With a quarter of the MLS season already gone from their schedule, D.C. United is sitting just about where'd they want to be after 7 games played. With 14 points already in the bag, sitting tied with the New England Revolution atop the Eastern Conference, United begins a journey tomorrow against the Columbus Crew that includes 15 games in 63 days.
Knowing that this stretch was on the horizon, United manager Ben Olsen has begun planning for the overloaded schedule in practice over the past couple of weeks. In addition to specific prep for upcoming opponents, work has also been put in that has seen different groups mixed together, as United won't be able to rely on the same starting eleven week in and week out.
"There has been preparation over the last two weeks. Obviously for the games that we have on the weekend," Olsen told reporters on Friday. "But also looking forward to what's going to be a busy [two] months. I think you'll see as we go here over the next two months, that we're going to have to use everybody."
As shown last week against the Vancouver Whitecaps, United is capable of winning games when they have to stray from the norm. Andrew Dykstra started in goal due to an injury to Bill Hamid, but then had to be replaced by rookie Travis Worra after picking up an injury himself. Michael Farfan got the start in the center of midfield, a more natural position for him, but a different role than when he was filling in for Nick DeLeon out wide. Then there was also the return of Fabian Espindola, who stepped in and played all 90 minutes after he returned from a six game suspension.
Despite all of that, the Black-and-Red were able to walk out of BC Place with all three points against the Western Conference leaders.
"Good thing is that I'm excited about everybody. There's a lot of tough decisions I have to make," Olsen added. "It's positive, but it's positive because I'm leaving out guys that are good players and starters in this league. It's going to take everybody contributing. When that happens in the right way and you can get results, it's a great thing. It's a beautiful thing."
Olsen's task over the next two months will be figuring out which players to pick on a game to game basis. With a game every four days on average for two months, players will need to be rested, and those who usually don't see the field will be asked to contribute.
Figuring out the right mixture of when to shuffle the starting eleven will go a long way in determining United's success during this stretch.
"Each game we are going to try to field our best lineup for that particular game. It's not always going to be the same group," said Olsen. "Hopefully that competition will get this team to get to where we want to get, and that's getting better and pushing ourselves to be a better team in this league."
To start off the grueling two months, United will host the Columbus Crew on Saturday at RFK. United hasn't beaten the Crew since Lewis Neal clinched a playoff spot for United with a late goal in October 2012. Last year DC managed just two points in three games against the Crew, with Columbus defeating United 3-1 at RFK in the season opener. This year, the Crew enter this weekend's play as the highest scoring team in the league, with 12 goals from seven games. They are also coming off arguably their best performance of the year, when the thoroughly picked apart the Philadelphia Union in a 4-1 win at Mapfre Stadium.
"They're a very good team, "United midfielder Perry Kitchen said of Columbus' attacking ability. "They're a hot team right now. It's going to be a tough match. Saying that, I think we've been pretty solid over the past month as well, so it will be a good challenge for us.
Another important aspect to the upcoming schedule is that the next three games are at home. Having lost leads and dropped points in their past two matches at home against the New York Red Bulls and Houston Dynamo, there is an added sense of importance over the next two weeks to pick up as many points as possible with Sporting Kansas City and Orlando City also set to visit.
"We always stress home games," Kitchen added. "They have to be wins for us. We're playing some good teams coming up, but we still have to execute our game plan to maximize the points.
As for updates on the injury front, United look to be in a good spot for this weekend. Hamid practiced all week, and is expected to start as he returns from a thigh contusion. And although Steve Birnbaum continues to recover, and there is not much of a timetable of Andrew Dykstra's return from a left ankle injury, everyone else is seemingly healthy heading into this stretch. Finnish midfielder/defender Markus Halsti practiced all week and is ready to go according to Olsen, but he'll be held back this weekend as one extra caution.
"I could probably put him on the bench this weekend. But we tend to err on the side of giving them an extra week, especially after these bigger injuries."