With D.C. United mired in a four-game losing streak and coming off one of the most gut-wrenching collapses in MLS history, coach Ben Olsen's club sure hasn't looked like a playoff team lately.
Fighting for their postseason lives against the Chicago Fire on Saturday, United scored the go-ahead goal late, only to surrender two stoppage-time tallies and fall 2-1. As hard as it is to imagine D.C. salvaging its season after such a result, Olsen was right when he mused after the match, "The crazy thing about this is that we are still not out of it."
With two home games remaining, United (9-12-11) will secure a playoff berth with wins over the Portland Timbers (11-14-7) on Wednesday and Sporting Kansas City (12-9-12) on Saturday — but they almost certainly need New York (9-8-16) to fall to Philadelphia (11-7-15) in Thursday night's contest as well.
That, of course, is easier said than done, seeing as United have not won back-to-back league matches since June 2009. First up is a Portland side also on the outside looking in at the postseason and desperately in need of points.
"Both teams are going to be looking to win," Olsen said. "I don't think it's going to be a real defensive game. People have to score goals, and it should be an exciting a game. It should be a game that is high energy and high stakes."
United's stagnant attack of late is largely to blame for the team finding itself in these dire straits. The club has gone 1-5-1 since winger Chris Pontius (seven goals, five assists) broke his leg in early September, and his absence has allowed opponents to focus on shutting down Most Valuable Player candidate Dwayne De Rosario and reigning Rookie of the Year Andy Najar.
And the struggles of striker Charlie Davies have not helped matters. The 11-goal scorer, who says he is fully fit and healthy, has fallen out of favor with Olsen, logging just 11 minutes off the bench against Chicago and 14 minutes during a 2-1 loss at Vancouver on Oct. 12.
Although United now face a must-win match against Portland, forward Josh Wolff knows his squad can't force the issue offensively and "just throw caution to the wind."
"You start the game in a fashion where there's an understanding of what it's going to take over the course of 90 minutes," the D.C. captain said. "Hopefully, in the first 45 minutes, we do some things that generate some goals. And at that point, you have to manage the game."
United also have been plagued on the defensive end by a lack of continuity, as the club has used four different central defensive pairings in as many matches with Canada international Dejan Jakovic sidelined by a hamstring strain.
With Jakovic upgraded to probable, Olsen could start the Canada international alongside defensive staple Brandon McDonald in Wednesday's crucial encounter. Other candidates for the nod include versatile rookie Perry Kitchen and homegrown player Ethan White, as well as Daniel Woolard, the team's everyday left back.
"I think Benny has confidence in all of us, so whoever he puts back there, we just have to get the job done," McDonald said. "If you look back at these games, we could be in the playoffs right now. It's just been a bunch of games that toward the end, we're giving up these crucial points, crucial leads. So right now, I think it's a team effort where we need to collectively put together 90 minutes."
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