In the past six months, D.C. United's once-sprawling route to the postseason has been whittled down to a simple path.
Seven weeks. Ten games. Playoffs or bust.
At 7-7-10, United are one point out of the final wild card slot — but with two matches in hand on New York, the current last team in. And they are four points behind Houston for third in the Eastern Conference and an opening-round bye, with three fewer games played.
Coming off back-to-back weeks off (one scheduled, one forced by Hurricane Irene), United are rested and well-positioned for a grueling stretch run that ultimately will determine if the club's yearlong rebuilding project truly has paid off.
"It is the goal," midfielder Chris Pontius said of making the playoffs for the first time since 2008. "When the season started, the goal was the playoffs. That was the one thing. Obviously, the ultimate goal would be getting to the MLS Cup final and winning that. But you can't do that unless you can make the playoffs."
With the summer friendly season over, D.C. long eliminated from the U.S. Open Cup and the club not invited to the CONCACAF Champions League, it's nothing but league fixtures until season's end.
First up: a trip to Carson, Calif., for Saturday's contest against Chivas USA (7-10-10), who also are battling for their postseason lives.
"From here on out, every team that's fighting for a playoff spot, every game, they mean a whole lot," midfielder Santino Quaranta said. "It's good for fans, for everybody watching these games because they're so intense."
One player who surely benefited from the recent layoff is striker Charlie Davies.
Although the 25-year-old leads United with eight goals, none has come since June 25 as nagging injuries have hampered Davies' playing time and effectiveness all summer.
In another positive development, midfielder Branko Boskovic has returned to light training in hopes he can possibly play again this season after undergoing ACL surgery in May.
It's not entirely good news on the D.C. injury front, however, as center back Dejan Jakovic suffered a hamstring strain last week while preparing for Canada national team duty.
The defender missed two months earlier this season with a similar injury. If Jakovic can't go against Chivas, the likely replacement will be Ethan White, a serviceable rookie with 14 starts.
"I'm always ready to step in if my name is called," White said. "So we'll see what happens when it's game time."
Furthermore, national team obligations have added miles to the legs of attackers Dwayne De Rosario (Canada) and Andy Najar (Honduras), who have played two international matches in the past week.
Pontius and goalkeeper Bill Hamid, meanwhile, have spent time traveling and training with the U.S. squad.
If all else fails, United will close the season with three home games in eight days in late October — a prime opportunity to quickly rack up whatever points the club may need to secure a playoff bid.
As such, one thing has become clear: Should D.C. miss out on the postseason, the players — of whom only 10 have seen playoff action — know they will only have themselves to blame.
"We control our own destiny, and that's what you ask as a team," Pontius said. "You want to put yourself in a position that you control your destiny and not other teams, and we're sitting in that position."
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