WASHINGTON – With two games to play, D.C. United are within spitting distance of the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
D.C. need only a tie in their remaining pair of matches, beginning with a home game against the Chicago Fire on Saturday (7 pm ET; MLS Live), to claim their first Eastern Conference regular season title since winning the Supporters' Shield in 2007.
To a team that’s already broken through plenty of ceilings this year, what would breaking through this one mean? And in a broader sense, how much weight does a first-place finish carry? There are certainly some perks: the 2015-16 CONCACAF Champions’ League berth and the allocation funds that come with it.
But finishing atop your division in MLS hasn’t always translated to playoff success. Just two teams in the past 10 years have hoisted the trophy after a first-place finish: the LA Galaxy did it in 2011, while the Columbus Crew pulled it off in 2008. It’s a fact that United head coach Ben Olsen realizes very well.
"Well historically it’s not very important, right?” Olsen told MLSsoccer.com after his team’s training session earlier this week. "But I think it’s a feather in your cap, that’s certainly our goal now, is to try and finish first. If you look at it, though, that wild card game has had some teams that have gone to the championship and even won it in the past couple of years.”
United captain Bobby Boswell shared a similar view of a potential first-place finish, adding that what’s more important to him is finishing the regular season in good form. Boswell has more playoff experience than anyone on United’s squad, having made the postseason in all but one campaign during his time with the Houston Dynamo and qualifying for the playoffs in both of his campaigns during his previous stint as a member of D.C. United in 2006-2007.
“I’ve been a part of teams that are at the top and we lose in the opening round and I’ve been the part of teams that were at the top and we make a decent run,” Boswell told MLSsoccer.com. “I’ve been a part of teams that go in at the very end – literally the last game of the season. I think the important thing is just how well you're playing and how much confidence you have in yourself when the season ends. You have to put some performances together.”
And there’s one other added bonus to winning the conference in the regular season that Boswell is keen on, one United may reap should the LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders not make the final.
“I think that to be completely honest with you,” added Boswell, "it matters a ton in terms of if you do make it to the final – that’s the biggest thing is that you can potentially host it. I think if you look at the teams that have hosted it there’s a reason they win it. I think that’s the biggest thing.”
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For all of Boswell’s playoff experience and insight into what finishing atop the heap means, there are several United players who’ve yet to get a taste of the postseason. Taylor Kemp is among them, his only other professional season having been United’s nightmarish 2013 campaign. On Friday, Kemp suggested that some of United’s veterans have tried to impress upon their younger counterparts that finishing the regular season strong is only the first step in reaching a bigger goal.
"It’s something that all of the older guys in the locker room have said to us,” said Kemp. "This doesn’t come around very often, it’s not often that a team strings together a lot of victories like we have. Their message is just ‘don’t spoil it.’ it’s great to get to the top of the East and that’s not an easy thing to do. There is still a lot of hard work ahead of us - we’re happy but we know that this is just the beginning."