WASHINGTON – With seven matches remaining in the regular season, D.C. United find themselves in an unfamiliar position.
For the first time since April 7, United are on the outside looking in at the Eastern Conference playoff teams. Currently in sixth place, they trail Columbus by one point and Chicago by three. D.C. end the season with a home match against Columbus and a trip to Chicago.
“I don’t mind chasing,” United coach Ben Olsen said last week. “We’re right there. We’re right where we thought we’d probably be at the beginning of the season. Now it’s an important stretch to put up or shut up.”
This year’s situation is eerily similar to 2011, not necessarily because United again have to make up ground in the final two months, but because of the timing of injuries to star players. Last year, Chris Pontius broke his leg against Chivas USA on Sept. 10, and on Tuesday, captain Dwayne De Rosario was injured in Canada’s World Cup qualifier at Panama.
The extent and specific nature of his injury is unknown at this time, but the Canadian national team trainers believe it’s an MCL sprain. De Rosario flew back to D.C. on Wednesday and was scheduled to receive an MRI on Thursday, and it’s likely he could miss some time.
“All you ask at this time is that you’re in the playoff race and that you control your own destiny and we have both of those in our hand,” said Pontius, the team’s leading scorer.
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United stumbled once last year’s fall weather rolled in, winning just once in their final nine matches after holding the fifth spot in the Eastern Conference on Sept. 10. Unlike 2011, this season’s D.C. side hasn’t been accustomed to being out of the top five.
“Obviously, we’re a more mature team than last year,” Pontius said. “We didn’t close out games well [in 2011]. We didn’t seal games.”
More good news for this United club: They’re currently the only non-playoff team in the Eastern Conference with a positive goal differential (plus-five). Plus, United play their next five matches against teams in the bottom half of their respective conferences.
“[We’ll approach it the] same way we’d approach any game,” midfielder Perry Kitchen said. “It’s tight. These guys aren’t going to roll over just because we’re ahead of them. They’re playing for pride and their clubs.”
So what needs to change for D.C. if they hope to avoid last year’s fate and make the playoffs for the first time in four seasons?
“I’d say closing out games,” Kitchen said. “Last year, we did great work and we’d lose it in the last few minutes. Just closing out games and staying sharp the whole 90 minutes are probably the biggest thing we’re working on this year.”