“We have to win the next three games – that’s the bottom line,” said United’s Dwayne De Rosario, right. (Ned Dishman/GETTY IMAGES)

D.C. United’s lead-up to the decisive stretch of the regular season probably couldn’t have gone any worse:

A loss to lowly Vancouver on Wednesday night followed by a 5:15 a.m. hotel departure. A flight connection through Phoenix instead of Toronto because of Air Canada labor issues and an evening arrival in Washington. A Friday morning practice on a rain-soaked field.

Now comes the real stressful part: three must-win games at home over eight days, starting Saturday evening against the Chicago Fire, to earn an MLS playoff berth for the first time since 2007.

Despite a season-long three-game losing streak, United (9-11-11) has managed to stay within five points of a wild-card position and six points of an Eastern Conference automatic slot.

“Somehow we’re in this thing,” Coach Ben Olsen said. “We’ve had results not going our way as of late, but we’re still here. And we deserve to be here. . . . I’m excited for them to experience this stretch. I hope we realize what it takes to take it up a notch to succeed.”

Winning the final three games would guarantee passage. United’s advantage is that it has played one fewer game, the result of a rare weather-related postponement in August that pushed Portland’s visit to next Wednesday. The disadvantage: There is no room for error with such a congested schedule.

“We have to win the next three games — that’s the bottom line,” midfielder-forward Dwayne De Rosario said. “We have to set the tone and play like a team that is hungry and is desperate to make the playoffs.”

Despite playing Wednesday and enduring arduous travel, United is relatively fresh. De Rosario, MLS’s co-leading scorer with 14 goals, returned to Washington instead of joining the team in Vancouver after playing for Canada’s national team in a World Cup qualifier Tuesday in Toronto.

“It probably worked out for the best that we didn’t have to make any decisions about flying him in across country and pushing him, so he can be ready for the grind,” Olsen said.

Other regulars are rested: Midfielder Clyde Simms and defender Ethan White didn’t play against Vancouver and forward Charlie Davies and midfielder Santino Quaranta made second-half appearances.

In addition, central defender Dejan Jakovic might be available for the first time since injuring a hamstring in August and subsequent setbacks in his comeback bid. His availability is likely to hinge on a pregame test, he said.

United needs a defensive upgrade after conceding goals in the first minute of each half Wednesday. “That’s stuff you learn when you’re 10 years old — you start halves and you end halves well,” Quaranta said after the match. “To come out and have this happen 30 seconds in is silly.”

The attack has also stumbled of late, failing to score in the run of play in the past two matches and having to rely on set pieces for both goals.

Meantime, the pressure to win Saturday — and then Wednesday against the Timbers and next weekend vs. Sporting Kansas City — is mounting.

“I think it only helps, really,” Olsen said. “We can start playing desperate, playing like this is the last game of our season. We should’ve been playing desperate for a month now, but at times, we haven’t. Again, we’re here. I believe in this group and hope that we can put a good performance in and then carry it on through the week.”

United notes: Richie Williams, the starting defensive midfielder on United’s first three MLS championship squads, will be honored at halftime as part of his induction into the club’s Hall of Tradition. He joins former players Marco Etcheverry, Jeff Agoos, John Harkes, Eddie Pope and Raul Diaz Arce. . . .

Chicago, which was essentially eliminated from playoff contention with a 2-1 loss to Dallas on Wednesday, is without suspended starters Pavel Pardo (red card), Cory Gibbs and Dan Gargan (yellow card accumulation).