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Wiebe: Reflections on the weird, the wild & the Wayne of 2018 DC United

No matter how it ends, D.C. United’s 2018 season has been a weird one.

From the road warriors-turned-homebodies schedule thanks to the construction of Audi Field to the summer signing of Wayne Rooney and the back-from-the-dead run that followed that big-money blockbuster, this year has historical outlier written all over it.

The campaign’s place in history is best understood visually. Below is a line graph of D.C.’s place in the standings, week by week. How about that three-month flatline in dead last? That should have been a playoff death sentence, but somehow it wasn't. Even Lazarus would be proud of this resurrection.

Crazy thing is the Fightin’ Ben Olsens, finally out of games in hand, could climb even further in the season’s final two weeks.

As of Wednesday night’s 1-0 win against Toronto FC, three more points fueled by an impossibly far free-kick golazo from Rooney, it’s now been 10 weeks since D.C. last occupied the Eastern Conference basement. Incredibly, here’s where they now stand:

  • Four-point lead on Montreal for sixth place and the final playoff spot in the East
  • One point behind the Crew for fifth seed and slightly easier Knockout Round matchup
  • Three points behind the Union for the fourth seed and KO Round hosting privileges

All they need is a win on Sunday against NYCFC (3 pm ET | TV & Streaming Info) and they’re in the 2018 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. I don’t want to brag (or jinx this), but I knew this would happen. Knew Rooney was going to work out just fine, too. [He's 100% doing both.--ed.]

The haters will say they were on board the Rooney bandwagon from Day 1, but we all know better.

Feels like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it? Part of maturing is admitting when you’re wrong. Probably time for those folks who were in my mentions calling Rooney a high-priced bust in waiting to circle back and mull over a mea culpa.

Is 10 goals and 7 assists in 18 games good? What about transforming Luciano Acosta from “talented, but mercurial in the final third” to “stone-cold goal assassin” and fringe MVP candidate? Forget bust, the new Rooney hot take is that he should be MVP himself, despite playing slightly more than half of the season. It’s not gonna happen, but it’s not without merit.

Per Opta, here are the splits for D.C. this year with and without Wazza:

Courtesy of Opta

Those numbers are eye popping across the board, but it’s the defensive turnaround that’s the most glaring. When I predicted this D.C. team would pip Montreal to the playoffs, I argued one of the reasons would be that Russell Canouse is a beast.

Here’s the Opta splits for Canouse:

Courtesy of Opta

Weird, that looks just like Rooney’s split. That’s because it’s exactly the same. Both made their 2018 debuts in the same game, the inaugural game at Audi Field against Vancouver on July 14. Neither has come off the field since. Gotta factor Bill Hamid in there, too. He’s been back where he belongs between the pipes since the middle of August.

For a team that spent 15 weeks in last place, there’s an awful lot of positivity around D.C. United these days. I don’t want to burst that bubble, but Ben Baer is going to be really upset with me if I don’t address the elephant in the room.

All this success, and most of these results have come at Audi Field. Unless D.C. win out, Philly completely collapse or both, they’ll have to win on the road in the Knockout Round, something only five of 20 away teams have done all time.

As pretty as those splits above may be, D.C. on the road this season is just as ugly: 1-9-6 (9 points, from 48 available) with a minus-10 goal differential. Here are those Rooney/Canouse with- and without- splits again, this time excluding games at Audi Field:

Courtesy of Opta

Not great, right?

Some context for you: those four away games came against Atlanta (a 3-1 loss), Montreal (1-1 draw), the Red Bulls (1-0 loss) and NYCFC (1-1 draw). In other words, the East’s top three teams, plus their main playoff competitor.

So how will 2018 end for D.C. United? That’s still TBD. They could host a Knockout Round game. They could miss the playoffs entirely. They could be one-and-done. They could make a run all the way to MLS Cup like the 2016 Sounders.

Whatever happens, I know I’ll be watching.

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