WASHINGTON — D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen may not like the hyperbolic “must-win” term often used to describe important matches. But every time the phrase has surfaced this season, his team has responded.
There was a 1-0 triumph with 10 men over Columbus Crew SC way back in April, when D.C. were still winless and facing a three-month-long stretch of road matches. There were later home wins against Colorado and then Atlanta after back-to-back losses, and the dramatic 3-2 victory — thanks to “The Tackle” — over an Orlando City team that back then still had an outside postseason chance.
Now the Black-and-Red face a playoff six-pointer on Saturday night at Audi Field against the Montreal Impact (7 pm ET | TV & streaming info). If nothing else, D.C. can draw upon the previous challenges they’ve risen to.
“When you’re in the position that we were on the turn, they’re all important games,” said Olsen, whose team had only two wins when they opened Audi Field on July 14. “When our backs were against the wall, when we’ve needed a win, we’ve been able to do that, [and] yeah I guess you can take some comfort in it. But I don’t know. I haven’t brought that up to much. I haven’t focused on that. It’s really about giving them the gameplan, making sure they’re well versed in who they are and reminding them who we are, what we’re about.”
A victory would pull United within two points of the sixth-place Impact and the Eastern Conference playoff line, with D.C. still holding two matches in hand. Defeat would stretch the gap to eight, making a final charge into the postseason unlikely, if not impossible.
D.C. finished in last in the Eastern Conference last season, but have not finished out of the playoffs in back-to-back seasons since 2011, Olsen’s first full season in charge.
“I don’t remember [a game] this far out that has these implications,” Olsen said. “And it’s nice to be in that conversation after last year. But it means nothing unless we’re able to be disciplined and execute and play at the top level that we can play at.”
Saturday's affair figures to be very different than the one on Aug. 4 | USA Today Sports Images
United earned a 1-1 draw at Stade Saputo vs. Montreal on Aug. 4. Things have changed on both sides since then, with United re-acquiring goalkeeper Bill Hamid and seeing Russell Canouse return to fitness, and seeing Wayne Rooney grow into his leadership role.
“I think that’s one aspect that new coaches can look past; the importance of a league guy or a journeyman and getting a lot out of them,” Olsen said. “A lot of this stuff is collaborative, and that’s probably the case there. But I give him credit. He evaluated his team just like we did and said, ‘OK, this is what we need to kind of fill out our roster for the second half.’”
So what to expect this time from the Impact, who have taken seven points of the last nine?
“Their biggest key is still [Ignacio] Piatti and their counterattack,” said D.C. defender Steve Birnbaum. “Their low block defending is really good. We’re going to have a lot of possession of the ball, and they’re OK with that. They almost want that. It’s one of those games where we just have to be smart with the ball and smart defensively while we have the ball. That’s a big deal.”