D.C. United’s playoff road is getting tougher, starting with Real Salt Lake


“We licked our wounds and we are ready to go again,” D.C. United Coach Ben Olsen said. “It’s a huge challenge. It would be a big statement game to get a result.” (Jonathan Newton/WASHINGTON POST)
September 23, 2011

D.C. United’s aim this week was to secure at least four points, ideally six, but after settling for just one Wednesday against the weaker of the two opponents, the erratic club faces a difficult path in salvaging the plan Saturday against Real Salt Lake at RFK Stadium.

United (8-8-11, 35 points) remains in the thick of the MLS playoff race, five points from an Eastern Conference automatic berth and two out of a wild-card slot. But the 2-2 draw with Chivas USA on Wednesday has heightened the urgency to defeat Real Salt Lake (15-7-6, 51 points), which has won five straight — the longest streak in the league this season.

“We’ve got to pick up points, and real points,” United captain Josh Wolff said. “It can’t just be ties.”

United has seven matches remaining, two more than most other playoff challengers, but the opportunities to make a decisive move in the standings are shrinking. After Saturday, United will play three straight on the road, including visits to Eastern contenders Philadelphia and Columbus four days apart next week.

United doesn’t want to be in a position of having to win the final three matches of the season, all at home, over eight days in mid-October.

“We licked our wounds and we are ready to go again,” Coach Ben Olsen said. “It’s a huge challenge. It would be a big statement game to get a result.”

In his postgame comments Wednesday, Olsen was critical of his players’ inability to secure victory after building a two-goal lead in the second half, saying they played like “boys,” and were “soft” and “naive.”

The punchy message seems to have landed.

“Whenever you are challenged by your coach about heart and mental toughness, it’s not the best thing in the world, especially this time of year. He shouldn’t need to do that,” midfielder Santino Quaranta said. “It’s a challenge for us because no one wants to be questioned like that. It’s a fair point because he’s right in some sense.”

The fallout from Wednesday’s effort is a possible lineup change. Olsen could add grit to defensive midfield, partnering someone with Clyde Simms, or dropping Simms altogether. Stephen King , Kurt Morsink and Perry Kitchen, a fierce rookie who’s been starting at right back much of the year, are among the candidates.

“I still trust the group and who was on the field [against Chivas USA]. I just think we didn’t keep the emotion high after we were up 2-0. That can be fixed,” Olsen said. “We were up 2-0, and that is a good thing. Just how we responded wasn’t good enough. . . .

“This group has it, but it’s going to take the duration of the game with high energy and high focus to get a result against a good team.”

The back-line arrangement hinges largely on the availability of Dejan Jakovic, who has missed three matches with a strained hamstring. If he’s ready, Olsen would have multiple options. The fear is Jakovic returning too soon and aggravating the injury, sidelining him for several additional weeks.

“Right now, we’re not totally sure, but he’s doubtful,” Olsen said.

Real Salt Lake has won three in a row on the road and is chasing Los Angeles (16-3-10, 58) for the Supporters’ Shield, awarded to the club with the best overall mark. On Wednesday, despite midfield leader Kyle Beckerman serving a yellow card suspension, the Utah club scored three goals in the first 21 minutes to win on the road against the imploding New York Red Bulls, 3-1. Beckerman, a U.S. national team player from Crofton, is expected to rejoin the lineup Saturday.

Regardless of its personnel and the opponent, United needs to regain an RFK swagger. At 3-3-7, D.C. is tied for the second-fewest home points in the league (16), joining Chivas USA (4-6-4).

“It’s serious. Everybody knows that these are starting to be critical times,” Quaranta said. “There’s not a whole lot of room for error. We’ve got to start picking up points.”

United notes: Starting back Brandon McDonald and reserve midfielder Austin da Luz are at the yellow card limit, and with another caution, would miss the next match.

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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