United (8-8-10) has remained in the hunt, thanks to its adequate results and its competitors’ shared mediocrity. But the club’s incapacity to win consecutive matches has left it on the edge with 4½ weeks left in the regular season.
“It’s going to be a level of urgency every game from here on out,” Coach Ben Olsen said Tuesday. “You see what happens if you win or lose each weekend. You’re up two spots or down two spots. It’s a pretty wild race right now.”
Amid the conference chaos, two victories in a row would do wonders, but even that modest objective has been out of United’s reach. The last time D.C. won consecutive regular season matches was June 2009. Since then, United has failed 18 times to string together victories — the latest coming Saturday when a 3-0 loss to the Seattle Sounders followed a 3-0 victory at Chivas USA.
“You can feel the urgency but you can also feel the sense that we can do it,” goalkeeper Bill Hamid said. “We have the ability to make the playoffs. It’s right there; it’s in our grasp.”
United is in sixth place in the nine-team conference but just five points out of the third slot — the threshold to earn an automatic playoff berth — and seven behind first-place Columbus (11-10-8, 41 points). Stuffed between the Crew and United are Sporting Kansas City (10-9-10, 40), Philadelphia Union (9-7-12, 39), Houston Dynamo (9-9-12, 39) and New York Red Bulls (7-6-15, 36).
The Chicago Fire and Toronto FC (30 points apiece) remain in the chase.
United also is in contention for one of the four wild-card slots, awarded to teams regardless of conference affiliation. At the moment, D.C. is two points off the pace.
Having played at least two fewer matches than all of its primary rivals, United can make up ground in the four midweek games over the next five weeks. Defeating Chivas (four straight losses) is essential.
“We have a lot of big opportunities,” captain Josh Wolff said, “and we have to make the most of it.”
After a convincing victory over Chivas 11 days ago in Carson, Calif., United is proceeding with confidence and caution.
“It’s going to be a totally different team, and in their mind, they still think they can [earn] a playoff berth,” midfielder Dwayne De Rosario said. “We have to come out with the mentality that we’re willing to do whatever it takes and put our foot in that playoff door.”
Despite the short turnaround, United is relatively fresh. Both Hamid (hamstring) and midfielder Santino Quaranta (quadriceps) seem likely to return after missing a game. With the outcome in Seattle all but settled early in the second half, Olsen began looking ahead to the Chivas game by removing De Rosario and leading scorer Charlie Davies.
Davies recorded a hat trick in the first meeting with Chivas, but Chris Pontius, the set-up man on each goal, is no longer available after fracturing his right leg. On Saturday, in its first outing without Pontius, United’s attack sputtered and the frontline partnership of Davies and Joseph Ngwenya was a bust.
On Wednesday, Olsen might pair Wolff with Davies. Or play De Rosario up front. Or turn to rookie Blake Brettschneider.
“At this point, whoever Benny decides to play, it needs to work. There’s no time to gel,” said Davies, whose 11 goals are tied for third in MLS. “We’ve all played with each other at some point during the season. It shouldn’t be difficult. We’ve got to score goals, we’ve got to win. You’ve got to do whatever it takes.”
United note: Center back Dejan Jakovic, who suffered a setback in his rehabilitation from a hamstring injury, might not return until next week. “I don’t want to force anything,” he said. “I want to come back fully ready to go.”