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D.C. United and the Columbus Crew are two of Major League Soccer’s original franchises and they have shared plenty of drama. There is more on the way Saturday at R.F.K. Stadium when the two teams meet in game with major playoff implications.
For United it is real simple. A win or tie against the Crew will secure United’s first playoff berth since the 2007 season. The current playoff drought is similar to the stretch from 2000-2002 when United also failed make the post season. United ended that drought in dramatic fashion when they went on to win MLS Cup 2004.
“We are not thinking beyond making the playoffs,” said United’ head coach Ben Olsen. “I think this team has improved from last year. I think that is pretty evident. That is enough. We still have to get in the playoffs to make that progress valid.”
That the Crew is involved in such an important match for United is nothing new. In the early years of MLS United against the Crew was one of the league’s strongest rivalries. In three seasons from 1997-1999 United eliminated the Crew in the playoffs to advance to the championship game.
More recently it was the Crew that prevented United from being a part of the 2008 MLS Cup playoffs. United was only a year removed from winning the Supporter’s Shield in 2007 and needed a win against the Crew on the final day of the 2008 season to make the playoffs. The Crew won at home 1-0.
This time it is Columbus that is facing an almost must-win situation against United. The Crew is in sixth place in the Eastern Conference and only one point behind Houston for a playoff spot. The Crew has been resilient getting late goals in its last two games to secure valuable points. A loss to United would not eliminate the Crew, but make its road to the playoffs more complicated.
The loss of Dwayne De Rosario to a knee injury in Canada’s now failed World Cup bid was expected to complicate United’s post season path. De Rosario has been missed, but United is unbeaten in five games without him. United has secured points from its last four games with just one goal in each game.
“We have put balls away when we have needed to,” United leading scorer Chris Pontius. “Our defense has been clutch. Obviously I would like to get the offense going. We have had De Ro (Dwayne De Rosario) out and we have had to shuffle guys in. But part of it has been sloppiness on offense by me and some other guys.”
In the last four games United has received its four goals from four different scorers. Lionard Pajoy saved United in a road win over Philadelphia. Branko Boskovic delivered United a 1-0 win over Chivas USA. Chris Ponitus scored in a 1-1 draw with Portland and in it s last game Hamdi Salihi’s 88th minute goal was the difference in a1-0 win at Toronto.
For Salihi it was his first goal since the end of June and a credit to United’s team spirit. Roles have changed on both offense and defense, but as team the players have stayed together. Now for the first time since 2007 United has a chance to determine its playoff fate before the final day of the season. It would be helpful with United closing the season at Chicago.
“When I first realized we had the opportunity to do it (make playoffs) in front of our fans that added extra incentive on top of everything,” said goalkeeper Bill Hamid who grew up a United fan. “The fans deserve this opportunity as well. They have been with us through thick and thin and they deserve an opportunity to celebrate with us.”