Ben Olsen is the head coach of an MLS club entrenched in a feverish playoff race. He is also a political junkie. Wednesday’s television options were a league match involving one of his competitors and the first presidential debate.
What to choose, the direction of the country or the direction of the Eastern Conference?
“I watched the debate,” D.C. United’s leader said.
It’s not that Olsen doesn’t care about results impacting his club’s status. He does. After all, just three weeks remain in the regular season and United is on the verge of its first playoff appearance in five years.
But Olsen and his clan are also secure in the fact that they control their own future and, although Chicago’s home defeat to struggling Philadelphia on Wednesday was welcome news, it hasn’t change United’s mind-set.
“The impact on each game now is greater,” he said, “but ultimately it is still about us taking care of what we need to do.”
He then unintentionally invoked a political catchphrase.
“We can’t be a team of hope; we have to be a team that is mentally committed to getting the job done ourselves. We have more of that mentality now than we did last year [when the team faded down the stretch]. We were always hoping to get in. This year there is still hope but there’s a different mentality, and I am hoping that part drives us through the next couple of games.”
With an road victory Saturday afternoon against lowly Toronto FC and a loss by Columbus to Eastern-leading Kansas City on Sunday, United (15-10-6, 51 points) would essentially secure a playoff berth with two games to spare.
Under that scenario, Columbus (14-11-6, 48) would fall six points behind. Even if the Crew won its last two games, including Oct. 20 at RFK Stadium, and United dropped both of its outings, D.C. is almost certain to maintain comfortable leads in each of the first two tiebreakers (goals scored and goal difference).
United, though, is not chasing just a final playoff slot. Five points separate second place from sixth, with the top five clubs headed for postseason. If the results fall in its favor this weekend, D.C. could move into a three-way tie for second place with Chicago and New York, clubs that have 53 points apiece and play each other Saturday.
The players echoed Olsen’s thoughts about the final stretch.
“We’ve emphasized doing our thing and worrying about our matches,” goalkeeper Bill Hamid said. “We are in a position that, if we take care of our matches, we will achieve our goals. It’s in our hands. . . . It’s the closest we’ve been to the playoffs. Everyone wants this really bad right now.”
Since 2011 league MVP Dwayne De Rosario was lost for the season with a knee injury, United is unbeaten in four straight. Although each result came against a non-contending opponent, United did earn four of a possible six away points after losing six in a row on the road.
Toronto (5-19-7) has the fewest points in MLS (22), conceded the most goals (59) and is 0-8-3 in the past 11 league matches. The club’s most important players, Danny Koevermans and Torsten Frings, are out for the season with injuries.
“We’ve definitely got to come out strong,” United defender Dejan Jakovic said. “It’s a [Toronto] team that has nothing to lose, and if you put them away early, they are going to be scattered, they are going to be all over the place. Obviously this game means a lot more to us than them, and we’ve got to take advantage of that.”