D.C. United visits Sporting Kansas City for shot at MLS Eastern Conference lead


D.C. United Coach Ben Olsen played down second-place D.C. United’s matchup with first-place Sporting Kansas City, saying, “We’re playing to get points. We’re playing to continue to move forward with our team.” (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

D.C. United Coach Ben Olsen has taken a measured approach to every match during this uplifting season, whether the opponent was atop the overall standings or buried at the bottom.

So it came as no surprise that, on the eve of Saturday night’s showdown between second-place United and Eastern Conference leader Sporting Kansas City, Olsen did not make much of the pairing.

“We’re playing to get points,” he said. “We’re playing to continue to move forward with our team.”

With a victory on the road, though, United (12-7-4, 40 points) would pass the reigning MLS Cup champions (12-6-6, 42) and remain in the thick of the race for the Supporters’ Shield, presented to the league’s overall points leader at the end of the season.

That is exciting, right?

“Yeah, sure,” Olsen said.

But United has not sat atop the conference standings this late in a campaign since September 2007, when Olsen scored twice in a 4-0 triumph at Dallas.

“Our group is certainly excited to go to K.C.,” he conceded, “and see what we are worth.”

Despite Olsen’s efforts to play down the moment, this game is a big deal for his squad, which squandered two previous opportunities on the road this month to claim first place.

D.C. has never won at Sporting Park since the grand opening in 2011 (0-4-0) and is winless in away matches against Kansas City since the summer of 2007 (0-6-3). United’s previous victory there came at Arrowhead Stadium, the first of three venues that Sporting has called home.

The players’ enthusiasm is a little higher than Olsen’s.

“We are definitely excited about it,” said midfielder Davy Arnaud, who played for Kansas City from 2002 through 2011. “You can feel it. There is that vibe that it’s a big game.”

Before preparing for this encounter, both teams had to manage mid-week matches in the CONCACAF Champions League. They took opposite approaches and had to travel contrasting distances.

With most of the regulars resting, United’s secondary players produced a 1-0 victory over Waterhouse (Jamaica) on Wednesday at RFK Stadium. Only two probable starters ahead of the K.C. game saw action: Taylor Kemp for 20 minutes and Luis Silva for 10.

Conversely, a day earlier, Sporting Coach Peter Vermes called on most of his regulars for a 1-1 draw at Esteli (Nicaragua). To return home, the Kansas City delegation departed Managua on a charter in the wee hours after the game and refueled in Brownsville, Tex., before touching down in Missouri.

Despite Kansas City’s travel demands, United is bracing for another daunting away match. Two weeks ago, D.C. conceded three early goals in a 3-0 defeat at Real Salt Lake, the 2013 MLS Cup runner-up and a 2014 contender.

“We have had a couple of times this year to be in first place and we have come up short in games we should’ve done better,” defender Sean Franklin said. “This is another chance. It’s important this time of year. We know how close we are to the Supporters’ Shield and securing a spot in the playoffs. So these next couple of games are going to be big.”

After visiting Kansas City, United will fly to Los Angeles to face Landon Donovan and the Galaxy on Wednesday — D.C.’s fourth game in a stretch of five over 14 days.

First, though, Olsen is fixed on Sporting, which, since the new stadium opened, has enjoyed one of the most feverish atmospheres in MLS.

“It’s a great setting and our players should relish the times they get in front of a spirited crowd and against a good team,” he said. “These are the ones you want to play in.”

United notes: Olsen is “cautiously optimistic” midfielder Chris Pontius, the club’s longest-tenured player sidelined all season with a hamstring problem, will join full workouts soon and be available for game selection this fall. . . .

United’s third-division affiliates in Richmond will host Orlando City on Saturday in a match featuring clubs with a 29-4-14 combined record. After starting for United on Wednesday, defender Conor Shanosky and midfielder Kyle Porter have joined the Kickers, who trail Orlando by three points.

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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