Sunday, October 19, 2003

D.C. United’s magic number is one. The club needs only one point — a win or a draw — in either of its final two games to gain its first playoff berth in four seasons.

Even though they need only a tie to advance into the postseason, United’s players said they are not going to bunker in and play for the point today against the last-place Columbus Crew (8-12-8) at RFK Stadium.

“When you go in playing for a tie, it inevitably ends up as a loss,” captain Ryan Nelsen said. “We’re going to try and be positive and go for the three points. Obviously, as the game goes on then you’ve got to think about game management. The initial attitude is definitely three points.”

For United (10-10-8) not to qualify for the playoffs, the club would have to lose to the Crew and lose next Saturday’s season finale against the Kansas City Wizards at RFK while the Crew would have to win its remaining two games.

As United’s roller coaster season nears its conclusion, coach Ray Hudson is leaving nothing to chance. He knows one bad bounce could signal imminent disaster.

“That’s like stepping on the high wire for me,” Hudson said of playing for the tie. “One slip and you’ve lost that point. We have to be brave and confident and go for the win at home. Tactically, we’ve got to be guarded to not let the game slip. We’re not going to play a 4-5-1, but we’re not going to play three in the back either.”

United will be missing one and possibly two of its veteran leaders for this crucial match. Midfield maestro Marco Etcheverry must sit out for yellow card accumulation. The availability of midfielder Earnie Stewart, who has a groin injury, will be a game time decision.

With Columbus also fighting for its playoff life — and coach Greg Andrulis’ job — expect the Crew to have their best offensive players on the field at the same time and to push large numbers forward.

“It’s a balance — they cannot be that cavalier, but they have to be,” Hudson said. “I think what they’ll do is strike a balance and allow a couple of players to have more freedom without the ball.”

Said Nelsen: “They’re silly if they do, because attackers really don’t win games. They’ve got to defend. You can have all the armor in the world, but if you have no defense it doesn’t matter anyway.”

Columbus has been a major disappointment this season, especially after winning the U.S. Open Cup last year. The Crew feature some dangerous, attacking players in forward Brian McBride (eight goals), forward Edson Buddle (eight goals), midfielder Kyle Martino (two goals and three assists), and flank midfielders Brian West (three goals and four assists) and Ross Paule (four goals and six assists).

“That’s one thing that I feel we’ve lacked throughout this year, our ability to gain composure and adapt to a lot of numbers being pushed forward,” United defender Mike Petke said. “We haven’t done that in the past. You say it’s Columbus’ playoff life, but it’s a bit of ours as well. We don’t want to take this [playoff race] any further than tomorrow.”

United’s biggest nightmare would be to lose today and having to go into Saturday’s season finale needing a win or tie to secure a playoff spot.

“We don’t want to take this to Kansas City — we want to end it now,” Nelsen said. “If I was a betting man, I would place some money on us.”

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