- - Thursday, October 16, 2014

For 32 weeks, D.C. United has battled to restore pride to a four-time MLS Cup champion that had fallen to an almost-incomprehensible low.

The fruits of that labor: A return to the playoffs after last year’s three-win season, and a bye to the Eastern Conference semifinals. United will also clinch the top seed with a draw in either of its final two games against the lowly Chicago Fire and Montreal Impact — and even that might not be necessary.

So will United sit back and rest up ahead of the playoffs?

“We’ve played in big, meaningful games throughout the whole year,” midfielder Perry Kitchen said. “We’re going to approach it the same way.”

As United (16-9-7) prepared for Saturday’s match against Chicago (5-9-18) at RFK Stadium, the message was clear: These final two matches are about maintaining momentum.

For some players, the games provide a valuable opportunity to build fitness and chemistry. Limited to five league matches this season by a hamstring injury, midfielder Chris Pontius could use the extra minutes.

The same can be said for defender-midfielder Samuel Inkoom, a two-time World Cup veteran from Ghana who has made just one appearance in MLS since signing last month. And midfielder Chris Rolfe is looking to see his first action since breaking his arm in early September.

The caveat to this approach is the chance of injury. United received a reminder of that risk Sunday, when leading scorer Luis Silva suffered a hamstring strain that will sideline him for four to six weeks — likely ruling him out until a potential conference final.

“We need him, but we’re not in mourning,” coach Ben Olsen said. “He’s a guy who has been fantastic for us over the last couple of months and it’s a big blow, but we’ve had these circumstances throughout the year and we seem to have responded in the right way.”

By securing the top seed, United will earn itself home-field advantage — for what it’s worth. In the two-game, total-goals series used in the conference semifinals and final, the higher seed hosts the decisive second match.

But opinions in the United locker room were mixed when discussing that edge, with Olsen saying “there’s not a lot of rhyme or reason to playoff success.” When United last made the postseason in 2012, teams hosting the second leg had a series record of 0-6.

Finishing in first place also would see United face the winner of the knockout-round match between the No. 4 and 5 seeds. While this extra game theoretically means the top seed is drawing a worn-down opponent, knockout-round winners are 3-3 in their semifinal series since the format was introduced in 2011.

“I don’t think there is a weak opponent when there is a play-in game,” said right back Sean Franklin, a member of the LA Galaxy team that won the 2012 MLS Cup as a No. 4 seed. “Every game is tough. Anyone can win on any given day. If a team is better and sharper on that day, they’re going to win it.”

All things considered, United’s regular-season success won’t do the club much good once the playoffs kick off. The team simply wants to be playing its best soccer come next month.

With Silva out, Eddie Johnson is poised to regain his starting spot up top alongside MVP candidate Fabian Espindola. Although Silva has thrived while partnering with Espindola, Johnson has not yet found a similar understanding with the Argentine striker.

It’s one more task for the to-do list between now and November.

“We keep moving,” Olsen said. “We understand momentum, we understand rhythm. We still have some guys who need some fitness. Now that Eddie’s in there with Fabi, that partnership has to foster.

“There’s a lot to do in the next couple weeks before we hit the playoffs.”

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