It has been a long, tumultuous season for D.C. United, but as the playoffs beckon, a spirit of optimism and anticipation has permeated players and coaches alike. Last week's hard-fought 1-0 defeat of the MetroStars put an end to the team's four-month road winless streak, and the Columbus Crew's 1-0 win against Chicago on Wednesday night assured D.C.'s presence in the postseason.
Now head coach Peter Nowak has presented his team with another challenge: the five-game plan. No, he's not selling ticket packages -- he wants his charges to see the next month as a mini-season that culminates with the MLS Cup Final on Nov. 14.
"We have five games to the MLS Cup Final, and that's how we're supposed to see the whole thing, this kind of opportunity to go there," Nowak said. "I think this team is capable -- they are ready mentally and physically for that."
The MetroStars match was a nailbiting conquest of a top rival by a shorthanded squad, but this week's distinct lack of elation reveals United's level of ambition: the playoffs are only the first step towards their larger goals.
"It's how you define success," says team captain Ryan Nelsen. "A lot of us are not really happy where we are -- I mean, we're happy that we're very close to making the playoffs, but I know I wanted to be in a lot better situation than we are now. (But) we're on kind of a nice roll now, coming into the playoffs."
Said midfield general Ben Olsen: "We need to focus on the job at hand, two home games, getting some points, and getting into the playoffs. We're trying to look ahead rather then behind in the standings, and we're trying to catch some people still."
United are almost certain to face the MetroStars again in the first round of the playoffs, but they are intent on pipping their Atlantic Cup rivals to the Eastern Conference's second seed, not just for home-field advantage but also to maintain their present run of form.
"The guys have to be prepared," says Nowak. "When you treat the game too easy, you're always going to get punished. We're going to keep our concentration and focus and see what we have to do to win these last two games."
To motivate his team, Nowak harks back to his championship experience as a player with the Fire in 1998.
"One thing is pretty clear: if you're focused and you see the whole picture with the five games on it, and then finally the sixth game (the MLS Cup) is going to be very easy and very fast," he said.
"You don't even realize that the games have gone so fast. I've told them many times, there's no better feeling than to raise the cup at the end of the year, because all the hard work they put together, they can't just throw away."
Olsen, one of only two players left from D.C.'s championship era, praises his teammates for their determination in overcoming myriad off-field distractions.
"It's a cliché -- every guy says, 'This team has been through a lot this year,' but it's been an interesting year," he said. "You've got the new coach, new players, you've got the Freddy (Adu) issue -- there's a lot going on in this club. You've got baseball coming ... there's been no shortage of drama this year, and through it all, we've done pretty well, and it would be pretty special if we can make the playoffs and get into this and really make a good run at it."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.