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For D.C. United, path to MLS playoffs goes through a seven-match, 49-day homestand

September 11, 2018 at 1:06 PM

D.C. United’s Russell Canouse (No. 4), Wayne Rooney (No. 9) and Kofi Opare (No. 6) have done a lot of celebrating at Audi Field since its July 14 opening. (Brad Mills/USA Today Sports)

In the spring, when the oddest of MLS schedules commenced, D.C. United knew that by surviving the road-heavy months of matches, multiple western swings and several three-game weeks, a precious gift awaited on the back end.

Six months later, bruised but unbowed, United is eager to collect.

Locked in a tight race for the last playoff berth, D.C. will play seven consecutive matches at its new home on Buzzard Point, starting Wednesday against Minnesota. It will not have to travel again until the regular season finale Oct. 28 at Chicago.

That’s 49 uninterrupted days of sleeping in their own beds, avoiding airports and embracing a normal routine.

“You can look at it as a reward for what we went through early in the year,” Coach Ben Olsen said. “The payoff is capitalizing and winning games. Yes, we are at home, but we have to do something with it.”

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At or near the bottom of the standings for months, United (8-11-7, 31 points) has been doing good things since Wayne Rooney’s debut, Audi Field’s launch, Bill Hamid’s return and Luciano Acosta’s resurgence. The uncommon homestand offers a golden opportunity to make a definitive move in the Eastern Conference and overtake the Montreal Impact (11-14-3, 36) and New England Revolution (8-10-9, 33) for sixth place. D.C. will host Montreal on Sept. 29.

Typically, the league will not schedule more than three or four home games in a row. But because Audi Field was not going to open until July 14 — and because United wanted to reap as much revenue as possible from the 20,000-capacity venue — MLS granted D.C.’s request to backload its schedule with home dates.

To break up a set of 12 away matches, United played two off-site home games in the spring, a draw with Houston at Maryland SoccerPlex and a victory over Columbus at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. At Audi Field, D.C. is 6-2-0 with 17 goals scored (six by Acosta, four by Rooney) and resounding victories over two quality opponents, the Portland Timbers and Atlanta United.

“It’s all there for us,” Olsen said. “We just have to go get it. We need to be at our best for the next month.”

United will begin the push with another understaffed roster. Olsen, though, will have more options than he did Saturday for a 1-1 draw at New York City FC. D.C. was down five players on international duty and eight injured players, leaving four lightly used reserves on the bench instead of the usual seven reinforcements.

To United’s delight, midfielder Paul Arriola was released from U.S. national team duty Monday and forward Darren Mattocks returned as scheduled from a Jamaican assignment. (Over the weekend, Arriola had started against Brazil, while Mattocks scored twice against the Cayman Islands.)

Had Arriola remained away, Olsen said he was prepared to alter the lineup formation that had taken hold this summer, using three defenders instead of four and flooding the midfield.

The return of Arriola and Mattocks will help offset the continued absence of midfielders Junior Moreno (Venezuela) and Zoltan Stieber (Hungary), and reserve attacker Bruno Miranda (Bolivia). They’ll be back Sunday against the playoff-bound New York Red Bulls.

Olsen said Oniel Fisher, the starting right back most of the summer, might be able to play Wednesday after missing two games with a hamstring issue. However, midfielder Yamil Asad (nine goals, five assists) continues to struggle with an ankle injury and seems likely to miss a fourth straight match. Three reserve defenders are also battling ailments.

Minnesota, which is winless in five straight and almost out of the playoff race, is also shorthanded: Defenders Michael Boxall (25 starts) and Francisco Calvo (20) will serve yellow-card suspensions, while midfielders Rasmus Schuller (Finland) and Romario Ibarra (Ecuador) are completing international duty.

D.C. United vs. Minnesota United

Where: Audi Field.

When: Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.

TV: WJLA 24/7 News.

Records: D.C. 8-11-7, 31 points; Minnesota 9-15-2, 29 points.

D.C. probable starters: GK Bill Hamid; Ds Jalen Robinson, Kofi Opare, Steve Birnbaum, Joseph Mora; MFs Paul Arriola, Chris Durkin, Russell Canouse, Luciano Acosta, Ulises Segura; F Wayne Rooney.

Minnesota probable starters: GK Bobby Shuttleworth; Ds Wyatt Omsberg, Brent Kallman, Jerome Thiesson; MFs Eric Miller, Fernando Bob, Collen Warner, Collin Martin, Ibson; Fs Angelo Rodriguez, Darwin Quintero.

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Steven Goff has covered soccer for The Washington Post since the early 1990s. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the U.S. national teams. He has been on assignment at every World Cup since 1994, plus four Women's World Cups.

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