Through 19 seasons, D.C. United has stuffed the trophy case on RFK Stadium’s fourth-floor lobby with honors large and small. So when the club posts the best eight-game start in organization history, as United has done this spring with a 5-1-2 mark, it means something.
From the periphery, United should be accumulating points; the club finished first in the conference last year and returned almost all of the regulars. But because of several absences and the distraction of the CONCACAF Champions League before league play commenced, United tempered those early-season expectations.
Fabian Espindola, the team MVP last year, missed the first six matches on suspension.
Luis Silva, the co-leading scorer in 2014, did not play in the first three games and has yet to start after overcoming leg ailments.
Bill Hamid, MLS’s reigning goalkeeper of the year, sat out two matches with a thigh contusion.
Steve Birnbaum, a 2014 rookie of the year finalist, has been sidelined with an ankle injury since early in the third match.
Eddie Johnson, a former national team forward, is planning to retire because of a heart condition.
Markus Halsti, the most notable winter signing, has not played since late preseason because of a sprained knee.
Yet United has piled up the points by winning consecutive matches against Los Angeles and Orlando in stoppage time, by grinding out results and by sustaining a long-standing unbeaten mark at RFK Stadium (16 games across all competitions since last June 28). It has accomplished all of this despite imperfections: one of a possible six points against the rival Red Bulls, over-reliance on Hamid in several games, and the squandering of two second-half leads at home that resulted in draws.
From an aesthetic perspective, United deserves middling reviews. If the matches had been movies, you might have waited for them to appear on HBO in three months.
From a production standpoint, they’ve merited two thumbs up. United has also benefited from the schedule-making: seven of first 10 matches at home.
Eight games, though, is less than 25 percent of the 34-date campaign. A truer touchstone is 10 matches. Despite a legacy of success, United forged a winning record through 10 games in only eight of the previous 19 seasons.
D.C. is assured of accomplished that — and possibly much more — this spring. United would need to win the next two outings (Saturday against Sporting Kansas City and next Wednesday against Orlando City, both at RFK) to surpass the best 10-game start in club archives: 6-1-3 and 21 points in 2006.
In the long term, this team will have a hard time keeping pace with the ’06 squad, which was 13-1-6 through 20 matches.
Comparing this year’s opening to those in MLS’s very early years, when United won three of the first four league titles, is not so straight forward: From 1996 through 1999, shootouts broke ties after 90 minutes.
In 1998, United started 8-2. The years immediately before and after, it went 7-3. Those results, however, included several shootouts.
For comparison purposes, we have re-calibrated the records in 1997-99 by converting all shootouts, regardless whether they resulted in victories or defeats, into draws and applying the standard three points for a victory and one for a draw.
The best 10-game starts in United history and how those seasons turned out:
2006: 6-1-3, 21 points.
Supporters’ Shield, lost in conference finals
1997: 5-0-5, 20 points (7-3 with a 2-3 mark in five shootouts).
Supporters’ Shield, won MLS Cup
1998: 5-1-4, 19 points (8-2 with a 3-1 mark in four shootouts).
First in conference, lost in MLS Cup
2007: 5-3-2, 17 points.
Supporters’ Shield, lost in conference semifinals
In case you were wondering, the worst 10-game starts in club annals: 1-8-1 in 2013, 2-8-0 in 2010 and 2-7-1 in 2000. In all three cases, United failed to win 10 games and missed the playoffs.