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MLS preview: Philadelphia Union at D.C. United

Apr 21, 2013, 9:00 AM EDT

Jack McInerney-2

D.C. United needs Mack McInerney. Or someone very much like him, at least.

McInerney is the young Philadelphia Union striker who has four goals in the young season, placing him among Major League Soccer’s top goal scorers. He still has much to learn about the game, not a bit surprising since young “Jack Mac” is just 20 years old.

But he already has a Costco-sized supply of “strikers instinct,” a level of awareness that plenty of professionals will never know. And his goals aren’t just stat-padders; they tend to be important ones, like the game-winners this year against Colorado and New England or the late, late equalizer last week against Toronto.

Yes, D.C. United could use a guy like that.

McInerney (pictured) isn’t going anywhere, of course. He is part of coach John Hackworth’s up-and-coming bunch in Philadelphia, where one of the league’s youngest assemblies of talent is hanging tough in the middle of the Eastern Conference pack, even if the Union games don’t tend to be the most beautiful.

Then there’s D.C. United, one of the presumed Eastern Conference contenders. Instead, Ben Olsen’s team languishes at rock bottom in the standings, last among 10 teams at the moment with just four points off six matches.

Consecutive losses at home to Columbus and New York have added pressure upon pressure around RFK Stadium. So today’s late afternoon kickoff (5 p.m. ET on ESPN2) looms mightily important for the Black and Red. (And if the weight of it all wasn’t enough, security in the nation’s capital is extra high for this one.)

United’s woes are mostly about the lack of scoring.

The ongoing inability to get Dwayne De Rosario going (attached to injuries and suspensions that have limited him to just two starts and one appearance off the bench in 2013), Chris Pontius’ ongoing struggles and Nick DeLeon’s injury have all contributed as United has turned up just two goals.

Pontius has played every minute so far, with just one assist (and no goals) to show for it. That is not going to get him the U.S. national team call-up that United fans so desperately desire.

So much of the goal-scoring malaise falls on Lionard Pajoy – or on the deciders around RFK for continuing to believe that he will break out and score goals in bunches, never mind the growing sample of data suggesting that the Colombian striker just doesn’t have it in him. He gets into positions reliably enough and certainly works hard enough, but just misses that little something near goal, that confidence or that alarm bell that rings loudly at just the right moment to shoot.

Backup striker Carlos Ruiz looks like a shell of the goal-scoring menace that once infuriated MLS defenders. All that leaves Olsen … searching for answers.

Casey Townsend, who scored twice last weekend while on loan at third-division Richmond, has even remained with the club for Sunday’s contest.  

As for the visiting Union, Hackworth tends to mix and match in the midfield quite a bit, with Keon Daniel or Michael Farfan pulling the offensive strings. Sebastien Le Toux could find himself in there, or further up the field if the McInerney-Conor Casey strike combo is adjusted. Danny Cruz could face his old team. (He was in the middle of big preseason donnybrook.) Or will this finally be the time to give new Brazilian midfielder Kleberson his first Philly Union start? The 2002 World Cup winner has played just 11 minutes since his arrival four weeks ago.

Center back Amobi Okugo is another promising Union man to watch. The 22-year-old American was added as midfield talent but has been outstanding in central defensive duty.

Seven regular season games between the Eastern Conference rivals have produced 22 yellow cards and four red cards. And these teams were involved in a preseason melee that saw De Rosario suspended for the first two MLS regular season matches. So, yes, things are likely to be physical and feisty, especially considering the stakes for D.C. United.

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