D.C. United’s path to the MLS playoffs is not complicated — in its next match anyway.
By defeating or tying the Columbus Crew on Oct. 20 at RFK Stadium, United would end a five-year postseason drought. Even with a loss, United would clinch if the Houston Dynamo fell the same day to the Philadelphia Union — an unlikely scenario given Houston’s unbeaten mark at BBVA Compass Stadium. A Dynamo tie wouldn’t seal the deal for United but would ease some of the pressure entering the finale.
What United would like to avoid is a decisive game on the last weekend. DCU closes Oct. 27 at playoff-bound Chicago, while New York, Houston and Columbus face non-contending teams.
Because the Eastern Conference is so tightly packed, United is in the unusual position of looking both behind and ahead in the standings: Although it lacks playoff security, DCU has a realistic chance of finishing second. (First place remains unsettled as well, but barring a slip-up, Sporting Kansas City will claim the top seed.)
Beyond the postseason berth, United’s goal is to finish in the top three and avoid a first-round game between the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds a few days after the regular season ends. The winner of that playoff would then have to play again three days later — and yet again four days after that — against a well-rested opponent in a two-leg conference semifinal series. That’s a lot of games in a short amount of time.
Finishing fourth comes with an off-field challenge as well: United would host the mid-week playoff at RFK Stadium, placing enormous pressure on the ticket department to sell seats on brief notice. It’s a daunting proposition for an organization that has seen the season ticket base dwindle and the attendance average drop to 16th among 19 clubs. In anticipation of a possible home game Oct. 31 or Nov. 1, United has begun pushing playoff tickets.
If the playoffs began today, the matchups would look like this:
First round (one game)
Houston at New York
Conference semifinals (two legs)
Kansas City vs. Houston or New York
D.C. United vs. Chicago
Vancouver at Los Angeles
San Jose vs. Vancouver or Los Angeles
Seattle vs. Real Salt Lake
Each of the conference finals will comprise two legs, a change from previous seasons when one match decided the winner. MLS Cup remains a single game, which this year will be hosted by the finalist with the most regular season points. In each of the previous 16 seasons, the match was staged at a predetermined venue.
Not one United player has been with the club long enough to have represented the club in the playoffs. (Chris Pontius and Dejan Jakovic, early 2009 acquisitions, are the club’s longest-serving players.) Several have postseason experience with other clubs but most wouldn’t start for United in the playoffs:
Dwayne De Rosario (injured): 23 postseason matches (16 starts), including 4 MLS Cups.
Josh Wolff (injured): 14 appearances in five seasons.
Robbie Russell: 12 with Real Salt Lake (10 starts), converted winning PK in 2009 MLS Cup.
Marcelo Saragosa: eight appearances overall with three clubs.
Brandon McDonald: three with San Jose in 2010.
Daniel Woolard (injured): three with Chicago in 2008-09.
Maicon Santos: two with Chivas USA, one with Dallas.
Mike Chabala: two with Houston in 2009.
Stephen King: one appearance with Chicago in 2008.
McDonald is the only full-time starter. Saragosa has become a starter in recent matches.
United and the rest of the contenders will have to wait an additional week to resume their postseason push. Appropriately, MLS is dark this weekend to avoid conflicts with the FIFA fixture window and World Cup qualifiers. It’s not a perfect situation, however: Seattle and Real Salt Lake will play one another Wed., Oct. 17 — the day after the second set of World Cup qualifiers. The Sounders had three players called up, RSL four.
Although United is off from league play until Oct. 20, the club isn’t inactive. D.C. has reserve matches against Philadelphia today in Chester, Pa., and Friday in Washington. Normally, United would lean on secondary players, but with several injuries and Jakovic (Canada) and Hamdi Salihi (Albania) on international duty, regulars will receive work. This is good and bad: Competition during a layoff helps maintain fitness and rhythm, but the risk of injury increases outside of intrasquad activity.
When Salihi returns, his role is likely to remain the same: an option in the second half. A tap-in off a goalkeeper’s gaffe over the weekend in Toronto won’t change that. Salihi has six goals this season, fourth most of the club, and has done it in just 21 appearances and 10 starts. But Coach Ben Olsen asks a lot of his forwards — apply high pressure throughout the match, defend, hold the ball up — and Salihi, a designated player whose fitness is not exemplary, doesn’t fit into the system over 60-90 minutes.
After Salihi scored in the 88th minute Saturday, Olsen said: “I am very pleased for Hamdi. The guy is a true pro. This has not been an easy year for him, the situations he has been in. A lot of forwards don’t score that goal because they don’t finish out that play. That’s what Hamdi is: He’s a finisher, he smells blood.”
Translation: We like him as a late-game sniper but can’t rely on him over a full match.
When De Rosario went down with a knee injury last month, United became a more blue-collar team. It has had to scrap for every result. Salihi is not the blue-collar player that Olsen needs, and the staff can’t afford to start someone who isn’t going to perform the dirty work. Lionard Pajoy, Olsen’s choice at striker, is not a pure finisher like Salihi — although the Colombian did beat Philadelphia with a nice side-volley a few weeks ago — but he does chase the ball and pressure defenders, which eases the burden on United’s midfield.
The other option at forward is Santos, who, like Salihi, has been used as a second-half impact player. The Brazilian has played a role on scoring sequences in two of the past three away matches, both victories.