WASHINGTON – Earlier in the year, when D.C. United consistently emphasized their pointed mission to end the organization’s four-year playoff drought, there were still plenty of regular-season games left to cloud the vision and plenty of uncertainty ahead.
Now, things are clearer than ever and a concise picture of what’s necessary in order for United to make the postseason has emerged: Come away with eight points in four matches and, no matter what else happens, United are guaranteed a playoff spot for the first time since 2007.
“It’s good motivation to kind of see where we can take this thing,” United midfield Perry Kitchen said following Thursday’s training session ahead of Saturday's trip to Portland (10:30 pm ET, streamed LIVE online). “As long as we’re in the playoffs, once the playoffs start, it’s a whole new season. We just have to be one of those top five teams and go from there.”
While not every result has been dominant, United coach Ben Olsen’s side is peaking at an ideal time, having won their previous three matches. They’re currently tied for third with New York (50 points) in a nail-biting Eastern Conference race.
In 2011, United lost three of their final four matches and tied the other in what was the dismal end of a late-season breakdown that saw D.C. once again miss the playoffs. Now, with two of four remaining matches against teams with fewer than 30 points and a solid standing should it come down to tiebreakers, United are hopeful.
“We’re hungry,” said center back Dejan Jakovic, who’s in his fourth season with United. “Everyone’s realizing that we’re right there. We haven’t made the playoffs in so long and now we have a great opportunity. Not having been able to make the playoffs sucks because this is a team that has had so much success. I’m definitely focusing on that and trying to get this team to the playoffs.”
D.C. trail only New York in the Eastern Conference in goals scored – the first tiebreaker for playoff seeding – should it come to that. United have scored 47 goals and the Red Bulls have 50, while Chicago and Houston both have scored 42. Sporting KC have 37 and the Crew have 36.
“I think we know what we need to do,” said left back Chris Korb. "A few wins here, finish the season strong and maybe peak at the right time going into the playoffs."
United also are tied for second in the league’s second tiebreaker (goal differential) thanks to back-to-back shutouts. Both D.C. and Chicago are at +8, trailing Sporting Kansas City by four. United also have the third-fewest disciplinary points among the Eastern Conference’s six contenders.
So does that mean Olsen is less anxious about D.C,’s final four matches given his side’s solid position with regard to tiebreakers?
“No,” Olsen said with a smile. “Nothing helps. I’ve tried them all.”