D.C. United's 2011 campaign has been an up-and-down ride, to say the least.
For every confidence-inducing breakthrough, a reality check has been waiting around the corner. Are they dark-horse MLS Cup contenders or maddening pretenders too erratic for their own good? The answer, frankly, depends on the night.
Speaking to that inconsistency, United have compiled a 9-10-11 record while managing to not win back-to-back contests all year. But with four matches remaining, the results have left D.C. just five points behind New York and Houston for the final postseason berth with two games in hand.
United, therefore, can carve a path to the playoffs without relying on any help from around the league.
"We control our own destiny, but those are just words," captain Josh Wolff said. "You have to go out and demand it from one another and, at the end of the day, get the result that's required. That's all that matters right now. Whether it's young guys or older guys, everybody has to be pulling in the same direction."
Starting with Wednesday's match at the Vancouver Whitecaps (5-16-10), United will play their final four games in just 11 days. Although the team is coming off a nine-day layoff heading into the stretch, health remains a concern with center back Dejan Jakovic struggling to return from a hamstring strain. Defender Ethan White, however, is listed as probable after missing time with an MCL sprain.
International obligations also have taken their toll on United. Most Valuable Player candidate Dwayne De Rosario seems unlikely to play Wednesday after representing the Canada national team in a World Cup qualifier Tuesday in Toronto. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid, on the other hand, is set to start after being excused from U.S. national team duty to play against the Whitecaps.
No matter the circumstances heading in, coach Ben Olsen knows the rapid-fire nature of United's upcoming fixtures means his club's depth will be tested.
"It's going to take more than 11 guys, that's for sure," Olsen said. "We're going to need 14, 15, 16 guys over this stretch that all go in and help us."
On the plus side for United, Wednesday's trip to Vancouver is D.C.'s last road game of the season. And it comes against an expansion side long eliminated from playoff contention that United thrashed 4-0 at RFK Stadium in August.
The Whitecaps, though, have showed signs of life lately. After playing most of their home matches at a temporary facility, Vancouver moved into renovated BC Place earlier this month and last week notched a 3-0 win there over MLS power Real Salt Lake.
"That's always a dangerous thing when you're playing a team that's out of it," Olsen said. "Some teams have nothing to lose. They've got a brand new stadium that I know has created a huge buzz. So they're going to be flying and probably motivated from what happened here."
Once United return from the Pacific Northwest, they will close the season with a home stand against three opponents also fighting to secure playoff berths: the Chicago Fire (7-8-16), Portland Timbers (11-13-7) and Sporting Kansas City (11-9-12).
It's an enviable schedule that gives D.C. ample opportunity to make up ground at RFK Stadium while avoiding the league heavyweights. But that slate also means United's final opponents will have just as much riding on the stretch run as they do.
"I think it's going to create a playoff atmosphere for sure," veteran midfielder Clyde Simms said. "If we get out of these four games and make the playoffs, I think we'll have a little bit of a jump on some other teams. It's almost like the playoffs are starting a little early for us."
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