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D.C. United's upcoming home games will define the 2016 season

Just how badly does United need to pick up some wins in the next few weeks? Pretty damn badly.

You don’t need a tremendous command of mathematics to figure out that D.C. United’s spot in the standings is less than ideal. The Black-and-Red have 22 points from 20 games, which is only good enough for 8th place in the clown car pile-up that is MLS’s Eastern Conference. On a points-per-game basis, they have the 16th best rate acrosss MLS’s 20 clubs. United is by no means dead and buried, but you know what’s a lot easier than pulling off a Beatrix Kiddo-style great escape? Not finding yourself buried in the first place.

Starting with Sunday’s game against the Montreal Impact, United has four straight matches at RFK Stadium. That’s good news, and the club seems to know just how vital it is to get going. However, here’s the bad news: DC will play host to three current playoff teams (Montreal, the Philadelphia Union, and the New York Red Bulls) along with the Portland Timbers, who would be a playoff team were they in the East. United is at home for a while, but they have no obviously easy game during that span.

The Black-and-Red have just 14 games left in 2016, so this string of games on East Capitol Street will end just when MLS starts to gear up for the home stretch. They sit four points out of a playoff spot right now. That doesn’t sound like a lot; the idea of United picking up a win and a draw while the Revs lose two straight is hardly the stuff of fantasy.

However, MLS rarely sees big point swings or teams truly charging up the table because the teams are generally so even. MLS clubs don’t tend to go on long winning or losing streaks. Draws are common. Chicago is just 9 points from a playoff spot, and yet there probably isn’t a single observer of the league that gives them any chance of getting into 6th place, even with the Fire holding one or two games in hand on the rest of the conference.

So clearly, United needs to get winning right away, or else they’ll be the kind of team that ends up needing to reel off three or four wins in late September. Not only do they need the points to get themselves closer to the pack, but they need to prevent the Impact, Union, and Red Bulls from moving further away. United could simply stay in touch, but they finish the season with six of their final ten games on the road. This is a team with one win in eleven road games this season. Barring a sudden and highly unlikely turnaround in that department, United’s place in the final standings will largely hinge on improving an underwhelming home record.

To underline the urgency of the situation, I’ve put together a table projecting where the rest of the East will be when United finishes up their final game of this homestand on August 21st. I’ve separated their points per game into home PPG and away PPG, just to make this rough estimate a little more precise:

Team Current points Home PPG Away PPG Games Projected points on 8/22
NYCFC 33 1.27 1.73 4 (2 home, 2 away) 39
NY Red Bulls 31 2.27 0.55 4 (1 home, 3 away) 34.91
Philadelphia Union 30 2.18 0.6 4 (2 home, 2 away) 35.56
Montreal Impact 29 1.8 1.1 4 (2 home, 2 away) 34.8
Toronto FC 27 1.88 1 5 (3 home, 2 away) 34.64
New England Revolution 26 1.73 0.7 4 (2 home, 2 away) 30.86
D.C. United 22 1.44 0.82 4 (4 home, 0 away) 27.78
Orlando City 23 1.6 0.7 4 (2 home, 2 away) 27.6
Columbus Crew 19 1.45 0.33 3 (1 home, 2 away) 21.11
Chicago Fire 17 1.67 0.2 4 (2 home, 2 away) 20.74

If things carry on as they have, United will inch ahead of Orlando City, but they’ll also gain just one point on New England despite having two more home games over the same time period. That won’t spell the end for United, but they’ll have thrown away their best chance at making up the existing gap.

So what kind of record does United need to have during these home games to consider the next few weeks a success? Well, here are the point totals that could result from every possible combination of results:

0 points - 0W-0D-4L
1 point - 0W-1D-3L
2 points - 0W-2D-2L
3 points - 1W-0D-3L or 0W-3D-1L
4 points - 1W-1D-2L or 0W-4D-0L
5 points - 1W-2D-1L
6 points - 2W-0D-2L or 1W-3D-0L
7 points - 2W-1D-1L
8 points - 2W-2D-0L
9 points - 3W-0D-1L
10 points - 3W-1D-0L
12 points - 4W-0D-0L

Most likely, United will need to win three games - that means finally getting on a winning streak! - to pull ahead of the Revs and into 6th place. Assuming these PPG projections hold, it also means that even winning all four games will see United go no higher than 6th place (though they would be very close to most of the top five). Going 2W-2D-0L would also at least put United right on New England’s heels.

However, all favorable outcomes would require a significant jump up in home PPG. Picking up 8 points would mean a 2.00 PPG; United is currently on 1.44 and has given us little reason to expect consistency one way or another. This team can clobber Vancouver (currently on 30 points), but lose to Seattle (20 points). They’ve been torn apart by FC Dallas, but also made the Red Bulls look lost and confused. You never quite know what you’re going to see out of this team in 2016.

Let’s look at where the current PPG projections leave the teams in the East after 34 games:

Team Current points Home PPG Away PPG Games Projected points
NYCFC 33 1.27 1.73 12 (6 home, 6 away) 51
Montreal Impact 29 1.8 1.1 14 (7 home, 7 away) 49.3
Toronto FC 27 1.88 1 14 (9 home, 5 away) 48.92
NY Red Bulls 31 2.27 0.55 12 (6 home, 6 away) 47.92
Philadelphia Union 30 2.18 0.6 13 (6 home, 7 away) 47.28
New England Revolution 26 1.73 0.7 13 (6 home, 7 away) 41.28
Orlando City 23 1.6 0.7 14 (7 home, 7 away) 39.1
D.C. United 22 1.44 0.82 14 (8 home, 6 away) 38.44
Chicago Fire 17 1.67 0.2 15 (8 home, 7 away) 30.36
Columbus Crew 19 1.45 0.33 14 (6 home, 8 away) 30.34

For this season to end in a playoff berth rather than a Crying Jordan-off at Orlando on the final day of the fixture list, the erratic performances at RFK almost certainly have to come to an end before August is through. It might seem strange to think of these four games as being so important, what with there being a quarter of a year between now and the end of the season, but the numbers make the point: If United can’t get it together over the next three and a half weeks, they’re probably not going to make the playoffs.