The Washington Post

D.C. United is on the verge of its first MLS playoff berth since 2007

Head Coach Ben Olsen was still playing for D.C. United the last time it made the playoffs in 2007. (Chris Young/Associated Press)

In the fall of 2007, Ben Olsen was two years from retiring as a player. Chris Pontius was a junior at UC Santa Barbara and Dejan Jakovic was studying in Alabama. Andy Najar had yet to join D.C. United’s youth academy. Bill Hamid had just enrolled.

It also marked United’s last appearance in the playoffs — an eternity for an organization that collected trophies like toys for much of its sterling existence.

“We can change it,” second-year midfielder Perry Kitchen said Friday. “We’re getting close.”

United (16-10-6, 54 points) needs just a draw Saturday night against the Columbus Crew at RFK Stadium to secure one of the Eastern Conference’s five berths. Because of a league break for World Cup qualifiers, United had to wait an additional week for this moment. But after five years, what’s an extra few days?

“I’m glad it is finally here,” said Olsen, now the team’s coach. “There is a great opportunity in front of us.”

With two matches remaining, Columbus (14-11-7, 49 points) is the only team below the playoff threshold that could catch United. Club officials anticipate the first sellout since RFK Stadium’s capacity was downsized to 19,647 at the start of the season.

United is unbeaten in five straight and has not lost at home since the opener, but a loss to the Crew would probably require a draw at Chicago (17-10-5, 56) next weekend.

A loss by Houston against Philadelphia on Saturday would also secure United’s spot, but the Dynamo (13-8-11, 50) is undefeated at home and the Union is out of contention.

“You can sense the excitement,” said Pontius, a 2009 draft pick and United’s longest-serving player. “Everyone realizes how big this is for us and the position we sit in right now. We want to take care of business now.”

United is in the awkward position of both retaining a playoff place and making a late push for a top-three finish. Six points separate first through fourth place. Five teams will advance, with top three avoiding the one-game first round. Sporting Kansas City (17-7-8, 59 points) is the front-runner but must visit New York (15-9-8, 53) on Saturday night.

United hasn’t been at its artistic best during the current surge, scoring just six times in the five outings and grinding out harrowing results. Then again, the club has been without its artist: Dwayne De Rosario, MLS’s most valuable player last year, who injured his left knee while on Canadian national team duty in early September.

Last year, when a key attacker (Pontius) was lost to injury, the club went 1-5-2 down the stretch. This fall, United has received exceptional goalkeeping from Hamid, who has posted shutouts in three of the past four matches, made fewer mistakes and generated just enough offense.

Although the club has fallen short of the playoffs since 2007, United has been close. In both 2008 and ’09, its future was determined on the last weekend of the regular season. In 2011, the second-to-last match marked the end.

Despite needing just one point this weekend, “we are not playing for a tie,” Pontius said. “We’ve been great at home [11-1-4] and it would be disgraceful to our fans to play for a tie. We’re definitely attacking. We would love to put the game away in the first half, but realistically it’s going to be tough.”

While United would accept a draw, the Crew can’t afford one.

“We definitely have to go out and attack more than we probably would away from home,” Crew midfielder Chris Birchall told the team’s Web site.

United is bracing for just that.

“It could get crazy as far them throwing numbers forward,” Kitchen said. “They might get a little unorthodox with guys playing out of position. That’s the tricky part. We can’t get too amped up. We have to find a balance and keep our composure.”

United notes: Jakovic is expected to retain his starting job in central defense after returning from Canadian national team duty. He did not play in an 8-1 loss at Honduras on Tuesday. . . . Reserve forward Hamdi Salihi, who scored a late game-winner at Toronto in United’s previous match, is back from a pair of Albanian World Cup qualifiers. He played 15 minutes in a 2-1 loss to Iceland and 45 in a 1-0 victory over Slovenia.

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.


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