New faces, new roles, new belief: How DC became the East's hottest team

WASHINGTON – As the Major League Soccer regular season draws to a close, perhaps no team looks more dangerous than D.C. United.

After spending most of July and August lingering outside the Eastern Conference’s six playoff spots, United have won three straight matches to move within a win of a postseason berth (see standings). Going back further, fifth-place D.C have lost just once in their last 12, going 5-1-6.

Folks outside the lockers and offices at RFK Stadium may not have seen this resurgence coming. Yet for the past couple months, a few factors combined to make such a run possible. Let's take a deeper look:

New (York) Blood

United acquired winger Lloyd Sam from the New York Red Bulls in early July, then followed that with a move to pick up striker Patrick Mullins (pictured above) from New York City FC later in the month.

For a team that failed to score in eight of its first 18 matches, the offensive results have been the stuff of dreams.

United have scored a league-best 30 goals in 13 matches since Mullins' signing, and multiple goals in seven straight games. Mullins is second on the team with seven goals despite making only 13 appearances since his move.

“I think everybody could tell that’s kind of when our team started to pick it up offensively,” says D.C. winger Lamar Neagle of Mullins' addition. “Guys have just kind of latched on and continue to kind of create that upward momentum that we have.”

Sam’s three goals and four assists in 12 matches for the Black-and-Red have almost been an afterthought. Yet the Ghanaian international’s presence has also been an important ingredient, say his new teammates.

"The second day he came in, it felt like he’d been there” a long time, United’s Nick DeLeon says of Sam. “And he had just started talking to the team like he’d been with us all year. So he brings a leadership [quality] as well.”

Accepting New Roles

The addition of Mullins and Sam meant a more crowded midfield and forward picture. Two of the players most impacted were Neagle (pictured above) and DeLeon, both midfielders, who saw their minutes reduced only to excel in new roles.

Neagle has emerged as the closest thing D.C. has to a super-sub, scoring three goals off the bench in September before netting a brace as a starter in United’s 2-1 away victory over Toronto on Oct. 1.

He still leads the team with nine goals.

“His running off the ball has really separated him, in particular when I bring him off the bench,” Olsen says. “Guys are a little leggy, and he’s a guy that without the ball is willing to do the running. And if you have some providers, that can be a dangerous thing."

DeLeon has emerged as an intriguing option at right back in place of injured Sean Franklin.

And Olsen also points to less-experienced players like rookie Julian Buescher, former USL standout Rob Vincent and Jared Jeffrey, who have all seized upon opportunities to contribute.

“It has been a case of next man up for this team, and that, I love,” Olsen says. “When you have a team where guys fill voids, it’s a great feeling.”

Acosta Acclimates

Luciano Acosta, United’s 22-year-old Argentine loan signing ahead of the 2016 campaign, showed visible frustration during several early season matches as he struggled to match his talismanic skillset to United’s tactical approach.

Eventually D.C. shifted to a 4-1-4-1 and jettisoned fellow Argentine attacker Fabian Espindola around the same time as the Mullins trade, allowing space for the Boca Juniors loanee to grow into the team. With three assists in August and three more in September, Acosta now leads the team with 10.

“You can try to speed that stuff up as much as you want, but the reality is it’s him putting in minutes with his teammates,” Olsen says. “He’s finding his sweet spot a little bit of when to pull the strings and when to playmake, and when to build rhythm. … Early, he was of the mindset that he had to make the big play all the time.”

United’s postseason success may depend on the possibility that Acosta’s best still lies ahead.

“I think that he does things in practice that no one else in this league can do, and that he’s better than you guys have seen, and that he will be better going forward,” predicted defender and captain Bobby Boswell. “He’s world-class, and it will show through in the more games that he gets.”

Drawing to a Close

Early on in a stretch of 12 games with just one loss, United struggled to make up ground on playoff contenders by settling for a lot of draws.

Players and coaches, however, say those results were a needed exercise in confidence building.

“You could kind of feel it there that something was building," DeLeon says. “I’m not exactly sure what, but there was a belief.”

Of those six draws, United came from behind to earn a point in four of them. In three of them, they scored the equalizer in second-half stoppage time. Twice United rescued a point after being multiple goals down.

“I think it’s more about the way we tied the games at the end,” Boswell says. “For me, that’s the most important thing, is how we’ve responded when we needed to with our backs against the wall.”

Prognosis Positive

D.C. approach the final two weeks of the season in a solid spot to qualify for a third consecutive playoff appearance. United could clinch a playoff spot with a match to spare if they defeat visiting New York City FC at RFK Stadium on Oct. 16 (3 pm ET; MLS LIVE).

That could render a season finale at Orlando City SC less important, though Olsen doesn’t see it that way.

“I think they both mean something, whether it’s A: getting to the playoffs, or B: moving up as high as you can,” he says.

Boswell is quick to add that United’s last two opponents could just as easily get on their own good run, with NYCFC battling for the Supporters’ Shield and Orlando looking to play spoilers.

“When those games really mean a lot, I think you see the best of teams,” Boswell said. “And we have to make sure that our best is better than their best.”