DC's playoff push eerily similar to 2008
WASHINGTON -- D.C. United traveled to Columbus for their final league match of the 2008 campaign, needing a win in order to snare the final spot in the MLS Cup Playoffs. But United clanged several shots off the Crew woodwork before Brad Evans uncorked a long-distance thunderbolt to hand the home side a 1-0 triumph and doom D.C. to an early offseason, setting off a painful winter of soul-searching and roster reshuffling in the nation's capital.Twelve months and 15 new players later, United find themselves back in the same uncomfortable position, hitting the road for a pressure-packed finale where a victory is the only option if they are to have any chance at the postseason.With Chicago having defeated Chivas USA on Thursday, United are one of six wild-card contenders gunning for just two remaining playoff berths. D.C must defeat Kansas City at CommunityAmerica Ballpark on Saturday night and hope that several other teams stumble on their travels as they look to avoid missing out for a second consecutive season."That's just the situation that we're in. All we can do is go out to Kansas City and get the three points," said D.C. defender Dejan Jakovic on Thursday. "There's not too much to it. We've got to come out strong and fight like we've been doing the last couple games, and hope for the best."United have had their backs to the wall for some time now, but their last two results offer reasons for encouragement, starting with the back line play of Jakovic and his mates.With a 1-0 win over the Crew last weekend and a 1-1 draw at Toluca in CONCACAF Champions League play, D.C. has allowed just one goal in 180 minutes of play against quality sides over the past week and similar stinginess will be imperative when United take on the Wizards. As coaches and players acknowledge, desperation seems to have finally brought a sharper edge to the team's play."We've had a lot of games recently that were must-win games and finally we've, as a group, gotten the mentality to where we need to be -- disciplined, hard," said right back Lawson Vaughn. "And we definitely are motivated to get the results. We did against Columbus, we got a decent one against Toluca and we're looking to get the 'W' this weekend."Yet Tom Soehn's team has taken an improbable route to rearguard solidity. The D.C. defense likely to take the field on Saturday looks dramatically different from the unit that started the season on opening day in Los Angeles, with Vaughn, Julius James and goalkeeper Steve Cronin all having joined the club in recent weeks. Even Jakovic, who represents the foundation of the back line, only arrived in the final stages of preseason.The squad has also had to get familiar with the different spacing and responsibilities required in the 3-5-2 and 4-4-2 formations that United have used interchangeably this year.Cronin's contributions have been the most surprising, given the speed with which he got acquainted with his teammates and slotted into the first XI after arriving in D.C. on loan less than a week before the Columbus match. He was brought in under the league's hardship provision following season-ending injuries to Josh Wicks, but his efforts thus far might well have made him a candidate for a permanent move next season."I think our defense has been, in general, really good. Of course [opponents] always have opportunities, but the opportunities for the most part that other teams have had have been opportunities that I'm comfortable dealing with," said the former Galaxy netminder. "The defense has been great and on the other of the field I think it gives the forwards and attacking players the confidence in what they have going on behind them to take some risks and get some goals. So I think that's going to be huge going forward."Cronin will need to deliver again in a high-stakes situation in K.C. The Wizards have been eliminated from contention but remain capable of posing any number of problems for the Black-and-Red, who have won just two league games away from RFK Stadium this year. Peter Vermes' team presents plenty of attacking weapons like Claudio Lopez and Josh Wolff, and can be expected to take a cavalier approach as they finish their season with little of the stress that burdens United's shoulders."They throw a lot into the attack and they've got some guys that can hurt you. So you have to make sure you're compact and organized," said Soehn. "But they're also susceptible to the counterattack, they get stretched quite a bit so we're going to have to make use of that. When we played there last time, we created plenty of opportunities and I expect that we'll get some [on Saturday]. We just have to make sure we do a good job of closing the door on their guys."United notched a 1-1 draw on their first trip to CommunityAmerica but a win is mandatory on this occasion, which adds up to some tough decisions for Soehn and his staff. D.C. used its 3-5-2 shape to take the game to the Crew last week, but that might open up space for Kansas City's frontline and giving up the first goal could be disastrous given the pressure Soehn's men are under.But a more cautious mentality presents danger in its own right, as frontrunner Boyzzz Khumalo said on Thursday."We just need to create more chances, I think," he said. "Sometimes we're too defensive, we're scared to to go forward and I think if we go forward and create chances, we have a better chance. I mean, we have nothing to lose at this point -- we can't sit back and play defense all the time."However the game might play out, United's collective resilience will be vital. A team that looked dreadfully short on confidence two months ago seems to have recovered the mental strength necessary to fight for its playoff lives."They're competing, they're playing for each other. They're pretty organized. The possession can still get better but I think that's improving as we go. And everybody knows it's on the line every game, so they're stepping up to the challenge," said Soehn this week. "In this stage of the game, with so much on the line, I think the team's in a good place confidence-wise and knowing that we can go on the road and get a result."