D.C. United control their own playoff destiny

Tie Saturday against Columbus would clinch spot

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For D.C. United, the math is simple: A win or draw in either of the team’s final two games clinches a trip to the playoffs, vanquishing a drought that has plagued the club since 2007. 

So heading into United’s home finale Saturday against the Columbus Crew, the team has leeway, right?

“There’s no leeway,” coach Ben Olsen said. “None. We’ve got to go. We’ve got to continue moving forward.”

It’s a philosophy instilled in United (16-10-6), who are treating their next game like a must-win, despite what the playoff scenarios say. And there certainly is logic to such an approach.

With a loss to sixth-place Columbus (14-11-7), D.C. could find itself needing a result in its final regular-season match — a tough trip to take on the Chicago Fire (17-10-5) — or hope other matches across the league go its way.

No, considering the team has gone 11-1-4 at RFK Stadium this year, not dropping a contest since its March opener, United just want to handle matters this weekend in the nation’s capital.

“We’re at home and we need to get a win,” center back Brandon McDonald said. “We don’t want to go into any games, especially at home, going for a point. I think our mentality coming in is they’re coming to our field, and we have to handle business.”

There also is the matter of seeding. Under this year’s revised format, five teams in each conference advance to the postseason, but the No. 4 and 5 seeds must open the playoffs in a one-off match.

A win against the Crew would put United in solid positioning to claim a top-three seed and a bye to the two-leg conference semifinals. And the three points would clinch at least fourth place, guaranteeing home-field advantage if D.C. does end up in the wild-card game.

“It’s interesting where the East is right now,” said Olsen, 35. “It’s what we’re all tuning in for. This is what is great for our young team, and me as a young coach. They’re great opportunities for us to move forward and learn and get through this and overcome it.”

United enter the match on a roll, having gone 4-0-1 since captain Dwayne De Rosario suffered a sprained knee ligament last month. Often playing a more defensive 4-5-1 formation, the club has become adept at winning ugly without its attacking catalyst.

But with MLS on hiatus last weekend as World Cup qualifying took center stage, there is the typical concern of the bye week derailing the club’s momentum.

“You can make them good and say there is plenty of rest,” Olsen said. “You can make them bad and say you lose a little rhythm. The good thing is everyone is in the same boat with this one.”

Against Columbus, United will turn their focus to attackers Federico Higuain and Jairo Arrieta, midseason acquisitions who have fueled the Crew’s bid for an unlikely playoff berth.

Columbus is 6-2-1 in games started by Higuain, a commanding playmaker who has recorded three goals and six assists in just 11 appearances. Arrieta, on the other hand, has eight goals and four assists in 16 matches while playing as a high striker pushing the back line.

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