The MLS playoffs are less than two months away, and D.C. United is currently in sixth place in the Eastern Conference. If the playoffs started today, United would miss out for the fourth year in a row, ending a roller coaster ride of a season in total disappointment. 10 teams make the playoffs, and United is currently No. 13 in the MLS standings.
But there is still hope. Hope lies in the fact that D.C. has played at least two games fewer than four out of the five teams ahead of them in the East. Hope lies in the relatively easy schedule ahead of United in the coming weeks - they only have one match remaining against the top four teams in the league. And hope lies in the team's young roster continuing to strengthen.
This season began without the pressure of high expectations for United. Ben Olsen was rebuilding the roster by getting younger, smarter, and more aggressive. With fresh new faces like Dax McCarty, Charlie Davies, and Perry Kitchen on board, it was assumed that the team would need at least one full season to gel. We were hoping that United would compete for the final playoff spot in 2011, but would then be going into 2012 as one of the most cohesive units in MLS.
That changed though when McCarty was sent to New York in exchange for Dwayne De Rosario. The moment Olsen made this move, expectations were raised. Suddenly United looked like one of the best teams in the East. Suddenly United was a contender to not only make the playoffs, but also to reach the MLS Cup Final.
You don't acquire a two-time MLS Cup MVP and one of the league's best players over the last decade to be content with just barely missing the playoffs. Olsen is all in.
In just seven matches with D.C., De Rosario has scored six goals and tallied three assists. He's done his part. So has Brandon McDonald, a central defender acquired in a trade from the San Jose Earthquakes in the same week as the De Rosario deal. Since McDonald's arrival in early July, United has given up less than one goal per match on average. But the rest of the team has seen its productivity fade. Davies has all but disappeared. And while Andy Najar and Chris Pontius have continued their personal career-best seasons, the auxiliary offensive support hasn't been there for United. That needs to change, and there isn't much time to change it.
Fortunately, United has some scheduling advantages over their opponents in the final playoff push. United has exactly 10 games remaining in the MLS season, and has 31 points so far. Meanwhile, the New York Red Bulls may have 32 points and Thierry Henry on their side, but they have only eight matches remaining. The Houston Dynamo have 35 points but just seven matches remaining. There is still ample time for United to catch and pass these teams. They'll just have to play to their capabilities. And they'll have to do it at RFK Stadium.
United's 3-3-6 home record is by far the worst among playoff contenders in the Eastern Conference. Olsen and his team will have to find a way to fix this flaw quickly, especially with United hosting three home games in just eight days in the final week of the season that looms towards the end of October. The Chicago Fire, Portland Timbers, and Sporting Kansas City will all visit D.C. during that final stretch, a period (or exclamation point?) that is sure to make or break United's 2011 campaign.
Fortunately for United, a favorable schedule with multiple games in hand isn't all that United has going for them. Olsen and De Rosario have six MLS Cup trophies between them. Leading the young team towards another seems well within their potential.