D.C. United faces crucial match with Red Bulls


Andy Najar, right, and D.C. United have nine regular season matches left. (Graham Hughes/Associated Press)
August 28, 2012

D.C. United has responded well to adversity this season, avoiding prolonged losing streaks and answering most defeats with comprehensive performances. It’s the sign of a maturing team and a young head coach whose message has resonated.

United’s resilience will be tested again Wednesday night at RFK Stadium, but this time to a greater degree.

Four days after a 3-0 loss in Montreal, D.C. will play its prime adversary, the second-place New York Red Bulls, in a match that could serve as the tipping point during the late-season push for an MLS playoff berth.

“Our response is the big thing,” midfielder-forward Chris Pontius said Tuesday. “Generally we’ve had a good response [after a loss]. . . . There is a lot on the line. Everyone knows it.”

What exactly is on the line? First and foremost, United’s comfort level in the postseason race. With Montreal and Columbus creeping up the Eastern Conference standings, United (12-9-4, 40 points) would alleviate some tension by defeating the Red Bulls (13-7-6, 45) and earning at least a draw at Real Salt Lake (13-10-4, 43) on Saturday.

United is also looking to join conference leaders Kansas City (47 points), New York and Houston (42) in the chase for the top position as well as equal the club record for consecutive home matches without a loss (13, set in 2007). D.C.’s only loss at RFK came in the opener against Kansas City.

There’s also a minor prize at stake: the Atlantic Cup, given to the winner of the season series. Each side won at home earlier this season (United, 4-1, in April and New York, 3-2, in June).

“It’s a huge game for us to move forward,” said United Coach Ben Olsen, whose team has nine regular season matches left. “It’s a tough task for us, but we’re at home. We’ve had some success here and we need to get a result.”

While United has enjoyed RFK’s comforts, the Red Bulls are 0-4-3 in their previous seven away games. The clubs have followed similar paths: United is 9-1-3 at home and 3-8-1 on the road, with five consecutive losses. New York is 9-0-3 at Red Bull Arena and 4-7-3 away.

United is playing the fourth of five matches over two weeks, but after three key attackers rested much of the Montreal game, the club has no excuses. Olsen played coy about ailing players. Nick DeLeon sat out Saturday with an illness and Dwayne De Rosario has been slowed by a sore calf.

“Everybody’s fine. Every one of them,” he said. “I mean, what’s fine? They trained today. Everybody is available tomorrow.”

Not everyone. Maicon Santos and Robbie Russell have just returned to practice from long-term foot injuries and are targeted to return to active duty following a Sept. 2-14 layoff.

Brazilian midfielder Raphael Augusto, 21, received his work visa after a month-long wait and joined the club on loan from Fluminense this week. But he will need time to adjust to a new team, league and country before entering Olsen’s plans.

United has lost consecutive league games only two times this year and hasn’t had a three-game winless streak since starting the season with two losses and a draw.

“We just need to put together some streaks again,” defender Brandon McDonald said. “Right now we are kind of off and on a little bit.”

United notes: De Rosario and Dejan Jakovic were named to Canada’s roster and Hamdi Salihi was called up by Albania for respective World Cup qualifiers Sept. 7 and 11. Canada will play Panama twice; Albania will face Cyprus and Switzerland. They won’t miss any MLS matches.

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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