Zoltan Stieber returned from Budapest via Munich. Bruno Miranda had been in Saudi Arabia. Paul Arriola was excused from an assignment in Nashville.
Junior Moreno visited Panama City, while Darren Mattocks scored twice in Jamaica.
Passports stored and international soccer duty served, five D.C. United players trickled back to their playoff-chasing MLS club this past week after wearing national colors.
Undermanned for two matches, the first of which featured starters out of position and a skeleton bench, Coach Ben Olsen will have almost the entire roster at his disposal for Sunday afternoon’s showdown against the New York Red Bulls at Audi Field.
Because of a backloaded home calendar, United had to play two matches during the recent FIFA fixture window, a nine-day period when most first-division leagues around the world go dark to avoid scheduling conflicts and player absences while national teams are active. D.C. will face a similar predicament in mid-October.
With a shorthanded squad, United (9-11-7) earned a 1-1 draw at New York City FC last weekend and came back to defeat visiting Minnesota, 2-1, on Wednesday.
All five summoned for international duty missed the New York trip, but Arriola and Mattocks returned for the latter game. Arriola played 84 minutes, and Mattocks, 11 minutes after entering as a substitute in the second half, scored the go-ahead goal.
“It’s nice to be home,” Arriola said of the whirlwind.
At least he was never more than a 90-minute flight away. Most of the others traveled long distances to rejoin their full-time employer and re-engage in a late-season push for the last playoff berth in MLS’s Eastern Conference.
With six weeks left in the regular season, United sits five points behind the Montreal Impact and has two games in hand. The New England Revolution and Toronto FC are also in contention.
In assessing whether the returnees will figure into weekend plans, Olsen said: “you ask the player to be honest with you, which is hard to do because everyone wants to play. But they know themselves better than we know them. As you create relationships and know them a little more, you know how they react coming off an international week.”
This isn’t anything new for the eighth-year coach, but each window and each player is different. He takes into account, among other things, playing time while away, travel demands and time zones.
In all likelihood, Arriola and Moreno will start Sunday, Mattocks will reprise his super-sub role and Miranda, a lightly used reserve, might remain in street clothes. Stieber could start or come off the bench.
Stieber started in Hungary’s 1-0 defeat at Finland on Sept. 8 but did not play in Tuesday’s 2-1 home victory over Greece on Tuesday.
In his first full MLS season after nine pro years in Europe, the midfielder has had to adapt to transatlantic shuttles in order to continue serving his national team.
“You can’t really say you’re used to it,” he said. “It’s a difficult situation to travel so much and then have another game again. I know what to expect now, but it is still not easy.”
Stieber landed at Dulles Airport around the time of United’s kickoff Wednesday and, on the ride home, watched the match on his phone. He rejoined the team Thursday for a light workout and returned to the regular routine Friday.
Moreno logged 90 minutes for Venezuela against Colombia in Miami and 86 at Panama. Miranda did not play in Bolivia’s friendly at Saudi Arabia.
After not playing against Ecuador and posting two goals against the Cayman Islands, Mattocks returned to Washington on Tuesday evening and was in uniform 24 hours later. His goal in the 69th minute was a team-best 10th of the season.
Arriola’s situation was the most fluid. He started the Americans’ 2-0 defeat to Brazil on Sept. 7 in East Rutherford, N.J., and accompanied the squad to Nashville. With no certainty, however, that the winger would play against Mexico on Tuesday, U.S. interim coach Dave Sarachan offered him the option of rejoining United, the only team with both a U.S. player and a mid-week match.
“I felt a sense of responsibility and duty to come back,” Arriola said. “I am big about representing your country, but in the end, it made the most sense.”
United needed him badly. With Stieber in Europe and Yamil Asad injured, Olsen had no natural options on the right flank. In the New York City FC game, central midfielder Ian Harkes started on the wing and four players with few contributions this year comprised the bench. (There are usually seven available subs.)
“The guys have to switch their brains quickly to come back focused and understand the urgency,” Olsen said of his jet-setting crew. “Some come back and it takes them a week to readjust.
“We have a lot of different ways we can go about this game. We are still in the lab phase.”
United notes: Goalkeeper Bill Hamid, who remained in Wednesday’s match despite needing knee treatment in the second half, skipped training Friday but should be available Sunday, Olsen said. … Asad, a nine-goal scorer who has missed four matches because of an ankle injury, has returned to regular training and might suit up against the Red Bulls.
D.C. United vs. New York Red Bulls
Where: Audi Field.
When: Sunday, 1 p.m. TV: ESPN.
Records: D.C. 9-11-7, 34 points; New York 17-7-4, 55 points.
D.C. probable starters: GK Bill Hamid; Ds Oniel Fisher, Kofi Opare, Steve Birnbaum, Joseph Mora; MFs Paul Arriola, Junior Moreno, Russell Canouse, Luciano Acosta, Ulises Segura; F Wayne Rooney.
N.Y. probable starters: GK Luis Robles; Ds Michael Murillo, Aaron Long, Tim Parker, Kemar Lawrence; MFs Marc Rzatkowski, Sean Davis, Tyler Adams, Kaku, Daniel Royer; Fs Bradley Wright-Phillips.