The schedule says there are three games left in D.C. United's season, but the team knows it's actually one.
Injury-ravaged United, which is winless in nine outings (0-7-2) in all competitions, desperately needs a victory Sunday over the Houston Dynamo (11-5-10, 43 points) to keep its playoff hopes viable.
United (10-14-3, 33), which hasn't missed the postseason since 2002, can't clinch a playoff berth or be eliminated this weekend, but a loss would leave the team in a deep hole.
"It's a must-win game, and we have to go in with a mentality that there is everything on the line," United defender Bryan Namoff said.
The odds are stacked against United. The club is 0-4-2 in league games since beating Colorado 3-0 on Aug. 23. The team last won on the road Aug. 16 in a 1-0 victory over Chicago.
However, United tied Saprissa 2-2 in Costa Rica on Thursday in the CONCACAF Champions League, which gives the team confidence going into Sunday's game.
"We have to start believing in ourselves," United coach Tom Soehn said. "Winning is a habit, but so is losing, and we have to break the habit now."
United can still sneak into the postseason, but it will take a Herculean effort starting against two-time defending MLS champion Houston. The Dynamo haven't lost a league game in five matches (3-0-2) and clinched a playoff berth last week with a 3-1 win over Colorado.
United has lost twice to Houston this year. But the Dynamo will be without top scorer Brian Ching (12 goals) on Sunday. The forward is on duty with the U.S. national team, which played Cuba on Saturday night at RFK Stadium.
There is little separating MLS teams this season. Entering this weekend's games, every club still had a chance to earn a playoff berth.
United sits behind New York, Real Salt Lake, Colorado, Kansas City and FC Dallas in the pecking order for a wild card berth, but only two points separated the teams entering Saturday.
United goes to the Houston depleted of key offensive players. Midfielder Fred (hamstring) and Marcelo Gallardo (knee) are out for the season. Jaime Moreno (10 goals) is serving a two-game suspension for throwing an elbow Sept. 28 at FC Dallas. Luciano Emilio (11 goals), who's battling a hamstring injury, will be a game-time decision.
"We are still in [the playoff hunt], so we can't give up," defender Devon McTavish said. "We need to start over with three games left."
Last year, United posted the best regular-season record to claim the Supporters' Shield. Faced with a crowded schedule in five competitions and key players injured this season, however, United may have to settle for its U.S. Open Cup victory, and prepare for next year.
"The past couple of years, we had already secured a playoff spot [by now]," Namoff said. "There was that comfort level. Now there is just a feeling of uneasiness."