WASHINGTON – Friday evening’s matchup between D.C. United and Sporting Kansas City had all the makings of a playoff game: cool fall air. A boisterous, near capacity crowd. Two teams jockeying for Eastern Conference supremacy.
How fitting, then, that a match that felt like a postseason affair would be the one that put United back in the post-season itself.
The home side weathered a driving rain and a scrappy, desperate KC side to secure a 0-0 draw, the single point good enough to make them the first team in the East to clinch a playoff berth. After the final whistle – when an announcement was made over the stadium’s PA system that DC had clinched - United’s rain-soaked revelers erupted.
Head coach Ben Olsen – who on Friday said he’d taken “the long way” to RFK to soak up some of the playoff fever that’s spread through the city since Major League Baseball's Washington Nationals began their own postseason campaign earlier in the day, took note of the atmosphere.
"Take RFK out of it,” Olsen said with a smile, "it’s an old beat up building and I’ll be happy when it blows up – there is not a better show in town when our fans show up and put on a performance like that, there is nowhere else I want to play.”
Just down the hall from Olsen's press conference, the mood in United’s locker room was certainly positive, but far from celebratory. There were high fives, hugs and smiles, but nobody was actually celebrating. There was no “We are the Champions” – nobody even seemed to be paying attention to a boombox in the corner that for ten minutes played a far less jubilant song on repeat.
“We had every expectation to make the postseason,” United captain Bobby Boswell told MLSsoccer.com after the match. "That’s why we’re not in here popping champagne bottles and kicking doors down. We expected this to happen. We’ll enjoy it, but this is the group – we got guys here that are mad that we didn’t win the game, honestly.”
Boswell was likely not the only person in United’s locker room who expected to qualify for the postseason. The center back is among a handful of veterans – guys like Sean Franklin, Chris Rolfe and Jeff Parke – brought in during United’s offseason to right the ship after a historically bad 2013. Many pegged United’s re-shaped squad as a group that would take time to gel, perhaps qualifying as a four or five seed. Few expected such a drastic turnaround.
On Friday, even Olsen himself seemed surprised at how dominant United have been throughout 2014 – though he was also quick to point out that he expected big things from his group before the season even started.
"I didn’t think it would go this smoothly,” added Olsen. "but I’ve said this before: when we looked at the board in the offseason and when we looked at the team we had, we were pinching ourselves a little bit, we were excited about this group and we knew it had potential to be a playoff team.”
There is still work to be done for this United squad – one that’s now won over five times as many matches as they did in 2013. A matchup at Houston next Sunday – where they’ve never won a match – awaits them, providing another opportunity to stretch their lead in the Eastern Conference and take another step towards wrapping their hands around a 2015-16 CONCACAF Champions League berth.
“We’re by no means content,” said Boswell. “We’re happy that we’re here, but now with the group that we have we want to set ourselves up for the most success we can have. We’ll enjoy it tonight, we’ll enjoy that we made the playoffs, but we gotta get back to work and go to Houston and play a tough game there."