Last Wednesday night, there was a brief moment where D.C. United looked like they could, just maybe, mount an improbable late-season charge for a playoff spot. Luciano Acosta’s smart pass found Lloyd Sam in acres of space, and the veteran winger’s cool finish handed United a 3-0 lead in Seattle. With a home game three days later against the worst road team in MLS - and a short-handed version of that Dynamo team, at that - the possibility of coming out of the Gold Cup break with six points in a week was looking very strong.
And then Will Bruin scored, and United looked shaken up. Their hesitation let Seattle grab a second, and the moment Brad Evans nodded past Travis Worra, we all had the same thought: United is going to lose this game, a game in which they had been ahead of an average MLS team 3-0 with 40 minutes to play. That came to pass, and then the Black-and-Red offered up their most upsetting 20 minutes in a season that has been full of aggravating, unacceptable 20-30 minute spells. Six points became zero points, and the positives of the mid-season break were completely wasted.
You don’t need me to tell you that United’s playoff hopes are pretty much extinguished. You can feel it in the stands, or talking online, or watching the games on TV. It’s glaring, and even two wins this week would have left them in a precarious position. United, in that “pleasant” scenario, would be 7 points out of a playoff spot with 13 games to go. They’d still likely need to put up more points in their last 13 games than they picked up in their first 21.
But they didn’t win two straight games, of course. They lost twice this week, both in extremely galling fashion, and that has pretty much finished the 2017 season off in terms of hopes of lifting a trophy.
The math involved is stark. United has five of their next seven games at home, and the two road games are against lowly Minnesota and Colorado. Even if they win five of those next seven (for the sake of staying within reality, let’s assume a non-win against TFC at home but a win in one of the road games), we’re talking about 15 or 16 points added to United’s current 18, taking them up to 33 or 34 after 28 games.
However, even if you accept such a sudden about-face, the reality of the standings makes such a turnaround borderline irrelevant. The Columbus Crew, on 31 points, jumped up to sixth place this weekend. Their current points-per-game pace would take them to 50 on the year.
Without some big help (i.e. TFC, Chicago, and NYCFC not giving anyone else in the East any points, and draws whenever the teams sitting between fourth and ninth place meet each other), even a 5-1-1 run would leave United needing to pick up 16 points in those final six games. In other words, even a spectacular run between now and then would only set United up to need an even more spectacular run of 5W-1D-0L in their final six games. And that’s just to get to 50, and possibly find themselves in a tiebreaker situation.
All of this is assuming the top six don’t collectively separate themselves from the pack, which is possible. In between the time that this article became an idea (after the Seattle loss) and today, the 6th place team’s pace for their season total jumped from 49 points to 50. There are no guarantees that even a 10W-2D-1L run through the next three months - which would be one of the best thirteen-game streaks any MLS team has ever had - would be good enough.