DC United introspective ahead friendly visit from Ajax

WASHINGTON — While D.C. United still have a game on the schedule this weekend, the friendly nature of Sunday’s matchup with newly crowned Dutch champions Ajax provides time to be introspective about the season so far.

“I would say it’s about where we expected,” DC assistant Chad Ashton said. “If you’d asked us before the beginning of the season if we would be sitting us in this spot, we probably would have taken it. We’re right there — striking distance. At the same time, we’re probably not that far from the bottom, either.”

Just two weeks ago, reactions might have been a bit more negative. DC had just conceded eight goals across two games, and visions of 2010 came screaming back as similar defensive lapses were repeated.

But the defense tightened things up over the last three games at home, and while DC have only won once in the last five league matches, forward progress has been made.

“There definitely have been some bumps in the road along the way,” captain Dax McCarty said, “but I think the last three games we’ve kind of settled down a little bit, figured some stuff out defensively, which should be a starting point for pretty much every team.”

That’s not to say the team doesn’t think it could be better.

“I think we should be higher than we are, actually,” Santino Quaranta said. “You’ll take this — we’re not far off.”

If United had managed to win the last two games at home — draws against FC Dallas and Colorado — they’d now be in first place of the Eastern Conference. At the moment, it’s quite tight in the East, with DC only three points behind first-place New York, although the Red Bulls have played one less game.

With one of the youngest teams in the league — last Saturday’s starting lineup featured four players 20 years or younger, and an average age of just under 24 years old — growing pains are expected going forward. Along the way, veterans are stressing the importance of stringing together strong performances in every game.

“For us, since we’re so young, it’s going to be a matter of finding that consistency, being consistently good and putting the consistent hard work in everyday,” McCarty said. “We’re not satisfied with where we are, but not upset with where we are either.”

Improvement will not come easily, with tough trips to face Portland and the LA Galaxy on the other side of the Ajax friendly. But for now, the players have a couple days off this week to rest and gear up for a busy summer stretch.

Travis Clark covers D.C. United, College and Youth soccer for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter: @travismclark.