Ben Olsen eyes a D.C. United rise in Eastern Conference

Game against Red Bulls is an important one

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Ben Olsen isn’t dwelling on D.C. United’s drop from first to fifth in the Eastern Conference in the past two months. As long as that path to the playoffs remains clear, the coach knows his club still can make plenty of noise.

United (12-9-4, 40 points) are clinging to the final playoff slot, holding off the surging Montreal Impact (12-13-3, 39) and Columbus Crew (10-8-6, 36). But in the congested conference, D.C. is just seven points out of first place.

“If you gave me the scenario we’re in at the beginning of the season, I think I’d be OK with it,” Olsen said. “I think we’re about where we are as a group. Now it’s our job to finish strong and see the games out and take care of what we can and get into the playoffs.”

One team United are looking up at is the New York Red Bulls (13-7-6, 45), their opponent Wednesday at RFK Stadium. In addition to being a crucial clash for playoff positioning, the contest also will be the rubber match in the clubs’ Atlantic Cup rivalry series after United thrashed New York 4-1 in April and the Red Bulls dropped D.C. 3-2 in June.

“There’s a lot on the line — everyone knows that,” midfielder-forward Chris Pontius said. “New York is a team that’s ahead of us in the standings. It’s no secret.”

To United, the Red Bulls will look a bit different this time. In July, New York traded for midfielder-forward Sebastien Le Toux, a 2010 MLS Best XI selection, then added high-profile Australian playmaker Tim Cahill on a transfer from English side Everton FC.

The marquee acquisitions have reinforced a loaded attack that already featured the prolific forward partnership of Kenny Cooper (14 goals) and French legend Thierry Henry (11 goals, seven assists).

“We know what they’ve got over there,” center back Brandon McDonald said. “How they’re putting all of that on salary, it blows my mind. But it’s one of those things where we just have to come out and play our own game and focus on what we can do.”

Serving as the link between the New York back line and that attack is a familiar face to United: holding midfielder Dax McCarty, who is enjoying a career year after being traded from D.C. last summer in the deal that brought Dwayne De Rosario to the nation’s capital.

As Pontius noted, “He’s been the consistent player they’ve needed him to be in the middle of the field.”

For United, the match will be their fourth in a grueling stretch featuring five games in 13 days. All-Stars De Rosario and Pontius should feel fresh, though, after Olsen limited them to appearances off the bench in a 3-0 loss at the Impact on Saturday.

Considering the stakes Wednesday at RFK, where United haven’t lost since March, Olsen knows fatigue can’t be an excuse.

“It’s a tough task for us, but we’re at home,” Olsen said. “We’ve had lots of success here, and we need to get a result.”

NOTES: Right back Robbie Russell (foot) and striker Maicon Santos (toe) returned to training Tuesday after spending several weeks sidelined.

• Winger Nick DeLeon has recovered from the illness that kept him out against Montreal and is available to play Wednesday.

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