WASHINGTON, D.C. - D.C. United have reached a pivotal point. Having gradually slipped down the standings since reaching first place at midseason, the Black-and-Red are just three points clear of the dreaded last spot, now occupied by the New England Revolution.
United lost a frustrating game to a depleted Chicago side on Saturday, and this week's training sessions have carried a weightier atmosphere than any all season. After practice on a gray, drizzly Wednesday, coaches and players stayed out on the field long after its normal conclusion for a heart-to-heart discussion. Afterward, no one was giving up much information on the meeting's content, but the message was clear: it is crunch time.
"I have a very special group of players," says head coach Peter Nowak. "They never have any secrets; this is all about us together. They know what the situation is, and I know what the situation is."
"It's simple," says midfield veteran Earnie Stewart. "Everybody wants to win. From the coaches to the players to Cisco (Tobar, team equipment manager), everybody's trying to find a solution, to make the playoffs. That's the state everybody's in right now."
Starting with Saturday's match against Dallas, United have six games remaining, four of which are at home and five of which are against conference foes. In a crowded Eastern Conference, the team controls their own destiny, but a dramatic shift of form is needed for any chance of playoff success.
Nowak is supportive of his players, but unblinking in his evaluation.
"As coaches, we can ask about everything, but it's still up to the players how they're going to execute on the field, and what they're going to do about it in practice."
United will likely welcome back goalscorer Alecko Eskandarian for the Dallas game, who has been participating in full training all week after missing two games with an ankle sprain.
Despite the situation, players insist that there is no excess pressure being heaped upon this team, other than their own expectations, even though United finally reached the playoffs last season after a three-year absence.
"You try not to look at the big picture behind it, the what ifs," says Stewart, "but everybody on this team wants to win the next game. That's the pressure you put on yourself."
Stewart admitted that missing the playoffs is an unthinkable proposition.
"If you don't make the playoffs, it's always a (failed season,)" he says. "Apart from all the things that go on, trying to build the younger players and everything, in the end it doesn't matter if you don't make the playoffs."