D.C. United rarely has fielded its strongest team this season. At least 11 key players have missed games with injuries.
"In our league it is such a big difference between being healthy and not healthy," United president Kevin Payne said. "I will say if Chelsea had eight or nine of their full-roster players injured at any given time - if they had half of their salary budget missing - they would have a tough time competing. So it's that much harder for us."
United (10-12-3, 33 points) last fielded its strongest roster June 29, when it downed the Los Angeles Galaxy 4-1.
"People don't know who we are because they haven't seen our full squad out there," defender Marc Burch said.
When United last won the MLS Cup in 2004, 25 players saw first-team action. So far this season, United has used 29 players in league play with five games remaining.
"If the Columbus Crew was in this boat right now, they'd probably feel OK because they haven't suffered a serious injury except now. [Guillermo Barros] Schelotto has missed a couple of games," Payne said.
Injuries have forced United to field many of its second-tier players in key games.
"I'm proud of the way our young guys fought, but some are not quite ready for that stage," Payne said. "You want to have one of those guys on the field at a time supported by veterans. The problem is when you have three or four or five of them on the field at one time and there's no one to lead."
Columbus (14-6-5, 47 points) became the first team this season to clinch a playoff berth last weekend.
The biggest loss for United has been designated player Marcelo Gallardo (abductor strain), who has played 105 minutes since June 29. United went 9-7-3 with Gallardo on the field but has struggled (7-11-1) without him.
"It's been a little bit of a perfect storm," Payne said.
Gallardo has been recuperating in Argentina for the last two weeks but is expected to return to the club Sunday. The midfielder may play against Cruz Azul in the CONCACAF Champions League at RFK Stadium on Wednesday.
With all the injuries, what hasn't helped is the increased number of games United has played in 2008. United's match at FC Dallas on Sunday marks its 39th this year. When the postseason arrives, United, which holds the last playoff spot, will have played in 47 games in five competitions. When United won the MLS Cup in 2004, it played 31 competitive games before entering the playoffs.
"When everybody is healthy, we will have some very real threats that will be coming in that can change the game," United coach Tom Soehn said.