D.C. United will play its next three matches away, which, under better circumstances, would have afforded the luxury of playing more conservatively and accepting a draw or two.
United, however, has settled for a deluge of disappointing ties at home this summer, increasing the importance of winning on the road.
“The urgency,” Coach Ben Olsen said, “is raised in every aspect right now.”
With four draws and a victory in the past five home dates, United (8-5-8, 32 points) squandered a chance to break out from a crowded field in MLS’s Eastern Conference. Overall, D.C. is 5-2-5 at Buzzard Point, 20 of a possible 36 points after a 7-0-1 home surge to end the 2018 regular season.
To compensate — and to remain in the running for the conference’s top playoff seed amid a 1-2-6 overall rut — United will need to aim higher than normal on the road over the next 10 days at Cincinnati, Atlanta and Chicago.
The stretch will begin Thursday against expansion FC Cincinnati, which, despite a 5-13-5 record and minus-24 goal differential, has won more matches in the past 12 days (two) than United has in two months.
“We have given ourselves not much room to work with in terms of the playoffs because teams are picking up points and making it close,” captain Wayne Rooney said of a conference race that, entering Wednesday’s action, showed the top six teams separated by seven points. Seven will qualify for the playoffs in October.
“It’s something we are working on,” he added, "trying to turn these draws into wins.”
In three of the past four home matches, United has had to come from behind to salvage a point. The lone victory came on Rooney’s goal from beyond midfield against Orlando.
United has performed fairly well on the road: With a 3-3-3 record, it entered Wednesday as one of five teams in the 24-strong league without a losing mark. All three victories, however, came in the first two months of the campaign.
The next two matches will be played on artificial turf; United’s only other experience on synthetics came in May at New England.
With the unforgiving playing surfaces and the short turnaround before Sunday’s game against the reigning champions, Olsen said of his lineup decisions, “We will go all in on this one, and then we’ll adjust the Atlanta game if we need to.”
That probably means the same group and formation used in the 2-2 draw with New England on Friday. United was slow to embrace the system — three center backs, two overlapping defenders, no true playmaker — but found its way in a much-improved second half.
“I’d like to put together a complete performance, and I think the team would like to put together a complete performance,” Olsen said. “That has been a bit of an issue for us over the last two months, and that’s probably why we have so many ties.”
Olsen again will be without midfield maestro Luciano Acosta, who must serve the second of a two-game suspension stemming from a red card two weeks ago. He is expected to start Sunday.
Without Acosta, United will need to find ways to sustain possession and mount dangerous attacks through Paul Arriola and Lucas Rodriguez, who has posted just two goals and two assists in 19 starts.
“Guys like [Rodriguez] have to fill some of that void,” Olsen said.
Rooney is hopeful United’s missed opportunities at home will raise the urgency to succeed on the road.
“Sometimes the more difficult the games, we find maybe we have our best performances in terms of concentration and more discipline,” he said. “As I’ve said to the players, if we play with discipline and everyone getting at it for 90 minutes, we’re a very difficult team to beat. I feel maybe that hasn’t been there in a few of the games.”
D.C. United at FC Cincinnati
Where: Nippert Stadium.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday.
Records: United 8-5-8, 32 points; FCC 5-13-2, 17 points.
D.C. probable starters: GK Bill Hamid; Ds Leonardo Jara, Donovan Pines, Steve Birnbaum, Frederic Brillant, Joseph Mora; MF Russell Canouse, Junior Moreno, Paul Arriola, Lucas Rodriguez; F Wayne Rooney.
Cincinnati probable starters: GK Spencer Richey; Ds Alvas Powell, Justin Hoyte, Kendall Waston, Mathieu Deplagne; MF Emmanuel Ledesma, Leonardo Bertone, Caleb Stanko, Allan Cruz, Kekuta Manneh; F Rashawn Dally.