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Atlanta United vs. D.C. United: Three Questions With Black and Red United

Important playoff positioning will be on the line Sunday at the Benz.

DC United v Atlanta United - 2018 MLS Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

It used to be that D.C. United was the team that Atlanta United could never beat. After the Five Stripes dropped all three meetings in 2017, it finally got off the mat against Ben Olsen’s group with a pair of home wins in 2018. (It still hasn’t beaten D.C. on the road, though; let’s forget that game in March and pretty much every game it’s played in the District.) But this edition might have the highest stakes as just two points separate them for second and third in the East, while Atlanta holds a match in hand. One of the two teams could be in first place in the conference depending on what the Union do against Chicago down in Chester.

To help us break down the matchup, I caught up once again with Steven Streff from Black and Red United.

D.C. defeated FC Cincinnati 4-1 on Thursday, just its second win in a ten-game stretch where it’s claimed just 12 points out of a possible 30. Still, it’s a point behind the Philadelphia Union for first in the Eastern Conference. What does this team need to do to create separation between itself and the rest of the conference?

It has been a miracle that D.C. United have been able to maintain their position near the top of the Eastern Conference for so long, given that they’ve struggled since the middle of May to win games, having picked up just their second on Thursday night. But that win might be a sign of things to come because the Black-and-Red are back to being full strength. When they started the season with three wins and a draw, conceding just one goal, Ben Olsen had the luxury of starting the same lineup each game. However, since left back Joseph Mora exited the fourth game of the season with a broken jaw, United have not been able to use that same exact lineup.

In the last 19 league games, Olsen has had to shuffle formations, use players in different roles, and look for production elsewhere. United have found it tough to pick up wins in that stretch, but finally have everyone back from international duty, healthy, and close to being in form. If they can get a run of games using their best starting 11, then United might be able to get back into the sort of rhythm that made them early season favorites in the Eastern Conference. It is not a given that D.C. will start picking up wins left and right will everyone available now, but it sure seems that they could be more poised to go on a run than at any time since the beginning of April.

Lucas Rodriguez scored two goals and added an assist yesterday. Do you feel that it could be a turning point for him this season?

DC United v FC Cincinnati Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Lucas Rodriguez has been quite enigmatic in his first season with D.C. United. He had his best statistical game on Thursday against FC Cincinnati, but he had not scored a goal or tallied an assist since an April 13th win at the Colorado Rapids. With just four goals and three assists to his name so far in 2019, his lack of production, replacing what Yamil Asad brought to the team in 2018, is one of the reasons why United hasn’t been able to maintain their form this year. The 22-year-old will have games in which he seems to be quite comfortable playing in the league, helping D.C. unlock opposing defenses.

And then in other games, Rodriguez won’t have much impact at all, disappearing from the game at times. His goals and assists have shown just what his ceiling is, but too many times this year, he has not been able to make the most of his starting position in the team. Against Cincinnati, his production stood out, but his contributions otherwise weren’t quite as consistent. If a player could have a quiet two-goal, one assist game, that was the performance Rodriguez put in against Cincy. But, if Rodriguez can use that game as a launching pad, then United might finally see the best out of Rodriguez on a more consistent basis over the final 12 games of the season.

This match will mark Lucho Acosta’s return from a red card suspension. How does he regain the form he enjoyed last season?

SOCCER: JUN 29 MLS - Toronto FC at DC United Photo by Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

An eternity ago, Luciano Acosta kicked off the 2019 season with a goal and an assist in the opening game of the season, a 2-0 win over Atlanta United at Audi Field. Two weeks later, he notched an assist in a 5-0 win against Real Salt Lake, and it was safe to assume that Acosta was in some way going to replicate his end of 2018 form when he finished the season with 10 goals and 17 assists.

However, Acosta has yet to add another assist to his name this season, having a mind-numbing total of two through United’s first 22 games this year. That D.C. has survived this long without Acosta performing at his best is a testament to Wayne Rooney, who at times has carried this team on his back with his 11 goals this campaign. In fairness to Acosta, it might have been tough to expect him to be as good as he was in 2018, and that was even before the failed move to PSG in January. And the issue over Acosta’s contract might have lingered more than anyone expected, as his future is still completely up in the air, now free to sign a pre-contract anywhere outside of MLS.

Acosta has been suspended for the past two games for a red card picked up against FC Dallas but will be back available against the Five Stripes. Acosta’s best chance to improving his numbers, which sit at five goals and two assists, is to have some of his teammates pick up the slack around him. We’ve talked about Rodriguez’s inconsistent production, but Paul Arriola’s numbers have also dipped this year, mainly due to the fact that he’s been asked to play out of position so much. But with everyone healthy, Arriola will be used as a winger now, and if both he and Rodriguez can start producing on a consistent basis around Acosta, and provide defenses with more things to worry about, then maybe Acosta can be freed from the focus of opponents. Because if D.C. hope to make a deeper run in the playoffs, they’ll need more from the number 10 position than what they are currently getting.