San Jose Earthquakes seen as key test for D.C. United


D.C. United's Joseph Ngwenya can’t believe a call in a draw against Colorado earlier this season. (Doug Kapustin/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

If D.C. United is going to end a three-year playoff drought – a reasonable goal set by Coach Ben Olsen for his young squad — it will require victories against the likes of Saturday night’s opponent at RFK Stadium, the San Jose Earthquakes.

Like United, San Jose is 4-4-4 with a five-game unbeaten streak in MLS. But D.C. is at home and in good spirits after a successful West Coast swing. Moreover, D.C. is regaining health after a severe personnel shortage and facing an opponent that is missing its most influential player.

In other words, anything other than a victory against a team in similar standing isn’t going to sit well in the dank tunnels of RFK Stadium.

“We tied some games we should’ve won, and this middle third of the season, I’d like to see things change,” Olsen said of the 34-game campaign. “I’d like to see us continue to become a team that doesn’t just grind out wins, but also plays good soccer. That’s the goal this next phase. And hopefully toward the latter part, we’re shooting for the playoffs and we’re a team that can compete in the playoffs.”

United’s opportunity for a midseason surge will come at home with three of the next four matches in Washington. After visiting MLS Cup contender Real Salt Lake next weekend, D.C. will host the struggling Houston Dynamo (3-5-6) and the surprising Philadelphia Union (6-3-3).

United hasn’t made the best of home stays. After beginning the season with an emotional victory over the visiting Columbus Crew, United has recorded a 1-1-3 regular season mark at RFK – not terrible, but not acceptable either.

The club has also fallen short in non-league home matches: In the U.S. Open Cup at Maryland SoccerPlex, United tied the Philadelphia Union (and needed penalty kicks to advance) before falling behind by three goals and being eliminated by the New England Revolution. It also fell to Dutch champion Ajax in a friendly at RFK three weeks ago.

“If we are going to be a realistic playoff team, we have to gather in the majority of points at home,” forward Josh Wolff said. “We did let a few go [in home draws] against Colorado and Dallas – we all recognize that.

“We did well out west, but coming home, it’s a little more difficult because teams sit in. You have to make the game, create opportunities and manufacture the game in different ways.”

While United has dropped points at RFK, it has made in-roads on the road. It won handily at Toronto in April and, in consecutive matches the past two weeks, ended the Portland Timbers’ perfect home record and earned a draw against the league-leading Los Angeles Galaxy, which is unbeaten at Home Depot Center.

Captain Dax McCarty is expected to return to central midfield after missing two matches with a groin injury and leading scorer Charlie Davies (six goals) could resurface in the starting lineup. Davies sat out the Portland game with a strained hamstring and came off the bench in the second half at Los Angeles.

Olsen seems likely to retain the young backline that blanked the Galaxy: rookies Chris Korb, Perry Kitchen and Ethan White, joined by Daniel Woolard, playing in front of 20-year-old goalkeeper Bill Hamid.

The Earthquakes are without a pair of starting forwards who were called up for CONCACAF Gold Cup duty: six-goal scorer Chris Wondolowski (U.S. team) and Ryan Johnson (Jamaica).

San Jose has been thriving in the second half of matches, with nine goals after intermission of the past four outings. In the first eight games, the club scored once in the second half.

“We did our job on the road,” McCarty said, “and now it’s a matter of coming home and defending our turf.”

United notes: Midfielder-forward Santino Quaranta (concussion) and defenders Dejan Jakovic and Marc Burch (both with hamstring injuries) remain out, but defender Jed Zayner (hamstring) and midfielder Junior Carreiro (ankle) have been upgraded after appearing in a 2-2 reserve match against the New England Revolution on Tuesday. Midfielder Kurt Morsink (ankle) said he is close to returning to regular workouts.

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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