One year and one day earlier, another key player, Chris Pontius, had fractured his right leg. United was never the same, missing the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year, an infamous record for a club that has won four Major League Soccer titles.
“I was hoping Dwayne would be back in a week or two,” Olsen recounted this week, “but I had a sense it wasn’t going to be great news.”
It wasn’t. De Rosario would miss the remainder of the regular season, leaving United to begin another short-handed and, to many observers, futile trek to the playoffs. The club was in a 2-5-2 rut; this setback would seal its fate.
But what unfolded over the subsequent six weeks defied the dark forecasts and, in the process, breathed life back into an organization that had been almost forgotten in both the thriving league and in an increasingly bubbly sports town.
Despite the absence of the 2011 league MVP, United is unbeaten in six matches, capped by last Saturday’s 3-2 victory over Columbus that ended a five-year playoff drought.
“A lot of things are coming together,” team president Kevin Payne said. “It’s definitely something the organization needed.”
United (17-10-6, 57 points) will conclude the regular season Saturday afternoon at Chicago, needing just a draw to clinch the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference behind Sporting Kansas City. A loss to the Fire (17-11-5, 56) would probably relegate D.C. to a first-round match at RFK Stadium on Wednesday (hurricane permitting).
Victory would secure the highest point total in the club’s decorated history (albeit in a season with two more games than in most other years). United would also lock up the third-most points in the 19-team league, enhancing its chances of a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League, an international tournament involving the region’s elite clubs.
“I am not going to sit here and say we are the greatest team in the league right now,” said Olsen, whose squad is 14-2-3 against non-playoff teams but winless on the road against postseason-bound foes (as Chicago is). “But we have shown an ability to beat teams at our level or hard on their luck. And that is an important thing to do.”
De Rosario’s injury had created a tipping point: Would United regain its balance or fall into another late-season abyss?
“We had to get the guys to understand we were a good team with DeRo, and we can still be a good team without him,” Josh Wolff, a veteran forward and assistant coach, said of a team that was in first place for a month during the summer.
United responded with four victories and a draw — each a grinding, industrious performance against non-contending teams — before vanquishing Columbus last week.