylor Twellman, F, New England
Injuries have seen Twellman start only 10 games this year, yet he's still second on the team with seven goals. Twellman is also just two goals shy of the century mark for his career, and will become the youngest player to reach that number if he scores twice on Thursday. The fact remains, however, that as the Rev's midfield goes, so goes Twellman.
"We just need to get [Twellman] service, that's the biggest thing," said Nicol. "If we get service and get him the ball and get the right balls into him, then he'll score goals."
4. Louis Crayton, G, D.C. United
Now that Colorado's Bouna Coundoul has been consigned to the bench, Crayton has taken over as the most headache-inducing keeper in MLS. His forays outside the box have seen him give up some howlers, but in Sunday's tie against Houston, Crayton's instincts were spot-on, as he defused plenty of dangerous situations.
"[Crayton] plays that position on the edge; he lives dangerously," said Soehn. "He's made some good decisions along the way, and he's made some that cost us. Now he just needs to clean up the ones that have cost us."
5. Michael Parkhurst, D, New England
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Last year's Defender of the Year is among those New England players whose performance has dropped off in recent weeks. When the Revs played with four defenders, Parkhurst didn't fare well, and the whispers that he struggles against heftier forwards began to resurface. When the team reverted to three in the back, Parkhurst's play improved, and that will no doubt factor into Nicol's thinking as he copes with Ralston's absence.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at email@example.com.