WASHINGTON – After climbing above the playoff line for the first time all season, D.C. United won’t have long to process their new position in the standings.
Perhaps that’s for the best.
After D.C. moved into sixth place in the MLS Eastern Conference – one point above the Montreal Impact – with Saturday’s 1-0 victory over FC Dallas, they face another massive home tilt against Toronto FC on Wednesday (7:30 pm ET | TSN2 – full TV and streaming info). Win that, and then beat New York City FC the following Sunday at Audi Field, and United would lock up their playoff place before visiting Chicago on Decision Day, regardless of what Montreal do.
“We’ve been saying it – we still control our destiny,” said D.C. defender Steve Birnbaum. “And [it’s] a big game against Toronto on Wednesday that if we win, that really puts the pressure on Montreal for their game on the weekend. We know what we’ve got to do if we win on Wednesday, and we’re in a good spot. We’ve got to build on the positives from tonight.”
Just about every match since Wayne Rooney’s arrival in D.C. and the opening of Audi Field has carried high stakes. Yet United don’t appear to be suffering from big-game fatigue as they stretched an unbeaten run to seven matches. Quite the opposite.
“No one wants to be near the middle or bottom of the league, and just playing for the fun of it,” said Rooney, who experienced plenty of pressure in his days starring for England and Manchester United. “You want pressure moments. You want to feel that pressure. And I think it’s important, what we’re doing, we’ve got that pressure but we’re thriving on it and we’re picking up results and wins.”
United last lingered above that red line in the Eastern Conference table after a draw against Sporting Kansas City on the opening weekend of the 2017 season. Birnbaum, defender Nick DeLeon and goalkeeper Bill Hamid were the only players who featured in that match who were also involved against Dallas on Saturday.
Yet despite a new home, a transformed side and a decidedly different feel around the club, coach Ben Olsen is still highly aware of MLS’s sometimes absurd unpredictability.
“Everybody’s going to look at it differently,” he said of getting above the playoff line. “From a coaching standpoint, it doesn’t do it for me. It will when this is all said and done, if we’re still above that line. And that’s the goal. I’ve been through too many of these seasons to understand how crazy the last month is and how dire each point is going down the last couple weeks.”
Birnbaum admits, however, that the belief and perhaps even fortune is palpable.
“Luck is kind of going our way,” he said. “But I think we’re creating our own luck. We’re on the front foot of things. We’re being a little bit more proactive than reactive throughout the game. Maybe that was lacking at the beginning of the season.”