It was a strange weekend in the Eastern Conference of Major League Soccer. A number of interesting results have pretty much thrown the playoff picture upside-down as the Columbus Crew have taken over first place and D.C. United has slipped into the fourth and final playoff position. Only six matches remain for United, and with the Black-and-Red having been on the road for quite some time; they will be receiving a double dose of what has been their best medicine - home games.
D.C. United hasn't lost a home match since May 19, but more than their unbeaten streak, the team just plays much better at home. Four of the remaining six games are at RFK Stadium, and to really make a positive surge for the playoffs, United must do something they haven't done all season, win consecutive games.
The players for D.C. United have an uncanny knack of knowing precisely when the matches are of the utmost importance. Every time that United has had their backs against the wall they have come out with spirited performances to earn quality results. They showed that characteristic with the 3-0 victory over Columbus in June, the 6-2 dominating performance over the MetroStars in July to move into first place in the East and the come-from-behind tie in Columbus two weeks ago. In the next two weeks, United will have to come up with the same type of performances to get the team back on course.
D.C. United have scored 21 goals at home this year in 11 matches; on the road they've scored 11 goals in 13 matches. Confidence is high at home and United will need to transfer the positive energy into wins, as earning six points over the next two matches would put the club in much better playoff position. The key to improved consistency in the final weeks of the season will be the ability to find the right balance of attacking players for United.
With Alecko Eskandarian out this past weekend, Peter Nowak used a line-up that included Jaime Moreno, Freddy Adu and Christian Gomez as the attacking triangle, but it was not clear who was playing where. United didn't have the same interaction in the attacking third that they had been demonstrating in previous weeks. Moreno, Adu and Gomez all played well in their own right, but they did not play particularly well as a unit. For United to be most effective, the center of United's attack must show the creativity that helped guide the team into first place two months ago.
There's not a lot of time left in the season, but there is enough time to find the right connections on the field. The defense did not look cohesive Saturday night in Chicago, but as Ryan Nelsen gets more comfortable in his return to the line-up, the team captain will be sure to regulate the back line. D.C.'s attack has looked imposing at times and, even though a little tweaking is in order with Gomez and Adu playing in similar positions, backed by the support of the fans at RFK Stadium, United should come out with all guns blazing.
D.C. United assistant coach Tommy Soehn calls the remaining matches of the season "real games" since there's no room for errors and a playoff atmosphere has added to the importance of these matches. United have been unable to establish consistency this season. Flashes of brilliance for stretches have many United fans thinking the MLS Cup is a real possibility, but those performances have been followed by deflating losses. There are only six weeks left in the season, and the coming "real games" will show once and for all which of the two personalities is the "real D.C. United."