D.C. United's 2021 MLS campaign has had its ups and downs, but heading into their final six games of the season, the Black-and-Red are right in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race, sitting in the No. 5 spot with 40 points from 28 matches.
In the ever-tight East, it will require a run of positive results down the stretch to maintain that positioning, with the club's next game presenting a formidable challenge. Saturday's clash with Nashville SC at Audi Field (7:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+) features a team making waves in its second year in MLS, currently residing in the No. 2 spot on the East — in part because it trounced D.C. 5-2 the last time the sides met at Nissan Stadium on August 15.
"I think we know the importance of this weekend and the upcoming stretch, but we're focused on one game at a time, Nashville being the opponent this weekend," D.C. midfielder Russell Canouse said on Thursday. "We know that they're a team that hasn't lost very much. I think they have the fewest losses in the league, have been able to get results and they have dangerous guys up front and defensively, very solid as a collective. But we're excited to go out and prove ourselves.
"Obviously the [prior] game in Nashville, that's not the result we wanted and I think as a team we're going to use that as motivation to go and attack this one and hopefully start the next six games off on the right foot."
For head coach Hernan Losada, the message has been to not let the critical nature of the upcoming slate of games affect his team's psyche. As the first-year coach pointed out, his team has already surpassed many of the expectations bestowed upon them before the start of the season after finishing in 13th place in 2020.
With that in mind, Losada said he's tried to impart on the players to play free and enjoy themselves.
"My message is: Let's have fun. Let's enjoy the moment," Losada said. "The players put themselves in this beautiful spot where we are fifth in the East and everything's very tight. There's a lot of competition and quality so there's no stress, there's absolutely nothing to lose."
He added, "We are overperforming based on all the odds, so let's have fun, especially in our home games. Let's try to play dominant, let's try to stay on our line where we dictate the speed of the game, that we have our identity and keep on working on that and give it all, so at the end of the road we can tell to ourselves we have absolutely no regrets ... that feeling of we gave it our all and we're happy with everything."
Protecting the friendly confines of Audi Field will be paramount for D.C. United, who play four of the final six matches there. Following the Nashville match, they'll look to another tough potential playoff preview against the Supporters' Shield-leading New England Revolution this coming Wednesday.
Wingback Julian Gressel professed hope that the team will be in a position to accomplish their ultimate goal of not just making the playoffs, but hosting a game once they get there.
"It's crunch time," Gressel said. "It's the last two weeks of the season, the last few games, and obviously not an easy schedule for us. Obviously, we're at home, so we want to play our style, we want to show well, like we have been at Audi Field, and we want to continue that trend.
"Obviously we can learn a lot from the game against Nashville last time around," he remarked, "and try and be better on the day.
"It was a simple message there but it's gonna be a tough couple of weeks, but we're ready for it and excited. It's tight and everything could change on one game or another, so we'll just have to stay in it and then give us give ourselves a shot to make it. At the end of the day, maybe not just make it, but hopefully get top four so we get a home game."