It’s the last chance for D.C. United. In an odd season where last place and winning a trophy has gone together for D.C. United, the Black and Red has one more chance to claim a road victory when it plays Friday against Sporting KC.
There is no pressure then. That statement is dripping in sarcasm. Sporting Kansas City is sitting in second place in the crowded MLS Eastern Conference just one point behind the table-topping New York Red Bulls. Once again United will be challenged by a team desperate to get the full three points and in no mood to surrender anything less.
It’s nothing new for United who last week had to deal with the Philadelphia Union at home. United was able to snare a point in a 1-1 draw and stunt the Union’s push for the postseason. The loss of points has left the Union just outside a playoff position in sixth place in the Eastern Conference.
“The defense was great – they did everything I asked of them,” said United head coach Ben Olsen. “Offensively, they did everything I asked of them except the hard part, which needs to get better. Step away from the emotion of losing the points and it was a good game. There are a lot of good players on the field in black and that’s promising in looking forward to the future, but it doesn’t make it easier.”
This is United’s reality. The Black and Red is the last place team with a smile. The results in MLS have not been there, but this a group that believes. It has a U.S. Open Cup trophy to validate its quality. It is about playing for that future that Olsen has talked about and cliché or not for United it is about playing for pride.
United is 3-22-7 going into Friday’s match. It must win its final two games on the schedule to avoid the league record for futility. Both the now-defunct Tamp Bay Mutiny in 2001 and the 2005 Chivas USA expansion side managed only four wins. Fortunately for United the 1-1 draw with Philadelphia means United cannot equal the 1999 New York MetroStars who finished with 25 losses.
If United fails to win on Friday, it would not be the first team in league history to go without a victory away from home. Since MLS started in 1996 there have been four teams that winless on the road for a season including Vancouver in its first season in 2011.
The numbers are for the record breaks and stat freaks. United is a living and breathing team that believes it has more breath than most on the outside believe. The Cup win added to the energy through United’s dressing room. A stadium plan that seems more real than ever before have added to the positive vibe and then there is the commitment from above.
Earlier this week United majority owner Erick Thohir announced his purchase of a controlling stake in Italian giant Inter Milan. Inter is not just any club. In fact it is only necessary to say Inter and it is clear the reference is to Inter Milan. Potential has to be realized and work has to be done, but United should have the resources to move forward.
“Through a greater focus on soccer properties and synergy between them, these dealings will result in a deeper commitment from me to the continued growth of D.C. United,” Thohir said in a stamen after his investment in Italy “We will return D.C. United to its place as a top club in America while building a global brand for the most accomplished team in MLS history.”
United fans can dream of a bright future. In the present there is a young team that is developing. Nick De Leon’s goal against Philadelphia was equal part refreshing as it was a reminder of what could have been had De Leon been healthy for more of his sophomore campaign. De Leon now has two goals from 23 matches versus six goals last season.
“In the numbers department, it has been a slow year, but when Nick’s healthy and fit, there are not many better than him,” Olsen noted. “He’s a special player.”
Last week United was missing Dwayne de Rosario because of international duty, and that allowed Conor Doyle a chance to start up top. Since coming from England’s Derby County on loan Doyle has made 12 appearances with six starts and two goals. The son of David Doyle who bagged goals in the heyday of the Major Indoor Soccer League, the younger Doyle is hoping he is on to something with United.
“Conor [Doyle] is a goal scorer,” Olsen said. “He needs to score goals. Pretty simple. I like his movement and the areas he shows up in. The physicality can get better and I see it at times and I know it’s in there. I think that part will improve this off-season and we’ll get him a little bigger, faster and stronger. I’m looking forward to seeing what he has because he has a lot of attributes.
The audition for Doyle and others continues on Friday night.