Ben Olsen would be perfectly justified gushing about D.C. United’s achievements this season. After all, his club is on pace to record the greatest turnaround in MLS history and make the playoffs for just the second time in seven campaigns.
United is in the hunt for the Supporters’ Shield, awarded to the overall points leader, despite the year-long absence of the longest-serving player, subpar production from its marquee signing, the lack of a central playmaker and an eclectic brew of discarded veterans and unrefined prospects.
It’s tempting to boast, but Olsen will pass.
“I hesitate to talk that positive about our group right now because we haven’t done anything,” he said ahead of Wednesday’s match against Toronto FC at RFK Stadium. “The goal is not met yet. We’ve got a long way to go.”
They have made substantial gains, however, rising from the wreckage of a three-win season — the fewest in MLS’s 18 years — to grasp second place in the Eastern Conference beyond the midway point of the season. United (10-5-4) is four points behind reigning champion Sporting Kansas City but has played two fewer matches.
New York executed the biggest one-year recovery in MLS annals. It improved by 39 points in 32-game seasons from 1999 to 2000. San Jose posted a 28-point upgrade on a 34-game calendar two years ago. At the current rate during the 34-match season, United would finish with 60 points — 44 more than last year.
“We can’t continue looking at the standings; we’ve just got to continue seeing progress every day,” goalkeeper Bill Hamid said. “It doesn’t have to be massive progress. We’re not going to be the best team in the world overnight, but as long as we see progress, by the time grind-time comes, we will be okay.”
United has reached grind-time. With eight matches over 33 days, including the start of international play in the CONCACAF Champions League, D.C. is entering its busiest — and most telling — stretch.
Is United for real?
“This is the time of the year when teams that are going to do well show themselves,” captain Bobby Boswell said. “We have to make sure we don’t drop off.”
So far, United has eased any concerns. It has won three consecutive matches and four of five. It has won three straight on the road after failing to win an away game all last year.
With leading scorer Fabian Espindola sidelined for several weeks, Luis Silva has risen to the occasion. With veteran center back Jeff Parke out much of the summer, second overall draft pick Steve Birnbaum has made a mostly seamless transition.
Espindola will return soon from a sprained knee, but Parke is out indefinitely with migraines after recovering from a foot ailment. United has been without Chris Pontius, a 2012 MLS Best XI performer, all season and has received just three goals — two penalty kicks — from Eddie Johnson, the club’s highest-paid player.
After an offseason roster makeover, United officials tempered early-season expectations. With a dozen new players, there was a fear it could have blown up in Olsen’s face.
“It could still blow up in my face,” Olsen said with a grin. “There were a lot of changes, but when we drew this up and looked at our group, there were days in the offseason where we were extremely excited.”
United, though, lost the first two matches by shutouts.
“The biggest thing was, how quickly we could get it together?” Boswell said. “You watch that first game and then that second game, you’re thinking, ‘Okay, what is going on?’ ”
United has not lost consecutive games since.
“I have felt we’ve been for real from the very start,” said midfielder Davy Arnaud, 34, in his first season in Washington and 13th in MLS. “I got that sense right away and maybe other people are starting to see it now. We’ve had a belief that hasn’t changed.”
Arnaud was among at least six league veterans who needed fresh starts — “a bunch of guys who have fallen off the trees, so to speak,” Olsen said. “For one reason or another, they weren’t wanted. They have something to prove.”
Blended with a young core — all-star Hamid, Silva, Perry Kitchen, Nick DeLeon and Chris Korb — United has found a winning formula.
“We’ve had a good run and put ourselves in a good spot, but hopefully we are not patting ourselves on the back,” Olsen said. “Our only focus is putting ourselves in the postseason.”
Notes: In need of depth at center back, United acquired Kofi Opare, 23, plus a 2015 second-round draft pick, from the Los Angeles Galaxy. He has started five matches this season. United agreed to swap positions in the MLS allocation order, which is used for some U.S. national team players signing with the league. The Galaxy is now No. 3, United No. 11. . . .
Lee Ji Ke, a South Korean left back from Japanese club Shimizu S-Pulse, began a tryout this week. . . .
The Washington Spirit, locked in the National Women’s Soccer League playoff chase with four matches remaining, will host second-place FC Kansas City (11-5-4) on Wednesday night at Maryland SoccerPlex. The Spirit (8-8-4) holds the fourth and final postseason berth.