Just inside D.C. United's locker room sits an easel. Written on that easel, is a list of ten club goals for the 2012 season. Split into three categories and ranging from the specific 'crosses, defend the box' to the abstract, 'more bite' the list serves as a daily reminder of what is expected of the Black-and-Red.
Unlisted, but not unspoken, is the single most important goal: Breaking the club's four-year playoff drought.
"It's everything," said Brandon McDonald last week. "Looking at how we finished last year, the group of guys we have are a strong group of players, so for us not making the playoffs is unacceptable. We've got to lock down right now."
For now, with six games left in their campaign, D.C. occupies the Eastern Conferences' fifth and final playoff spot. A precarious position for sure, but not one the Black-and-Red would trade.
"Everyone knows where we stand," confirmed Chris Pontius, who wore the captain's armband for Saturday's 2-1 win over New England. "What you ask at this time in the season is that you are in the race and that you control your own destiny. We do. We have both of those in our hands."
To gain further perspective on how all consuming the playoff push has become within the D.C. locker room, one only has to look at the list of things it has dwarfed in recent weeks. After scoring his 100th career goal in a 2-2 draw with New York last month, Dwayne De Rosario was almost apologetic during his post-match remarks, more concerned with the two points left behind on RFK's field than the massive bit of history he had just made. Later that night, the Atlantic Cup, Major League Soccer's most historic rivalry trophy, finally home after a two-year sentence in New Jersey - sat uncelebrated on a cluttered shelf in the dressing room.
During his pregame induction into the club's Hall of Tradition on Saturday, Ben Olsen's facial expressions projected the urgency of D.C.'s postseason push. Surrounded by family, Olsen could hardly muster a smile, at times looking even annoyed, as he anxiously waited for the moment to end.
Think about it. One of the club's greatest players, receiving the club's greatest honor, couldn't wait for it all to be over. That's how big the playoffs are.
Even Dwayne De Rosario's season-ending injury, which some have labeled as a death sentence for D.C.'s postseason hopes, has been overshadowed by the desperate dash for inclusion in Major League Soccer's knockout tournament.
"It's not that DeRo going down fell to the wayside, but it's one of those situations where we were so focused on the three points that we didn't allow [his injury] to overwhelm us," said Robbie Russell after the triumph over New England.
Few know more about the playoffs - and success there, than Russell. He won a title with Real Salt Lake in 2009, and hasn't missed the postseason in any of his four MLS seasons.
Last week, in a players meeting, Russell put his experience, and the pressure of D.C.'s playoff obsession into words.
"There's always that period where a team realizes that - if they want to have a taste of something they will remember the rest of their lives - it needs to start now," Russell said. "There are two months left in the season. That is two months of your whole life. You can give up two months for something that is going to stay with you forever. It's always helped when someone has pointed that out at some point."
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