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New role as spoilers a rallying cry for D.C.

Long eliminated from postseason, can United still make an impact?

WASHINGTON — Three weeks ago they dealt a hammer blow to Toronto’s playoff prospects by winning 1-0 at BMO Field. Last weekend, they stunned the red-hot Rapids with a surprising victory in Colorado.

Interim coach Ben Olsen claims the spoiler’s role has little value for his D.C. United squad – “I’m certainly not preaching that,” he said on Tuesday – but the Black-and-Red nonetheless seem to enjoy making life difficult for postseason-chasing opposition.

“We’ve had our playoff hopes spoiled in the past couple of years, so it’s a mindset to try to do that to other people,” defender Devon McTavish said this week. “It’s just part of the game. It’s something that brings your competitiveness out. So there’s still a lot to play for, even though maybe we won’t get rewarded for it as much as we would like.”

United will have another opportunity to impact the MLS playoff picture on Saturday. The San Jose Earthquakes visit RFK Stadium looking for three points that could, depending on other results, officially qualify them for the postseason for the first time since their expansion rebirth two years ago.

It’s a tribute to Olsen’s motivational abilities that his charges have mostly matched or exceeded the intensity of higher-ranked opponents. United have started well – and scored first – in their last four games, something rarely seen in the season’s early stages.

“You typically know from the get-go. Those teams come out flying, they’re trying to get points and I think Benny and the coaching staff have done a good job lately of getting us to come out pretty strong,” McTavish said. “He’s making us fly from the start, even though we’re not in playoff contention. I don’t think we’ve been outmatched in terms of competitiveness.”

It can be painful for a team in D.C.’s position to contemplate the postseason for any length of time, though, and the squad remains inwardly focused. The flaws revealed in this trying campaign have left each player with something to prove.

“The spoiler role is one thing, and I’m sure it’s just a small percentage of what motivates the guys,” assistant coach Mark Simpson said last month. “I think a lot of it has to do with pride and just trying to correct some of the things that they didn’t do in the beginning and the middle of the season.”