As the march to the 2015 MLS Cup continues, D.C. United is looking to overcome a late summer slump in time to make waves in the playoffs. After overcoming New York City FC in stoppage time on October 2nd, D.C. United put together a more positive performance against the Chicago Fire on Fan Appreciation Night. Head Coach Ben Olsen has routinely discussed United needing to put together positive streaks, and it has never been truer than now; with only one game left in the regular season, the price of a negative streak is likely another early playoff exit.
D.C. United Ignites Playoff Hopes, Extinguishes Fire
The 2015 D.C. United season largely followed the mold of 2014, with United jumping out to an early Eastern Conference lead and even an extended stint of contention for the Supporters’ Shield. A late season cool off struck D.C. both this season and last, but with the meltdown coming a little bit sooner this year, a course correction at least appears to have begun. If D.C. can continue to build going into the playoffs, they could prove very dangerous on multiple fronts.
The Upstarts: Fabian Espindola, Chris Pontius, and Markus Halsti
- D.C. United have not been a truly attacking team for several seasons. But with players like Fabian Espindola and Chris Pontius returning to form, combined with consistent and creative players like Chris Rolfe, it has created an offensive spark for D.C. in recent matches.
- Ben Olsen: “[Chris Pontius] has changed the way we can play right now….He’s playing very simple, he’s connecting passes, and he’s moving off the ball. Sometimes when you do the simple things right, you get rewarded. He’s anticipating plays. Defensively he’s putting in real shifts. I’m happy for him. It’s been a long year. It always seems to be a long year for Chris and he finds his way through it.”
- Markus Halsti, who I have criticized as a turnover machine throughout the summer, had his first strong showing in several weeks. As goal-scoring and chance-creating players hit their stride going into the playoffs, D.C. United should see more dangerous shots from more dangerous places.
The Core: Bill Hamid, Chris Rolfe, and Perry Kitchen
- This trio of players have proven indispensable for D.C. United. Consistent performances from Perry Kitchen and Bill Hamid have earned them each national team call ups throughout 2015, and they look to be options for the next generation of the U.S. Men’s National Team.
- Perry Kitchen, in particular, can dictate the success or failure of D.C. United on any given day, with his greatest strengths being the sheer number of passes he completes (1166 so far this season) and his passing accuracy (86%).
The X Factors: Alvaro Saborio and Nick DeLeon
- For different reasons, DeLeon allows D.C. a certain degree of unpredictability. He has been brilliant in his defensive work throughout the season, while also dazzling the fans with his penetrating runs down the center of the field in recent weeks. D.C. United has not attacked down the middle much in recent years, preferring to play the ball down the flank and hit in a cross; DeLeon’s dribbling, in particular, let him excel at attacking the center backs directly agaist Chicago.
- Saborio leads the team in shot accuracy (71% off of 24 shots), and when he comes off the bench he has enough in the tank to consistently pressure and threaten opposing defenses. Combined with a healthy Espindola and the ever-consistent Rolfe, this trio is capable of stretching opposing defenses, creating gaps for players like Pontius and DeLeon to penetrate centrally and put dangerous shots on goal.
Going into next week’s match against the Columbus Crew, playoff seeding has come to a head as a critical motivational factor for several clubs. A win in Columbus guarantees D.C. United a first-round bye, while a draw could do the same depending on the outcome of Toronto FC vs. Montreal Impact FC. If D.C. can keep this positive streak alive heading into the playoffs, they will be one of the only teams beyond Dallas and the Red Bulls who appear to be hitting a stride, setting them up for possible success.