Just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong for D.C. United last week. On Thursday night, Ben Olsen’s charges went behind 2-0 in the first 15 minutes against the Philadelphia Union. United managed to tie the game with two goals less than ten minutes apart, but gave up a third Philadelphia goal in the second half to lose 3-2. Matters got even worse on Sunday, when United conceded two second-half goals to the Columbus Crew and lost 2-1. These results left D.C. United two points out of the final MLS wild card playoff spot, currently held by the New York Red Bulls. (The top three teams in each conference automatically make the MLS playoffs, with the next four in the overall standings getting in as wild cards.)
The good news for United is that they still have four games left to play (more than any of their fellow playoff contenders), starting with a match against last-place Vancouver on October 12 and closing with three decisive (and perfectly winnable) games at home against Chicago, Portland, and Sporting Kansas City. The bad news is that the Black-and-Red have struggled in the less-than-cozy confines of RFK Stadium this season, winning just 4 of their 14 home games. In addition, the team will play those final four games in a span of ten days, thanks in large part to the Portland game being rescheduled from late August due to Hurricane Irene, and the compressed schedule will test the team’s fitness to the maximum.
But all these facts are unknowable variables to D.C. United’s playoff equation right now. Though they could miss the playoffs if the season ended today, D.C. United could still win the Eastern Conference with the right combination of results. Let’s take a look at how the playoff contenders’ remaining schedules stack up.
Sporting Kansas City (45 points)–New York (H) Oct. 15, D.C. United (A) Oct.22
Philadelphia Union (44 points)–Seattle (A) Oct. 8, Toronto FC (H) Oct. 15, New York (A) Oct. 20
Columbus Crew (44 points)–New England (A) Oct. 15, Chicago (A) Oct. 22
Wild Card Race
Last Team In
New York Red Bulls (40 points)–Los Angeles (H) Oct. 4, Sporting Kansas City (A) Oct. 15, Philadelphia (H) Oct. 20
Outside Looking In
Portland (40 points)–Houston (H) Oct. 14, D.C. United (A) Oct. 19, Real Salt Lake (A) Oct. 22
D.C. United (38 points)–Vancouver (A) Oct. 12, Chicago (H) Oct. 15, Portland (H) Oct. 19, Sporting Kansas City (H) Oct. 22
Chicago (37 points) – FC Dallas (H) Oct.12, D.C. United (A) Oct. 15, Columbus (H) Oct. 22
Chivas USA (36 points)–Los Angeles (A) Oct. 16, Seattle (H) Oct. 22
As you can see, the schedule doesn’t exactly do any of D.C. United’s competitors favors. With the exception of Columbus, every team has at least one match against teams above them in the league table. The two teams that D.C. United fans should be watching closely at this point are Philadelphia and New York (this should come naturally to you, right?). New York has seemed to be in danger for going off the rails for weeks now, with defender Rafa Marquez openly questioning the caliber of his teammates and pressure building on head coach Hans Backe. However, New York’s raw attacking talent has been enough to keep them in the playoff places so far, but two matches in five days against conference leaders Kansas City and Philadelphia could be their downfall.
Philadelphia, on the other hand, has a winnable home match against Toronto sandwiched between a tough match at Seattle and the trip to New York. They have a game in hand on their two fellow conference title contenders, but those extra three points aren’t in the bag by any stretch.
As for United, I think that they’ll manage between six and eight points from their final four games (Vancouver seems a sure win, but the others are toss-ups). That would likely be enough to get Ben Olsen’s team into the playoffs and may even be enough to host a wild-card game at RFK Stadium. But the club’s results this season have been dotted with inexplicable losses (including a 1-0 home loss to the New England Revolution, who will likely finish the season in last place in the East). If the unthinkable happens and United come up short, they will have no one to blame but themselves.