- - Thursday, November 5, 2015

After a four-year playoff drought, D.C. United has again become a regular attendee of the MLS postseason festivities.

In 2012, United came within one match of hosting the MLS Cup final. Last season, it earned the Eastern Conference’s top seed. But for all of United’s success, the four-time MLS Cup champions haven’t appeared in the league title game since winning it all in 2004.

Now United again finds itself on the verge of elimination — taking a 1-0 deficit to Harrison, New Jersey, on Sunday for the second leg of a two-game, total-goals conference semifinal against the New York Red Bulls.

“I think there is an urgency every year that you’re in the postseason to be in that final game,” coach Ben Olsen said. “I saw it last year, and in some ways I see it a little bit more this year. You never know when you get these opportunities. You could go through a drought just like that in this league.”

This team understands that concept better than most. That 2013 campaign, when United missed out on the playoffs, wasn’t just an off-year — it was one of the worst seasons in league history, as United went 3-24-7.

In the parity-driven structure of MLS, a team can fall from title contender to basement-dweller in an instant.

“We’ve been fortunate to be in three of the last four years but we have to take advantage of these [opportunities],” midfielder Perry Kitchen said. “They don’t always come. You could always have a terrible year, like 2013, but once you get in the playoffs, it’s a whole new season and it’s something you want every year.”

While the struggles of 2013 brought about an offseason overhaul, players such as Kitchen, goalkeeper Bill Hamid, and midfielders Chris Pontius and Nick DeLeon remained to form United’s core.

Hamid signed a multi-year contract extension in May, but Kitchen, Pontius and DeLeon are out of contract at season’s end, raising the possibility that this will be the last run for a generation of United stalwarts.

“Speaking for myself, I’m always hungry for a championship,” Hamid said. “Anybody in this situation wants to win a championship.”

Extending the club’s season will be no easy task. A year ago, United took a 2-0 deficit into the second leg at RFK Stadium, ultimately falling to the Red Bulls on a 3-2 aggregate score in the conference semifinal.

United only has a one-goal disadvantage this season, but the second match is at Red Bull Arena, where New York went 12-3-2 in the regular season.

Between the MLS playoffs and CONCACAF Champions League, United has trailed entering a second leg on three occasions since 2012. In all three instances, United failed to overcome the deficit.

“I think we got through the first leg well,” Hamid said. “It’s not dead like it was last year. Last year was a very, very deep hole that we dug ourselves off of the first leg. This one is definitely doable — we just have to stay disciplined in the back, we have to be much more dangerous and our balance has to be very, very good.”

The away-goals tiebreaker does present a silver lining for United. Should the series end deadlocked, the team that scored more goals on the road will advance. By limiting the Red Bulls to one tally at RFK Stadium last weekend, United made the odds of a comeback more manageable.

“We have a belief that we can go there and get the result we need,” Olsen said. “I don’t think that’s a problem. I think we look at it as a great challenge, and one we’re looking forward to. Everyone understands it’s not going to be easy, but that’s part of this. When is it going to be easy to go through the playoffs?”

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