- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Patrick Mullins let out a sigh of relief and leaned back in his chair in the bowels of RFK Stadium on Tuesday, grateful he wasn’t traveling once more.

As D.C. United’s new stadium, Audi Field, is being built in Buzzard Point in the District, the 26-year-old forward and his teammates have faced a whirlwind schedule. Ten of United’s 12 MLS matches so far have been on the road. The other two were played at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, and the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds, Maryland.

United’s Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup matchup against Orlando City SC on Wednesday, which is being held at the SoccerPlex, offers a respite from a cross-country grind in the few remaining weeks before Audi Field’s expected opening July 14. A win in the knockout competition could help D.C. toward a second-half push up the table.

“A lot of guys would’ve been just kind of deflated if we had to go travel for this match,” defender Steve Birnbaum said. “A positive result tomorrow would kind of trampoline us into the New England game [on June 30], give us some confidence going into that game. Because, right now, it’s all about confidence.”

Birnbaum was drafted by D.C. in 2014, a year after United secured their third U.S. Open Cup title. He heard all about it when he arrived in camp, from former midfielder Lewis Neal’s goal to former goalkeeper Bill Hamid’s saves. That Cup run was part of United’s 13 trophies, the most in American soccer.

Since 2013, though, D.C. hasn’t passed the round of 16 in the competition, which began in 1914 and pits professional and amateur teams in America against each other in the tournament.

“I’ve been around this league for a while, the Open Cup for a while, and I don’t think I’ve ever had an easy go out of it,” Mullins said. “There’s something about it I think everyone feels like they have a real chance to go on and win a trophy.”

A victory Wednesday would send D.C. into the quarterfinals for the first time since 2013 and could offer the same kind of respite from regular-season struggles the team saw five seasons ago. That year, United won the Cup despite winning just three of 30 MLS games.

With a heavy dose of away fixtures this campaign as D.C. waits on its home field to be ready, the club has fallen to last place in the Eastern Conference with two wins, though coach Ben Olsen’s side has played fewer matches than any other team in the MLS.

With more bye weeks loaded into the front half of the schedule than usual, United hasn’t been able to closely follow a standard week-to-week training regimen.

“You’re starting to feel it a little bit, and fortunately we’re feeling it towards the end of this,” Olsen said. “That’s been a tricky part of this season, not just the away games, it’s the rhythm. These bye weeks keep chopping into your rhythm.”

Mullins said it’s difficult to build consistency without games every weekend, like players are used to.

But Wednesday’s Open Cup match against Orlando offers a much-needed break from a grueling league schedule and could push United forward in the hunt for a trophy.

“The coaches made it pretty explicit to us that this was a high priority,” Mullins said. “I think our focus, our energy and our mindset are to get a win tomorrow and make sure we keep this run going.”

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