On a bright September morning nearly six weeks ago, D.C. United’s playoff aspirations grew dim.
With the club already on the outside looking in at the postseason, it was announced that reigning MVP Dwayne De Rosario would be sidelined 10 to 12 weeks with a sprained knee ligament. For a United team that had fallen from first in the Eastern Conference to sixth over the summer, the news had all the makings of a fatal blow.
So how did D.C. respond to the adversity? By reeling off a 5-0-1 stretch that culminated with the club clinching its first playoff berth since 2007 via a 3-2 comeback win over the Columbus Crew on Saturday.
“I think we’ve grown closer since Dwayne went down,” United coach Ben Olsen said. “And it’s obviously not a negative toward Dwayne — it’s survival. Everybody understood that we have to be a real team now, that we have to commit to each other and bail each other out. I think that slowly over this six-week period, that has got us to the point we are today.”
It’s quite the contrast from 2011, when a well-positioned D.C. side went 1-6-2 to end the campaign after midfielder-forward Chris Pontius broke his leg in mid-September.
There are myriad reasons why this year’s bunch fared better. There’s more depth, for one, as the front office learned its lesson from last season’s collapse. And a forgiving schedule in recent weeks hasn’t hurt.
But perhaps most influential has been Olsen’s growth as a game manager in the 35-year-old’s second full season as coach. On Saturday at RFK Stadium, substitutes Branko Boskovic and Lewis Neal combined on the latter’s stoppage-time strike, marking the fourth time in six matches a player has come off the bench to score the winning goal.
As Olsen noted, “Everyone’s buying in to their role right now.”
“It feels great, especially when you lose certain guys to injury and you have to reshuffle and find a cohesive group again,” goalkeeper Bill Hamid said. “You lose a guy like De Ro, it’s going to be a little bit of a struggle. But we found our niche, and we’ve found success.”
With the win over Columbus, United (17-10-6) moved to second in the East. A draw in their regular-season finale at the Chicago Fire (17-11-5) will clinch one of three first-round byes in the conference. And a win paired with a Sporting Kansas City loss to Philadelphia on Wednesday will give D.C. the No. 1 seed.
“We’ll take the next couple days to just unwind and get the game out of our system, and then we’ll report back for training on Tuesday,” Neal said. “From then on, we’ve got to put this game to bed.”
With De Rosario beginning light exercises and the team continuing its winning ways, the remote possibility of United’s captain returning this season is becoming increasingly realistic. If De Rosario’s time frame holds true and D.C. makes an extended postseason run, he could be back for the MLS Cup on Dec. 1.
“I don’t know if anybody knows where he’s at,” Olsen said. “He’s progressing quickly. I’ve told my trainers and doctors, ‘You tell me the day he’s ready to go,’ because I’ve got a job to do and we can’t rely on that. But it sure would be nice to see him back because that would mean we’re very, very deep into the playoffs.”