D.C. United’s task was pretty simple in their final game of the season: score against the worst defensive team in MLS history, who were playing down two men, and United would secure a home playoff game.
That task proved to be too much.
When the final whistle blew at Audi Field on Oct. 6, D.C. United had tied FC Cincinnati 0-0. Ben Olsen’s side failed to get on the scoreboard despite playing the entire second half with 11 players to their opponents’ nine after two first-half red cards.
“Given the circumstances in the second half, you’d like to be able to score a goal or two,” Olsen said after the game.
But D.C. United couldn’t find the back of the net and now instead of opening up the MLS playoffs at home, the team will travel to face Toronto FC on Saturday in an elimination game.
Though United will enter the postseason on the back of a disappointing result, there are still reasons for optimism heading into the playoffs.
Despite the presence of Wayne Rooney in attack, that optimism mostly stems from United’s defense, which has rounded into record-breaking form at the perfect time.
The scoreless draw with Cincinnati means United has now set an all-time MLS record with five consecutive shutouts, with the club currently on a run of 504 straight minutes without conceding a goal.
“It’s an impressive feat and one that I’m proud of,” Olsen says.
Bill Hamid is one of three finalists for MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, while center backs Steve Birnbaum and Frédéric Brillant have both put together standout individual seasons. But Olsen insists that a dominant defensive run requires more than defenders and a goalkeeper.
“It’s easy to single out certain individuals like Steve and Fred, Bill,” Olsen says. “Felipe [Martins] has brought a little edge to this team defensively, Ola [Kamara], our forwards, Paul [Arriola] coming in at the 10, Ulises [Segura] doing a lot of work up and down to help the wide backs. It’s collective, it really is.”
United’s defensive efforts have helped obscure what’s been a difficult season at the other end of the field. Only three MLS teams scored fewer than United’s 42 goals this season, a stat that was epitomized by the team’s meek effort against Cincinnati.
“In the end, it comes down to execution. We’re not executing in the offensive third,” Arriola says.
United has looked to grind out results by allowing opponents to have more of the ball and looking to strike on the counterattack. That style can prove effective but its limitations were apparent against a nine-man Cincinnati side that dropped back deep and allowed United to have more of the ball. United could not break down a bunkered-in opponent and as a result, United has likely played its final home game of the season.
Olsen’s side would need to get past Toronto FC and then New York City FC on the road before hoping for an upset on the other side of the bracket to secure a home game in the Eastern Conference final.
With that outcome unlikely, United can take solace in its 6-6-5 away record this season, good for third best in MLS.
“We’ve been tough to beat on the road and we’ve had successes so hopefully that continues,” Olsen says. “It’s going to have to if we want to get past a good Toronto team.”
United secured a 0-0 draw on the road against Toronto earlier this season and it may require a similar low-scoring affair on Saturday to see Olsen’s side through to the Eastern Conference semifinal.
“Toronto is a good team but we went there earlier this year and got a result,” Hamid says. “If we have the same discipline and the same mindset, we can definitely pull out a win in Toronto.”