Two weeks ago, D.C. United wasted an opportunity to put maximum pressure on the Montreal Impact for the sixth and final playoff spot in MLS’s Eastern Conference. Despite taking three different leads at home against rivals New York Red Bulls, the Black-and-Red had to settle for a point in a 3-3 draw, thanks to a hat trick from Bradley Wright-Phillips.
United maintained their status in 7th place despite a bye last weekend, but they now face the ultimate test tomorrow when they host the Impact at Audi Field. United, who trail the Canadians by five points with six games remaining, can’t jump their playoff rivals with a win, but can get within touching distance with two games in hand.
“It’s time to play,” head coach Ben Olsen told reporters at RFK Stadium on Thursday after the team’s practice. “As nice as it was to get our bodies back, after what was a long stretch of games, it’s been a long two weeks.”
While there will still be other chances to catch the Impact after tomorrow’s game, United’s window of opportunity is getting smaller and smaller. Especially after two games against New York teams earlier this month, when United gave away points late on.
In addition to BWP’s hat trick, United, with a ragtag group thanks to the international break, took an unexpected lead in the second half against New York City FC at Yankee Stadium. D.C. withstood most of the barrage from NYC, but a David Villa free kick in the 87th minute meant the teams split the points, costing United precious points in the playoff race.
“We have no luxury anymore to have lapses,” added Olsen, “or piss away points in the 90th minute, like we did against the Red Bulls. There’s no more room for error.”
The decrease in margin is thanks in part to the improved form of United’s opponents on Saturday. In their past three games, Montreal have beaten the Red Bulls 3-0, went to Chester and downed the Philadelphia Union 4-1, and took a point from NYC last weekend in Montreal.
When the teams met back on August 4th, neither was in particularly good form, and both came away slightly disappointed with a 1-1 draw. Four days later, Montreal brought in Bacary Sagna, Quincy Amarikwa, and Micheal Azira to add some strength to their starting 11. Since then, Montreal has lost just once, and have kept the pressure up on United for the final playoff spot.
“The first time we played them, they weren’t doing as well as they are now,” midfielder Russell Canouse told B&RU on Thursday. “They’ve gotten results the past few games, and put performances together. They are a dangerous team coming in.”
“Both teams have additions to their squads that have bolstered their groups, in a lot of different ways,” added Olsen.
Despite the changes that Montreal has made, they still tend to operate the same way. Sit back tight defensively to limit opportunities for opponents, and pick out the right times to break forward, mostly through Ignacio Piatti, who continues to be the main cog for the Impact.
“We know they are going to be a team that counters quickly with Piatti,” said Canouse. “For us, we need to be ready, defend smart, and when we are in possession of the ball, create opportunities and take them when we have them.”
No matter what the result tomorrow though, United will still be in the playoff chase as the calendar turns to October, the final month of regular season play in MLS. That’s a far cry from last year, when United ended up equal on points with the LA Galaxy for the worst team in the league.
The most notable date on the calendar last year in October was the final game at RFK Stadium, a game in which United lost 2-1 to the Red Bulls, as 2017 was quickly forgotten.
But picking up three points against the Impact would put United back on course to make the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
“It’s nice to be relevant, it’s nice to be part of the conversation,” said Olsen. “I think everyone at the club is excited for this stretch.”