After a year of struggling to deal with injuries to key players, D.C. United head into Saturday's trip to play the Colorado Rapids the healthiest they have been all year. Following a three-game losing streak in the league to end August, United are banking on the ability to field a consistent lineup as a way to get back into winning ways over the final stretch of the regular season.
"Any sort of consistency we can get in the next month is going to help us going forward," United midfielder and forward Chris Rolfe told B&RU. "I think we've done a great job, shifting the lineup, of guys stepping in, and outperforming their expectations. That's why we are in the position we are in right now. At the same time it would be nice to have some consistency."
Despite being forced to field 26 different lineups in 28 league games this season, the Black-and-Red have been able to string enough results along to stay top of the Eastern Conference, even as 2014 team MVP Fabian Espindola has missed 17 games due to injury and suspension this season.
A two week break allowed United some valuable practice time, and vacation time, as the team tried to get over their last outing, a 3-0 demolition job at the hands of the New York Red Bulls. With a chance to put some space between the top two teams in the Eastern Conference race, United instead were outplayed in most facets of the game. With the win, the Red Bulls climbed within two points of United in the Eastern Conference race (with three games in hand).
After having the weekend off to take their minds off the game, United returned to practice this week, with a level of intensity that showed that the team meant business ahead of the trip to the Rockies.
"Practice has been competitive and tough. We have been kicking each other, you can tell we want to play," Rolfe told reporters after Friday's training session. "We've addressed some things this week, a lot of tactics. That helps us all get a feeling for each other, and what's expected out of us on the field."
"We got away from the game. We had a couple of stretches this year with a lot of games," defender Bobby Boswell told B&RU earlier this week. "It was nice to get away for a while, and pump the brakes, and get refocused, and end the season strong."
Despite Chris Korb being out for the season following ACL surgery and Davy Arnaud failing to pass the concussion protocol, United is the healthiest as an unit as it has been all season. In addition to Espindola missing 10 games to injury, Markus Halsti, Chris Pontius, Sean Franklin, Michael Farfan, Steve Birnbaum, and Bill Hamid have all missed multiple games this year due to various injuries.
Top it off with the apparent retirement of Eddie Johnson, and it's hard to imagine that United have spent most of the season atop of the Eastern Conference, challenging for the Supporters' Shield along the way.
Missing Espindola for three long stretches has been the key absence for United this season. In the 11 games that the Argentinian striker has played, he has chipped in three goals and five assists, with DC winning seven times. They have just six wins in the other 17 games he has missed.
Still, his most recent absence - during one of United's toughest stretches of the season in terms of results - might have just coincided with the team's poor form rather than being the root cause of it.
"It's a long season, and you go through ups and downs. We've been down a little bit here lately, I think the summer wears on you," Rolfe added. "And when you're a counter attacking team, it's a little bit more difficult to defend and also attack, [with] the way we attack. I think here towards the end of the season you will see us create more."
Olsen will likely be forced to field his 27th different lineup in 29 MLS games this season on Saturday night against the Rapids. The hope in the nation's capital is that just might be the last different lineup the team has to use this season.