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United eye seven-game homestand as path to final playoff spot

After four-and-a-half months on the road, and additional trips to Atlanta, Montreal, New Jersey, and New York City after opening Audi Field on July 14, D.C. United prepare for a seven-match homestand between Wednesday, Sept. 12 and Sunday, Oct. 21 that could see the Black-and-Red rise above the Eastern Conference playoff line should they take advantages of their opportunities at home.

United currently sit two points below the New England Revolution for the conference's seventh-place spot, and five points below the Montreal Impact for the final playoff spot, but have also played two fewer matches than the Canadian squad.

Now, with such an extended homestand coinciding with United's recent improvement in form and surge up the standings, Ben Olsen's side will be eyeing the 21 points on the line as a means to control their own postseason destiny. 

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"Going into these homes games we will try to maximize as many points as we can," defender Kofi Opare said. "I think everyone’s mindset is, 'we are focused, we are ready to go.' We know our responsibilities as a unit and as a team in order to pick up points and make a push for the playoffs."

United will host all but one of their remaining regular season games—a rare luxury for an MLS team during such a pivotal stretch of the season. Between now and the end of October, the Black-and-Red will face Minnesota, the New York Red Bulls, Montreal, Chicago, Dallas, Toronto, and New York City FC at Audi Field before traveling to Chicago to play the Fire in their regular season finale on October 28. And while they've only played eight matches at their new venue so far, United are well on their way to turning the stadium into a fortress, earning a 6-2-0 record and outscoring their opponents 17-9 with the help of the Black-and-Red faithful. 

"We have to continue this run of form we have had," midfielder Chris Durkin said. "We have picked up a lot of wins, important wins, and we want to keep the momentum going."

The homestand presents favorable circumstances from a player's perspective—no travel, at-home routines, the passion of the local fans, and the familiarity of the venue. And with such favorable conditions and positive results since debuting Audi Field, United's players have also experienced a rise in confidence and an increase in belief in their chance at the postseason. That confidence has translated in to a more efficient attack, a more stout defense, and a more cohesive unit overall. 

"It is great to be back home and to have so many games at home," midfielder Paul Arriola said. "It gives an extra boost of confidence to the team, knowing that you are able to play at home and not have to deal with the travel."

While the Black-and-Red have risen from the basement of the conference over the recent weeks, the path to the playoffs will still be no easy feat. United face multiple multi-game weeks, including this week, and will play host to a number of dangerous teams during their homestand. 

Following their Wednesday meeting with Minnesota, United host rivals the Red Bulls again on Sunday, and will look to avenge their two prior losses earlier this season. On September 29, Ben Olsen and co. face Montreal—the side that currently occupies the final playoff spot in the East, the spot for which United are aggressively vying. Then, on October 13, United square off against FC Dallas, the current front-runners in the West with a 14-6-7 record. 

Despite the potential challenges standing between United and a playoff spot, the significant opportunity the seven-match homestand presents has the Black-and-Red excited to return to Audi Field and continue their postseason push, focusing on one game at a time.

"The quicker we can get more points the easier it will be later on in the year," Arriola said. "It is going to be a tight one going for the last spot in the East, that’s definitely not a question, but I think everyone is pretty confident that we will be able to climb up there and eventually take over the sixth spot.”

"Obviously, we see this home stretch we have as extremely important and it is one that we have been looking forward to for a while," Durkin said. "I think we are ready to get to work and just start racking up some points.” 

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