D.C. United's road to ending their four-year playoff drought has been burdened with the most disruptive roadblock imaginable.
Dwayne De Rosario, the reigning league Most Valuable Player, will be sidelined 10 to 12 weeks with a sprain of the medial collateral ligament in his knee, essentially ending his season, the club announced Thursday. United's captain suffered the injury Tuesday in the Canada national team's 2-0 loss at Panama in World Cup qualifying.
With seven games remaining, United (12-10-5) trail the Columbus Crew by one point for the fifth and final Eastern Conference playoff slot. If they are to overcome that deficit, they'll have to do it without De Rosario, who has seven goals in 26 games this season and is second in MLS with 12 assists.
"What changes is you don't have a guy out there who can do really, really special things at any given moment," coach Ben Olsen said. "But I'm looking for some other guys to raise their game a little bit — me included."
On Twitter, De Rosario wrote, "Absolutely gutted, to be honest," before adding, "United fans have no doubt I will soon be back. We have important games ahead and we will overcome."
Roaming from a loosely defined withdrawn forward or attacking midfield role, the 34-year-old is United's attacking catalyst, banking on clever touches, vision and finishing prowess to at times carry his club.
In recent weeks, De Rosario has added two remarkable feats to his lengthy resume, becoming the seventh player in MLS history to notch 100 goals and Canada's all-time leading scorer with 20 international tallies.
"He's probably the biggest key to this team and to our success, so that's a big blow to us," center back Brandon McDonald said. "But we can't dwell on it."
With De Rosario out, fellow All-Star Chris Pontius (10 goals, two assists) figures to see more minutes at forward in lieu of a flank position, while Montenegrin playmaker Branko Boskovic (four assists) will be depended on to more consistently provide inspiration out of midfield.
"In my position, nothing changes with my game," Boskovic said. "I'm going to miss him, but this is my job. I try to give my best and create something for the team."
Olsen avoided raising expectations on the highly priced duo of Boskovic and out-of-favor striker Hamdi Salihi, instead citing Pontius, rookie Nick DeLeon and recently acquired forward Lionard Pajoy before saying every player will be leaned on.
With Saturday's league roster freeze looming, notable external help seems unlikely.
United's positioning is comparable to where they stood last season before going 1-6-2 down the stretch following a broken leg suffered by Pontius — one year and one day before De Rosario's injury.
"I think we're stronger mentally, and we have better personnel than we did last year at this point, when we hit some injuries that cost us a playoff berth," Olsen said. "It's a great measuring stick for us to move forward and see which guys are ready to give more."
A silver lining for United is the quality — or lack thereof — of their upcoming opponents. Starting with Saturday's match against the New England Revolution (7-14-7) at RFK Stadium, United will play five consecutive games against teams with dim or extinguished playoff hopes.
As Pontius noted, "What you ask at this point in the season is that you're in the playoff race and you control your own destiny."
With the MLS Cup scheduled Dec. 1, De Rosario conceivably could return in the title match. But getting that far now is an imposing task for a club that just lost arguably the league's most irreplaceable player.
"This is not an excuse," Olsen said. "We're not looking for any pity parties. It's about going forward and getting this job done."
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