D.C. United is enjoying its first two-game winning streak of the MLS season after a wildly inconsistent summer, a modest run that has moved it close to a second straight playoff berth. But two ominous trends will be hovering over the rejuvenated club tonight when it plays the first-place Columbus Crew.
United hasn't won on the road in four months. The Crew hasn't lost anywhere in three months.
"With our away record, I don't think the money is on us, but we're ready to go in there and change our luck and our mentality on the road," midfielder Ben Olsen said yesterday. "It's such a great challenge to go on the road after two wins to play a team on a roll like they are."
United (8-9-9) is 1-7-5 away from RFK Stadium, the only victory coming on an own goal during a 1-0 decision at New England on May 29.
The Crew (10-5-10) hasn't been overwhelming opponents during its club-record 13-game unbeaten streak, winning six and tying seven since a 2-1 loss to Colorado in late June. But it did become the first team to clinch a playoff spot and, with two more wins or ties, will equal the longest run without a loss in MLS history (Los Angeles had a 15-game streak bridging the 1997 and '98 seasons).
"We know it's not going to be easy," said United Coach Peter Nowak, whose team earned a 2-2 tie in Columbus last month and went 1-0-1 against the Crew at home. "We respect their streak, but I think at some point every team hits a dead end, and I think we're capable of stopping it."
United's entertaining play and efficient scoring in recent weeks -- along with a healthy roster for the first time this season -- has made it a fashionable pick to advance to MLS Cup in Carson, Calif., on Nov. 14. But the club has yet to resolve its road issues, and unless it wins tonight in Columbus or next week at New York/New Jersey before finishing the regular season with a pair of home games, United will probably have a hard time advancing very far in the postseason.
The first round of the playoffs is a two-game series with each team hosting a match, but the conference finals are one-game showdowns hosted by the higher seeds. At the moment, D.C. is in third place among five Eastern Conference teams vying for four playoff berths.
United has scored only 11 goals on the road (two of which were own goals), and after a promising start away from home early in the year, D.C. has been routed on several trips.
"This is a big test to show where we are," Olsen said. "Can we go in there and put in a third good performance and get a good result against a very good team right now? That will really show us if we are a championship-caliber team. We believe we are, but we have to prove it."
Columbus, which has gone 10-2-8 since an 0-3-2 start, is coming off a 4-2 victory over the second-place MetroStars in which forward Edson Buddle scored all four goals. The Crew's lineup has been bolstered by the addition of midfielder-defender Tony Sanneh, a 2002 U.S. World Cup star who signed with MLS after several years in Germany.
Nowak will likely retain the same starting lineup that produced 3-0 and 3-1 victories over Dallas and Chicago, respectively, the previous two weeks. Freddy Adu, Earnie Stewart, Brandon Prideaux, Ezra Hendrickson and Troy Perkins are expected to be the reserves on the 16-man game roster.
"We have a couple of guys who came on in the second half against Chicago and played pretty well, so I'm not sure what we're going to do," he said. "But I know we're going to be tested pretty good. It's a big game for us."
United Notes: Defender Mike Petke's wife, Kim, gave birth to the couple's first child, Dylan Michael, on Thursday night. Petke practiced yesterday but didn't travel with the rest of the team. He was expected to fly to Ohio later last night.