United latch on to slights, perceived or not, for motivation

HOUSTON – How is it that D.C. United – unbeaten since mid-September and owners of the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference – feel like they get no respect?

It’s simple, really. They listen. They watch. They read.

And what they see and hear from all corners, perceived slights or not, is that they’re not supposed to be here. They’re not supposed to be the ones on the cusp of MLS Cup ahead of Sunday’s first leg of the Eastern Conference finals against the Houston Dynamo (4 pm ET, NBCSN, live chat on MLSsoccer.com).

“You watch TV, you watch Alexi Lalas and I think even Kyle [Martino]. Everybody is counting us out,” defender Brandon McDonald told MLSsoccer.com Saturday. “Even after [Thursday’s 1-0 win vs. New York], we were in the locker room and the first thing we heard Martino gets on and he’s [saying], ‘D.C. United gets lucky.’

“Can we ever get any credit for staying the course for 90 minutes and coming away with the victory? For us, it’s just putting that behind us and blocking them out and going out and working for each other.”

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Some might call it hypersensitivity. United just call it motivation.

And although their D.C.-against-the-world mentality has taken on a new life in the playoffs, it truly took off two months ago when franchise player and 2011 MLS MVP Dwayne De Rosario went down with a knee injury.

At that time, United were still in the throes of a playoff race, their place in the postseason anything but certain. But then something funny happened. Without their best player, Ben Olsen’s side started winning, ripping off three victories in a row, and they didn’t stop.

Nine games, six wins, three draws and a gutsy, wild and nearly unbelievable Eastern Conference semifinal victory against the Red Bulls later, United aren’t your conventional underdogs.

But they’re still clinging to the label that’s got them this far.

“We feel like underdogs. We feel like we haven’t gotten a lot of credit this year, especially since DeRo [has been] out,” goalkeeper Joe Willis, who will be start in place of the suspended Bill Hamid, said. “We haven’t lost a game since DeRo left. It’s fine. If people want to keep doubting us, it’s fine. We’re here for a reason. It doesn’t really matter what people have to say about it.”

And Olsen? He doesn’t have much to say about it either, even though his players seem more than willing to sound off.

According to the former D.C. legend, he’s got very little to do with his team’s mentality. That doesn’t mean it’s not encouraged, though.

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“I don’t have a lot to do with this. They’re doing a lot of this on their own,” Olsen said. “Ever since Dwayne went down, they made a decision to each step up and do a little bit more for the group – look after each other, get each other’s backs. The character of this team has been pretty impressive through this last two and a half months.

The hope is that character will carry United through another three weeks and all the way to MLS Cup. And if D.C. manage to get past Houston – as tough a playoff task as there’s been in MLS over the past seven seasons – they’ll host the final at RFK Stadium.

For a side two years removed from being the worst team in MLS, that’s not a bad place to be, even if they’re not getting enough credit for their liking just yet.