With 20 days between MLS matches, a pause created by a bye week and a rare weather postponement, D.C. United could practice only so many times before nerves frayed and the routine turned old. So Coach Ben Olsen granted a four-day break over Labor Day weekend.
Olsen took his family to Rehoboth Beach. Josh Wolff set up tents and dragged out coolers for two of his children’s soccer tournaments. Blake Brettschneider went home to Georgia. Others scattered around the country.
“No one even said bye to each other, they got out of Dodge and then came back with smiles on their faces, and that’s all that matters,” Olsen said this week after work resumed ahead of Saturday night’s match against Chivas USA in Carson, Calif. “We’ve gotten recharged as a group.”
Not everyone was inactive. Andy Najar, at long last, suited up for the Honduras national team. Bill Hamid visited Brussels with the U.S. squad after a week of training camp in California. Dwayne De Rosario was in Toronto and Puerto Rico for the Canadian 2014 World Cup effort.
Fully rested and mostly healthy, United (7-7-10) begins the push for the playoffs with 10 matches in the final six weeks. The club is within striking distance of cracking the top three in the Eastern Conference, a threshold that would secure an automatic berth in the 10-team postseason. It’s also on the fringe of earning one of four wild-card berths.
Having played the fewest games in the league, United controls its future.
“It’s a 10-game season for us,” Wolff said. “We’ve got some games in hand but we’ve got to win them. Ties won’t do us a lot of good at this point. We’ve got to catch up to some people and then separate ourselves from the pack.”
The long lull had both positive and negative ramifications. On the plus side, United caught its breath after a busy stretch and allowed minor ailments to heal. Conversely, the absence of serious competition disrupted the rhythm of the season.
To compensate, many regulars played in a reserve league match at Toronto last week.
Players on international duty benefited from rigorous workouts, and in the case of Najar and De Rosario, authentic games. Najar, 18, made his Honduras debut with appearances in friendlies against Colombia and Paraguay. De Rosario started in victories over St. Lucia and Puerto Rico.
As for the rest of the squad, the monotony of practice took a toll.
“We were getting a little uptight, getting cranky with each other,” midfielder Santino Quaranta said. “It was getting a little negative. This week has been great — the guys got away for a couple days, came back, it’s positive, it’s energetic again.”
It’s not all positive. Dejan Jakovic, who had been partnering with Brandon McDonald in central defense, injured a hamstring at D.C. practice and missed a Canada call-up. He traveled with United to California but seems more likely to be available for selection next Saturday at Seattle. Rookie Ethan White, who has started 14 league matches, is the top option to replace Jakovic.
Olsen’s most pressing decisions involve the frontline. Influential as a forward, De Rosario will probably remain there after beginning his United tenure midseason as an attacking midfielder. The other slot will go to one of Brettschneider; Wolff, who is recovering from a hip flexor; or Charlie Davies, who has faded from prominence after a bright start.
After scoring four times against Vancouver on Aug. 13, United managed only Wolff’s second-half equalizer at Chicago and was barely a threat in its most recent outing, a 1-0 loss at Kansas City on Aug. 20.
Since that defeat, “we were able to rest a lot of legs but maybe lost a little game-sharpness,” said midfielder Chris Pontius, who spent time in U.S. camp but didn’t play in the friendlies against Costa Rica and Belgium. “Hopefully our energy can make up for it.”
Between the layoff and the series of away matches, United won’t play at RFK Stadium again until Sept. 21 — a space of almost six weeks between home games. By then, Olsen hopes his club’s playoff pursuit gains clarity.
“Everybody needed to reset and appreciate what we do,” he said, “and the past few days, I’ve seen a team that is ready to make this push.”