D.C. United entered its season finale against the Columbus Crew with two goals in mind. Pragmatically speaking, the club wanted to secure a playoff bye. From a rhythm perspective, momentum was vital as the postseason loomed.
It’s safe to say matters didn’t go according to plan.
After ending the regular season with a stunning 5-0 loss in Columbus on Sunday, United (15-13-6) dropped to the Eastern Conference’s No. 4 seed — necessitating a one-off match against the fifth-seeded New England Revolution (14-12-8) on Wednesday at RFK Stadium.
“Obviously, Sunday was tough, but a new season starts,” captain Bobby Boswell said. “It’s win or go home. That’s it.”
Forget about a week of rest while watching other teams scrap for victories in the knockout round. Now United finds itself not only facing a play-in game on two days’ rest, but also scrambling to address the tattered back line and impotent attack that showed up Sunday.
“It’s an ego shot and a punch in the face,” coach Ben Olsen said. “But, we have seemed to respond over the last two years when we have moments like this.”
Olsen is right about his team’s resilience. United won six matches this season when trailing at halftime, and no other team managed the feat more than twice. His squad also will have home-field advantage on Wednesday, with United 22-5-7 at RFK Stadium over the past two MLS seasons.
Yet other statistics are less kind to the club’s postseason ambitions. United is the only squad in the 12-team field to finish the season with a negative goal differential. The 2-6-1 record since early August isn’t encouraging, nor is the fact that United has just two wins over fellow playoff teams since mid-May.
And then there’s that demoralizing setback in Columbus, which matched a 5-0 loss to the Kansas City Wizards in 1997 as the worst defeat in franchise history.
“You could go two ways with this,” Olsen said. “It could fuel you, [tick] you off a little bit, which I’m sure most of these guys are feeling right now, or you could let your heads down and let his affect you.”
United used the same starting lineup for three consecutive games to end the regular season as a slew of regulars returned to full fitness, but a tweak or two seems likely on Wednesday.
Midseason acquisition Alvaro Saborio, who has scored twice off the bench this month, could enter the equation to partner with Fabian Espindola up top. Second-year defender Steve Birnbaum, a fringe U.S. national team player, also could return to the lineup after losing his job to Kofi Opare in recent weeks.
For a team that has rotated players and dealt with absences all season, adjustments are a part of the routine.
“Continuity means nothing at this point for us,” midfielder Chris Rolfe said. “We’ve been at it all year. We thought we were going to get a little bit more stability the last two months or so, but it’s out the window now.”
With a win, United will advance to the conference semifinals for a two-game, total-goals series against Columbus or the top-seeded New York Red Bulls. At least one knockout-round winner has upset a No. 1 seed in each of the past three seasons, giving credence to United’s belief that the postseason truly does represent a clean slate.
“If you’re not in good form, it’s a new lease,” Olsen said. “Show up [Wednesday] and do the business. That’s what this is about. That’s what playoff soccer is about.”
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