- - Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Over the past two decades, the MLS playoffs have seen just about every narrative permutation come to fruition.

Some dominant teams ride their regular season success all the way to the MLS Cup title. Other clubs that limp into the postseason embark on Cinderella runs. And then there’s the middling squad that gets hot at the right time.

As fourth-seeded D.C. United faces the fifth-seeded Montreal Impact in the Eastern Conference knockout round Thursday at RFK Stadium, there’s reason to believe Ben Olsen’s team fits the description of a dark horse threat.

Before resting its starters for a 4-2 loss at Orlando City on Sunday, United was in the midst of a league-best four-game winning streak. Excluding that result, the club boasts a 6-1-4 record since mid-August.

“It has been a group effort — I’m really proud of that,” Olsen said. “It’s going to take that over the next couple days again for us to continue to move on this journey. It’s been a good journey, but we want it to be a great journey.”

United’s surge can be chalked up to myriad reasons. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid, who missed the first 12 games of the season after right knee surgery, has returned to preinjury form. A back line anchored by Bobby Boswell and Steve Birnbaum has held opposing attacks in check and chipped in offensively on set pieces.

But it’s the attack that underwent a midseason transformation, sparked by the July acquisitions of winger Lloyd Sam and striker Patrick Mullins. Playmaker Luciano Acosta, meanwhile, has thrived in a new formation that gives the Argentinian more time on the ball.

Patrick Nyarko also has offered creativity on the flank upon his return from a concussion, and veteran Lamar Neagle has developed into a lethal presence off the bench.

“I think everyone feels like they’re a part of what we’re doing,” Boswell said. “Everyone has kind of been involved for the most part, so it’s not like someone is getting their name called for the first time. They’ve had chances throughout the year to show what they can do, so the moment isn’t too big for any one guy.”

Giving Olsen further options, veterans Sean Franklin (calf) and Marcelo Sarvas (knee) returned to the field Sunday after being injured for United’s four-game winning streak.

Natural midfielder Nick DeLeon has gamely filled Franklin’s void at right back, and Rob Vincent has stepped in for Sarvas at defensive midfield. As Olsen pinpoints a lineup, he now must weigh the fitness of Franklin and Sarvas against the continuity provided by DeLeon and Vincent.

“We like our group, but those two players are very influential to the team,” Olsen said of Franklin and Sarvas. “So these are good choices to have.”

While United enters the playoffs in fine form, Montreal finds itself plagued by inconsistency and controversy. Long in contention for a top-two finish and bye to the conference semifinals, the Impact slid down the standings while winning just two matches since the end of August.

Montreal likely will be without star striker Didier Drogba, who asked to be removed from the game-day roster for a recent match upon hearing he was not chosen to start. Although the club released a statement saying the disagreement was resolved, Drogba has not trained this week because of a lingering back injury.

Still, the talented club boasts its fair share of assets, including 17-goal scorer Ignacio Piatti and reigning MLS Defender of the Year Laurent Ciman.

“They’re always dangerous because in a sense they can show you a couple different things,” Mullins said. “Lately they’ve been more relying on some speed out wide in Piatti’s brilliance, which he’s got in bags, so they can hit you in all different sorts of ways.”

Although United has been pegged as the favorite Thursday, the one-match format provides a degree of volatility. With a nearly eight-month regular season now in the books, United wants to ensure its playoff run extends into November — if not all the way to the MLS Cup final Dec. 10.

“Looking back to preseason, it seems so long,” Olsen said. “The players that we had then and now, there have been a lot of changes. It’s been an interesting year, and one where I think we’ve learned a lot about ourselves as a staff and players.

“Everything is there for us, but it doesn’t mean a lot unless we can show up and do the job at home.”

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