There has been a lot of recent praise for D.C. United, as the club navigated a maze from last place to hosting tomorrow’s knockout round playoff game against the Columbus Crew. In doing so, United recently ran off a streak of five wins, amidst a current 10 game unbeaten streak to end the regular season. The Black-and-Red haven’t had streaks of that sort since 2007, the last time they collected the Supporters’ Shield as the best team during the MLS season.
None of that matters now though, as United will look to advance to the conference semifinals for the first time since 2015. Last year, the team missed the playoffs. In 2016, they hosted this same game, but fell flat on their faces against the Montreal Impact, losing 4-2 after falling behind four goals.
What lies ahead of United on Thursday night is a battle tested Crew side, one with copious amounts of playoff experience.
“It’s a MLS knockout game. Nothing matters but this Thursday,” head coach Ben Olsen told reporters on Tuesday. “It’s not about form, it’s not about history. It’s one game.”
The Black-and-Red come into the game, clearly in better form than their opponents. D.C. last lost back on August 29th, when they fell 2-0 at Audi Field to the Philadelphia Union. Since then, they have gone 10 unbeaten, winning seven of those games.
On the other hand, Columbus have won just three of their past 10 games, dating back to a 3-1 loss to Atlanta United on August 19th. With just 12 points out of the last possible 30 taken, the Crew had to earn their playoff spot on Decision Day. They could have wrapped up their spot the week before, and even hosted this knockout round game, but instead the Crew lost 2-1 to an Orlando City team in a historically bad run of results.
But as Olsen preached on Tuesday, form doesn’t mean much when your season comes down to one result.
“It’s better to be in form and getting results, but in the end, it doesn’t matter,” said United’s longest ever serving manager. “You have to show up on Thursday, be the better team, and make the plays that make the difference.”
United and the Crew faced off twice earlier this year, both holding serve at home. Columbus won 3-1 back in March, while a 10-man United side held on for a 1-0 win at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland in April. The Crew remain the only Eastern Conference team to have not made a trip to the new digs at Buzzard Point.
Back then, as United slogged through a road heavy schedule, it would seem like this day wouldn’t come in 2018. United picked up 4 points in their first two home games, in Annapolis and at the Maryland SoccerPlex. They would grab just 7 other points in their 12 road games before Audi Field, leaving them in last place with a measly 11 points.
But with Wayne Rooney’s arrival, the return of Bill Hamid, and the other-worldly form of Luciano Acosta, United caught fire in the second of the season, surprisingly wrapping up a playoff spot in the penultimate game of the season.
“Guys are ready to play. We’ve been ready for this moment,” defender Steven Birnbaum told reporters earlier this week. “We’ve been building up towards it.”
United’s sole focus now is winning MLS Cup, a trophy they claimed four times, but haven’t held since 2004. The regular season will be looked back as a success in the future, there’s little doubt about that. What the Black-and-Red accomplished was nothing short of amazing, even with having seven games in a row at home as the season wound down.
That’s in the past now though, and there’s only one way to measure a success for MLS’ second season.
“Once you get to the postseason, you have to go to the end,” Nick DeLeon said. “That’s where you can consider it a successful season.”
For the past couple of months, when United needed to make the plays that have mattered, they have. Whether that’s in front of goal with Rooney and Acosta, in midfield, with the defense, or with Hamid making saves, D.C. has found a way to get it done. If they can continue to do that on Thursday night, they’ll be rewarded with a series against rivals New York Red Bulls, who have won the last two playoff meetings between the two.
“If we’re not [at our best], we won’t go through,” Olsen said, summing up his thoughts earlier this week. “If we are, we’ll advance.”