D.C. United has fallen into a rut over the past few months. But as the MLS regular season creeps toward its end and losses become the club’s most frequent result, the need to pick up points can only increase in importance, no matter the circumstance.
The scenario this weekend, though, combines an array of factors that make it all the more daunting: United on Saturday will face the Philadelphia Union, the second-place team in the Eastern Conference. The game is on the road. United will play with just three days of rest following an emotional and physical loss Wednesday night. Captain Wayne Rooney will miss the match thanks to a red-card suspension. But this is still a game from which United wants — and needs — a positive result because the club’s chances for finding a turning point to its season are running out.
“You can change the course of a season in a game,” Coach Ben Olsen said. “It happens. It can happen really quickly.”
United (10-9-9, 39 points) still sits five points above the playoff threshold, but it’s flirting with the chance to host a postseason game. While the top seed in each conference earns a first-round bye, the No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 teams open the MLS Cup playoffs at home. With United’s loss Wednesday against the New York Red Bulls, it fell to fifth place in the East.
Recent additions have helped the roster. But after United’s surge through the back half of last year’s slate, the club has experienced the opposite this year, slipping after a promising start to the 2019 season. United has won just three games since mid-May. Before that point, United won seven of its first 12 games, going 7-3-2. Winger Paul Arriola called it a “pretty disappointing past few months.”
Earlier in the summer, even after the start of this stretch with few wins, the club at least managed to escape with some draws. Heading into the game against the Union, United has lost four of its past six games.
When asked about a sense of urgency, Olsen said he felt that “six weeks ago and then six weeks before that and then in Clearwater” during preseason training camp.
“There's always urgency, man,” Olsen said, before adding that “down the stretch, it becomes a little bit more crucial to pick up points, especially in the spot we're in.”
United played the Union just two weeks ago, a 5-1 thrashing that tied the club’s largest margin of defeat this season. United had to play down a man, though, for much of the game because midfielder Junior Moreno was shown a straight red card in the 40th minute. Four of Philadelphia’s goals came after that.
Even though United is still struggling, it will be a somewhat different group of players in this edition of the matchup. United added striker Ola Kamara, midfielder Felipe Martins and winger Emmanuel Boateng during the recent transfer window. Martins has started every game since he joined the club, filling the void created by injuries at his position. Kamara impressed in about 70 minutes against New York and scored United’s lone goal, a bending strike from just outside the penalty box.
Kamara said he wanted to play the entire game, but Olsen decided to take him out to be cautious because Kamara hadn’t logged many 90-minute games lately. Olsen had hoped the game against New York would provide an opportunity for the Rooney-Kamara attacking partnership to find rhythm, but their time on the field together was limited thanks to Rooney’s red card that also will keep him out against Philadelphia.
Despite a controversial go-ahead penalty kick that prompted players to call the loss against New York “disappointing” and “unlucky,” United showed some promise in how the players responded when down a man. Late in the first half, New York’s Amro Tarek picked up his second yellow card, creating a 10-on-10 scenario for the final 45 minutes of play. United had opportunities to equalize throughout the second half, including Lucas Rodríguez’s shot deep into stoppage time that goalkeeper Luis Robles managed to save.
“We had a couple chances and definitely made the game interesting,” Arriola said. “Should have probably put one or two away. But that's how it is. And that's how our season’s been so far.”
The quick turnaround, particularly after a game in which the team played down a man for a long stretch, could spark changes in the lineup against Philadelphia, Olsen said. But whichever players start Saturday, they will have to take the performance from three days earlier and improve.
“We’ve got to have guys make sure they show up each game and play at the level that they can,” Olsen said. “We’ve got to finish off plays. I think there’s a group in there that can do it. But it’s got to happen soon.”