Considering the blend of player embraces and fan exultation that engulfed RFK Stadium last weekend, one might get the sense D.C. United's playoff-clinching win over the Columbus Crew marked a mission accomplished, as far as the regular season goes.
But with one match standing between United and the team's first postseason run since 2007, work remains to be done.
While the Western Conference playoff matchups are in place, the East is a far different matter going into the final weekend. Only Sporting Kansas City, which clinched the top spot Wednesday with a 2-1 win over the Philadelphia Union, is locked into its seed.
For United, the Chicago Fire, the New York Red Bulls and the Houston Dynamo, the objective is the same: dodge the knockout round, which features the No. 4 and 5 seeds in a one-off match Wednesday.
"I don't even want to think about fourth or fifth place," United goalkeeper Bill Hamid said. "We want to stay away from that. Let other teams fight that out."
United (17-10-6) are in second place ahead of their trip Saturday to take on the third-place Fire (17-11-5). A win or draw clinches the No. 2 slot for D.C., but a loss could drop the club to fourth.
The knockout game isn't merely another chance for elimination — its effects reverberate for the winner, as that team must host Kansas City in the first match of a two-leg conference semifinal on just two or three days' rest.
Although there are other matters at stake, including positioning to potentially host the MLS Cup or qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League, such things are secondary to a D.C. team on a 5-0-1 roll that simply wants to keep the momentum going.
"We definitely have confidence," midfielder Perry Kitchen said. "We're just going to stay focused, keep doing what we've been doing, and hopefully that leads to success."
Against the Fire, United will have another opportunity to test a defense that has excelled of late on the road, allowing just one goal in D.C.'s past three away matches.
The success largely is a product of a more conservative road mentality, with coach Ben Olsen using a midfield-clogging 4-5-1 formation in away games following the sprained knee ligament that sidelined playmaker Dwayne De Rosario.
"Defense wins championships," said Hamid, who with a 1.04 goals-against average has made a late push for Goalkeeper of the Year consideration. "We have not let in many goals, and it's been a very cohesive group in terms of our defending and getting the ball moving forward and taking advantage of a chance or two when we get them."
After United's back line faltered somewhat in the 3-2 win over the Crew at RFK Stadium, Olsen is aware his team can't afford to have many more games like that if it expects to make an extended playoff run.
While no squad member has represented United in the postseason, Olsen as a D.C. player won a pair of MLS Cups.
"We know it's going to be more difficult going forward," Olsen said. "We all know the intensity turns up at that point. We have to play better and not give up two goals, regardless home or away, because it's not the way you go about winning playoff games. But we're looking forward to it. We really are. And I hope we can make a run at this thing."
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