A Different DC United Reaches a Familiar Stage

WASHINGTON — Another year, another trip to the MLS Cup Playoffs for D.C. United. But where past recent editions of the Black and Red have come up short, this year’s club hopes its transformed identity yields a better result.

This year marks the third consecutive playoff appearance and 13th overall for D.C. United, who will face the Montreal Impact in the knockout round, a winner-take-all game Thursday evening at RFK Stadium. United advanced out of that same game last year with a 2-1 win over the New England Revolution, only to fall to the top seeded New York Red Bulls in the two-leg conference semifinal, 2-0.

The bad news is that, should they advance, United will host the Red Bulls, again the top overall seed and owners of a 16-game unbeaten streak Sunday in the first of a home-and-home series to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. The good news is that United hasn’t lost to NYRB this year, beating them 2-0 at home in mid-May, then drawing home and road matches 21 days apart in August and September.

But perhaps the best news is that, after years of making their mark as a stalwart defensive club, United’s offense has transformed into the most potent in MLS down the stretch of the regular season.

“Being able to win in different ways is important in this league,” said head coach Ben Olsen earlier this month.

Olsen has had to shuffle his personnel due to injuries and roster changes, but seems to have found the right formula at the right time.

United ranks fifth in the league in goals scored with 53, a decent if not head-turning mark. But something changed over the last two months of the season. They scored 26 of those goals in the final nine games of the campaign — an average of 2.9 per game, compared to just 27 in their first 25 games — as they finished 5-2-2 to secure the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. Significantly, United scored multiple goals in each of those nine contests, something they did just 11 times all season in 2015.

Additions from both New York teams — Lloyd Sam from the Red Bulls and Patrick Mullins from New York City FC — have transformed the Black and Red’s attack into one of the most formidable in the league. Lamar Neagle still leads the club with nine goals, but Mullins netted eight in just over half as many minutes since coming to D.C. And Sam has added three tallies (on just 13 shots) and pitched in a half-dozen assists.

The personnel changes have also opened new doors for 22-year-old midfielder Luciano Acosta, whose 11 assists lead the club.

“We made some changes in the summer that really boosted our attack with Patrick Mullins, (Patrick) Nyarko coming back healthy and the addition of Lloyd Sam,” said Olson. “And I think Acosta is starting to figure himself out with us and in the league.”

The Black and Red still have US Men’s National Team members Steve Birnbaum in defense and Bill Hamid tending the net, anchoring a strong, veteran back line along with Taylor Kemp and Bobby Boswell. That group needs to be even more reliable in this year’s playoffs with the open, attacking style of play the team has adopted, as it leaves them more vulnerable than before to counterattacks.

“Defense, knock on wood, hasn’t been our issue — we’ve always been pretty sound and committed on the defensive end and we have experienced center backs,” said Olsen. “But, Sean Franklin is out, Marcelo Sarvas is out, Chris Korb didn’t play this year and Chris Rolfe has been out since day one … Nick DeLeon has moved to right back and is filling the void. There a lot of things … this has been a real group effort, and that is very satisfying as a coach.”

Thursday’s game against Montreal kicks off at 7:30 p.m. The start time for Sunday’s home leg against New York Red Bulls, should D.C. United advance, has not yet been announced.

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