D.C. United wear bull’s-eye as MLS play gets back in full swing

For the better part of three weeks, D.C. United have had the luxury of enjoying their perch atop the Eastern Conference without the trouble of defending it. That time is coming to an end.

Come Saturday, United (8-4-3) will return from their MLS break with a trip up Interstate 95 to face the Philadelphia Union (2-7-2). That match will mark the first time since 2009 that United will play a game as a first-place side. And coach Ben Olsen — who was still a player then — knows it.

“We have a little bit more of a target on our back,” Olsen said. “We’ve talked about the mentality of not turning it down, especially while others are going to turn it up against you. And we’ll see how we can deal with that. It’s a great challenge for us.”

MLS essentially has been on hiatus since May 27 to accommodate a slate of international matches, scheduling just two games since then across the league. After winning their past five matches at RFK Stadium, United will look to shift that momentum to the road, as four of their next five games come away from home.

“It’s definitely not going to be easy because these teams are hungry also,” midfielder Perry Kitchen said. “But we just have to have a good road mentality, just dig out every play, win every ball and hopefully get results.”

Of course, the past few weeks haven’t been a vacation for United’s players. The team played a pair of U.S. Open Cup matches and a reserve game, and midfielder-forward Dwayne De Rosario turned in three 90-minute shifts for the Canada national team. (Defender Dejan Jakovic also received a Canada call-up but did not play.)

The stretch, though, has helped Olsen manage minutes and return the team to health. Only three players are listed on the injury report: midfielders Lance Rozeboom (out with a torn knee ligament), Danny Cruz (questionable with a hamstring strain) and Branko Boskovic (probable with an adductor strain).

“Everybody is healthy,” Olsen said, “for the first time in a long time.”

It’s a welcome development considering United’s next 11 matches come against Eastern Conference foes. The quirk is a product of the league’s new scheduling format, designed to reduce travel and fire up geographic rivalries. After playing 16 conference matches last year, United face Eastern teams in 25 of their 34 games this season.

“The way the league is set up this year, our Eastern Conference games have more importance,” right back Robbie Russell said. “So the Western Conference teams are there to get some points out of conference, which are nice, but the Eastern Conference games are our bread and butter. As long as we get our Eastern Conference points, we’ll be all right.”

When United face Philadelphia, they’ll be looking to avenge a 2-1 overtime loss June 5 that eliminated D.C. from the Open Cup. It turned out to be Union coach Peter Nowak’s last competitive match in charge of the struggling club, which Wednesday parted ways with the former United boss and named assistant John Hackworth interim coach.

After that game, Olsen said the loss could serve as a reality check for a United team that perhaps had grown overconfident. With Saturday’s return to league play, the emphasis will be on re-creating the club’s previous winning formula.

“I think we understand what makes us successful and what makes us struggle,” Olsen said. “We’ve talked at length about that, and hopefully in the next couple weeks, we’ll have the right mentality and the right hunger and the right chip on our shoulder to win games.”

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