Like other leagues during the coronavirus pandemic, MLS expanded the playoff field this year. The league was already quite generous, inviting 14 of 26 teams. This summer, it added four slots.
In the Eastern Conference, 10 of 14 teams will advance. In the Western Conference, it’s eight of 12 (all of which have been determined). Only Cincinnati has been eliminated from contention in the East, leaving five teams vying for the last two slots.
United’s path is treacherous: Aside from defeating Montreal (7-13-2 and on a three-game losing streak), D.C. will need two other teams to lose or draw.
All seven Eastern Conference matches will kick off at 3:40 p.m. Sunday, creating two hours of score-monitoring and fretting by fans and front-office officials, if not players and coaches. United interim coach Chad Ashton said he doesn’t plan to pay any attention to scores until his game ends.
“Our mind-set is our match — and win our match,” Ashton said. “Basically, that’s all that matters. If we don’t take care of ours, then nothing else matters.”
With 23 points apiece, Montreal and Chicago could end the drama by winning their matches and clinching the last two berths. The Fire is at home against New York City FC (36 points).
Atlanta (22) is next in the standings and will visit Columbus (38). Miami and D.C. are tied with 21 points, but the expansion side (6-13-3) is ahead on the first tiebreaker (most victories) and has the lighter task: a home game against Cincinnati (16 points).
“There are times [in the regular season] where you are probably satisfied with a draw,” Ashton said. “In this scenario, there is only one goal for us, and that’s to win the game and let everything else fall the way it falls.”
United has not fared well in such pressure situations recently.
This past summer, needing at least a draw against Montreal to advance to the knockout stage of the MLS is Back Tournament in Florida, D.C. lost, 1-0.
This weekend, though, United controls only one part of the puzzle.
“We have to believe it,” defender Frédéric Brillant said. “I strongly believe we have a chance to do it. We’ll give everything to win this game, and let’s see after that.”
Since the coaching change last month, United has played with greater belief and performed at a higher level despite an injury bug that plagued the team for months. Under Ashton, a longtime assistant who replaced Ben Olsen, D.C. is 3-2-1 — that’s more victories than it achieved in 16 matches under Olsen this season.
United will welcome reinforcements Sunday, most notably winger Paul Arriola, who will be in uniform for the first time since he tore his right ACL almost nine months ago in a preseason friendly. His previous competitive match was 12½ months ago.
Ashton plans to play Arriola for a portion of the second half.
“He has looked excellent in training,” Ashton said. “We’ll see how the game goes, but we fully expect him to play a role in the game and be a major factor in terms of the result of the game.”
Brillant will return from a yellow-card suspension. United missed him badly last Sunday, when it wasted a two-goal, first-half lead and conceded Teal Bunbury’s late winner in a 4-3 defeat at New England.
Attacker Julian Gressel will rejoin the squad after missing the New England match for the birth of his first child. Defenders Joseph Mora (facial laceration) and Chris Odoi-Atsem (concussion) are day-to-day, the team said.
Even if United does not extend its season, Ashton said he wants to see the team continue making strides after a rough few months.
“The guys have given me everything they possibly have,” Ashton said. “We’ve got to prove to ourselves that not only are we good enough to win these games, but we know we can win these games. It’s a confidence thing and a belief thing.”
Montreal Impact at D.C. United
When: 3:30 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Audi Field.
TV: WJLA 24/7 News.
Live stream: dcunited.com.
Records: Impact 7-13-2, 23 points; United 5-11-6, 21.
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