With a run of four straight games at the friendly confines of RFK Stadium, D.C. United’s 2016 appears to have reached a make-or-break point . Sitting in 8th place in the Eastern Conference, United can't afford to leave any more points on the table, as they have to overcome at least two teams to find their way back to the playoffs for a third consecutive season.
Four consecutive road games in July saw United pick up just two points via road draws at Real Salt Lake and Columbus Crew SC. Those games alternated with crushing defeats at the hands of the Philadelphia Union and Toronto FC. In that stretch, United went from a playoff spot to the outside looking in, adding even more importance to the month of August.
"Absolutely. We’re leaving no stone unturned. We need to win our home games," midfielder Patrick Nyarko said after practice on Tuesday when asked if the home stretch was the breaking point for United’s season.
"The past few games haven’t been that great. Try to find a solution, solve the issues that have been have been going on with us," said Nyarko.
Of course, United’s form at home will have to improve. In 2014 and 2015, when United was one of the better teams in the East, they lost a combined six games at home in 34 fixtures. In nine home games this season, they’ve lost four, the most in the East.
And now there’s the added pressure of absolutely needing to pick up all three points in every game at home to make up ground on their rivals.
"Nothing is make or break in this league. Win the last four games of your season, you probably get into the playoffs," United manager Ben Olsen said Tuesday. "But yes, it’s a very important August for us. I think we’ll respond. I still like this team, especially now that we’re incorporating some of the new guys."
"Our results haven’t been good enough, and we need to push each other, and dig into an area we maybe haven’t dug into in a while," Olsen added. "And hopefully that will translate into the weekend."
After being strung up by Sebastian Giovinco in last weekend’s 4-1 loss to Toronto, United’s first task at home will be to stop Ignacio Piatti and Didier Drogba. The two were at the top of their game for the Montreal Impact last weekend, chipping in four goals in a 5-1 win over the Union.
In other words, the Black-and-Red will again have their hands full on Sunday night with some of the best attackers in the league. And they’ll have to respond to a poor showing in their last outing, adding to the difficulty of the task.
"Momentum, confidence, everything for the team shattered on the road," added Nyarko. "The most important thing is getting the first one at home on Sunday. You look at the games we’ve played, minus a couple of them, mentally, on the road, we tend to give a little bit more respect to the home team. And not try to impose our will and play our game."
"At home, even if we lose games at home, we feel like we are on top of teams, pushing, and other mistakes lead to us losing at home," said Nyarko. "If we can correct those little mistakes at home, and stay on top of teams and be as aggressive as we can, I think we can get some points at home."
Nyarko looks to play an even bigger part, having made just two substitute appearances since returning from nearly a two month long absence after his second concussion this season. At the same time, United is trying to further incorporate Lloyd Sam and Patrick Mullins, their most recent additions in this transfer window.
Mullins made his debut for the Black-and-Red in Toronto, but by the time the former New England Revolution and New York City FC forward entered the game, Giovinco had already worked most of his magic, and United were in a 3-1 deficit that they were never going to recover from.
"It’s difficult when a guy like Giovinco decides that he’s going to be on that night. We fought hard, we created some chances that didn’t fall our way in the second half," Mullins said today after practice. "The big thing for us now is to make sure we get in here everyday and put in the right work in training to make sure we’re ready for the next one."
Bobby Boswell, who had missed the game in Toronto, was back in practice on Tuesday for United. But Bill Hamid, who didn’t travel after he picked up a wrist injury late in the week, wasn’t present. The outcome in Toronto might not have changed with him in net, but United still lean on his presence in goal for points from time to time.
But it sounds like he might just be in a race to be fit for Sunday’s clash against the Impact.
"Hip, wrist, he’s a little bit banged up," Olsen said of his star keeper. "I think he’ll be okay, we have a long week for some of these guys to mend, and get ready for the weekend. I don’t know, it’s day to day."