Halfway through the season, D.C. United were searching for an answer for their season. Struggling to find goals, United were on the outside looking in for the playoffs, which seemed like a long shot after a sixgame winless streak in July and early August. But that whole outlook has gone by the wayside lately, and the Black-and-Red capped their midseason turnaround by qualifying for the MLS playoffs with a 3-1 win over New York City FC.
And now, with their fourth win in a row, United control their own destiny as to whether or not they host the 4th seed versus 5th seed knockout round game, having jumped over the Montreal Impact on Sunday.
Against NYCFC, United raced out to a three goal lead at the half. Patrick Mullins fired United ahead with his eighth goal for the club since joining in July, and Bobby Boswell doubled the advantage minutes later. Rob Vincent, relishing his role in central midfield, took advantage of a huge gaffe by NYC’s back line to put the third in just before the halftime whistle.
It was almost the perfect half.
“No one player stands out in that first half, which is a beautiful thing,” manager Ben Olsen said in his press conference after the game. “When you’re up 3-0. It was a complete, collective effort. Everybody [was on] high alert with every little play, for the entire half.”
United fell off a bit in the second half, and David Villa brought some life back for the Pigeons with a goal from the penalty spot in the 71st minute. But the Black-and-Red had done enough in the first half to hold on, and the win now means they are going to the playoffs for the third consecutive year.
Which, as in year’s past, was the goal of this team at the start of the season. Now, United want to be able to get to a point where they can advance further in the playoffs, having stumbled in the Eastern Conference semifinals against the New York Red Bulls in each of the last two seasons.
“Now, how can we understand how to get to the next level? How to get into the playoffs, and move to a spot where we’re competing for a trophy,” added Olsen. “That’s something we haven’t been able to do for the last two years. We’re looking forward to that opportunity.”
But the transformation of this team has been a sight to behold. After the 1-1 tie against the Montreal Impact on July 31st, United had 23 points from 21 games, scoring just 20 goals in the process. Lloyd Sam and Patrick Mullins had already arrived, and United had already gone a month in their new 4-1-4-1 formation.
After that draw, the team began to click. And in the 12 games since July 31st, United have picked up 23 points, winning six, drawing five, and losing just once. And in the process, they’ve scored 31 times, a rate better than two and half goals per game. In addition, United had not won consecutive games at all this season until September 28, when they defeated the Columbus Crew 3-0, four days after beating Orlando City 4-1. With Sunday’s win over NYC, United can go into the playoffs riding a five game winning streak should they pick up all three points next weekend.
“Sometimes when you get on a roll, you feel like you’re inside of your teammates’ heads,” Mullins said after the game. “And you know what they’re thinking, and you know what they are going to do. In this league, you want that kind of mind melt to happen at this point of the year.”
“We found our identity. Everyone is in sync and playing so well, and everyone knows their role. Everyone works hard. That’s the beauty of playing with this team,” Patrick Nyarko said after the game. “We’re going to defend together, and attack together, and win games together. That’s the confidence gained over the last part of the season.”
With all the good vibes in the locker room after the game, United know that there’s still a task at hand next week in Orlando. A playoff spot is secured, but United want to host their knockout round game, which might require a victory against the Lions. That would result in the Black-and-Red hosting either Montreal or the Philadelphia Union, depending on how the final week shakes out.
And hosting a playoff game is of the utmost importance for a team that has just two wins on the road this season.
“It’s huge. We know how tough away games are in this league,” Vincent told B&RU after the game. “To get a home game would be huge. I think whoever we would play now, we would fancy ourselves.”
“We want to be as high in the table as we can,” added Olsen, “moving into the playoffs.”