HARRISON, N.J. – D.C. United’s 2-0 Eastern Conference semifinal loss at the hands of the New York Red Bulls on Sunday evening was certainly a wake-up call for the Black-and-Red.
And it puts them in a fairly sizable hole: Since 2003, only two teams have come home down two goals and emerged victorious in an MLS playoff series.
It’s a sobering statistic, and there was plenty of introspection and self-examination to match it in D.C.’s locker room after the match.
There were plenty of adjectives, too. Ugly. Sloppy. Disconnected.
But there was also hope. Of any team in MLS, United are arguably the team that has defied expectations the most this year.
“We have broken through plenty of ceilings,” D.C. head coach Ben Olsen said several weeks ago.
Of all the challenges United have risen to meet in 2014, this may be their biggest yet. They’ll need three goals in their next 90 minutes of playoff soccer to advance to the Conference Championship in the 2014 MLS Cup Playoffs, presented by AT&T, and must guard against surrendering a disastrous away goal to New York.
To most of the players in that sedate United locker room at Red Bull Arena on Sunday, it’s a goal they feel is attainable.
"What gives me hope is the fact that there are a bunch of warriors on this team,” D.C. goalkeeper Bill Hamid said after the match. "There’s a bunch of guys that are class footballers. They’re capable of getting the job done – that’s why I know we can definitely turn this around next week.”
Added Olsen, "Again, I think we – and I’m included in that – we’ll go back and try to fix a few things and get ready for the game [in DC on Saturday afternoon].
“This thing isn’t over. Know that. I do believe in the resiliency of this team and the staff, so I have no doubt we’ll make a real push and make things real interesting.”
Given the added wrinkle of the away goals tiebreaker this year, United will need more than an offensive explosion on Saturday. They’ll also need their defense to keep a clean sheet.
Fortunately for United, it’s something they’ve already been doing for most of 2014 – they're among the league’s stingiest sides at home, having conceded a scant 12 goals in 17 home matches.
“We’ve already beaten them 2-0 at home once this year,” said Chris Pontius, referring to United’s victory at RFK on August 31. “We know that we can do it. A lot of it’s on us. We’ve gotta come out and put it on them like they put it on us.”
There are other bright spots to look forward to for United, as well. Luis Silva sat the New York match out – and was missed – but the former Toronto FC forward may return from a hamstring injury in time for Saturday’s match.
Chris Rolfe entered as a second-half substitute on Sunday, making his first appearance in nearly two months, and added a creative flair to the match that United seemed to miss throughout the first 70 minutes of play.
"At the end of the day, we’re going to soak this in, watch some video and learn from it,” United captain Bobby Boswell told MLSsoccer.com. "This is not one of those things where you hang your head, you can go out and change your own fate. It’s not the greatest spot to be in but it’s not over.
“Teams have done it before, and if there’s any group that can do it, it’s us.”