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Respect, but no quarter: DC United on unique Philadelphia Union rivalry

WASHINGTON – D.C. United and the Philadelphia Union are off to slow starts, yet United head coach Ben Olsen believes each squad still has a chance of reaching the 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs.

However, there may not be room for both.

“They’re always going to be a team that is fighting to get into the playoffs every year,” Olsen said. “It’s not a sure thing that Philly’s in the playoffs. That seems to be the case with us. Anytime you play these teams, there’s a little bit more of, you want to keep them down.”

That the sides have never met in the playoffs – and only qualified for the same postseason once – perhaps explains the uniquely friendly nature of this I-95 derby, which will be played for a 22nd time in league play on Saturday afternoon in Chester, Pennsylvania (3:30 pm ET | UniMás – Full TV & Streaming Info). But the two sides already find themselves below the playoff line in the Eastern Conference standings, in ninth and 10th place.

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As teams like Toronto FC, Atlanta United and New York City FC continue to push the new normal in terms of investment in MLS rosters, the margin of error shrinks for teams with smaller salary budgets like D.C. and Philadelphia.

D.C. are one of only two Eastern Conference sides to have only one Designated Player on their squad (Paul Arriola). Philadelphia’s two (Alejandro Bedoya, Borek Dockal) won’t produce the headlines or gaudy attacking numbers of Eastern Conference DP counterparts like Sebastian Giovinco, David Villa or Josef Martinez.

“I think there’s a lot of respect between the two clubs,” says Olsen, a native of Harrisburg, Pa. “I think there’s some similarities in the makeup of the clubs. Players coming here and moving there, and obviously the proximity to Philly, which is a special place to me because I’m from in and around there.”

That shared desire to do more with less may also explain a shared lineage of players that includes Brian Carroll, Danny Cruz, Freddy Adu, Chris Pontius, Jeff Parke and Sebastien Le Toux.

Other than Adu when he played for D.C., those players shared a reputation among league insiders for the potential to be better than their price tags. Besides Le Toux, all are Americans who cut their teeth in MLS.

D.C. defender Steve Birnbaum notes how even the style of play between the two can feel similar.

“We go in there and we know it’s going to be physical,” Birnbaum said. “I think that brings a heightened intensity to the game a little bit, where not one team is super out-possessing [the other].”

Olsen agreed with Birnbaum’s assessment.

“Once the game gets going, it’s a revved-up game. It’s always been a physical matchup,” said United’s longtime coach. “It depends on how you look at a rivalry, but if you are looking at proximity and you are looking at physicality, and one team wanting to beat the other team because we are always in that hunt for playoffs, I think that increases the intensity.”