It has been a tale of two seasons for D.C. United this year. At the beginning of the 2018 campaign, the Black-and-Red were struggling to earn points, faced with a difficult schedule that saw them play almost entirely on the road. But in the second half of the year, things started to pick up, and United have fought their way back into playoff contention. Many from the outside will credit that shift to the arrival of Wayne Rooney, but Head Coach Ben Olsen will point to other additional factors—including the return of players like Russell Canouse, the increased production of Luciano Acosta, and the opening of the new stadium—to United's resurgence.
Now, as D.C. look to finish out an impressive couple of months by clinching a spot in the playoffs, it's clear that United are playing with a different mentality than they had in the beginning of the year, or even in recent years past. The Black-and-Red have shown they have the confidence necessary to finish out games, compete with the league's toughest teams, and fight back to earn come-from-behind wins. They know how important their final stretch of regular season games is, but they also know that they are capable of winning when the pressure is on.
“We just have to keep pushing,” Olsen said about the playoff race, “and we have another ‘most important game of the season’ next weekend. And that’s just kind of how it's going to roll for the rest of the year, and that’s okay. I trust our guys are up for it. I don’t think we had the greatest performance [against Chicago], but there is a belief in the group that on days like this, we can still get three points. That’s extremely important and I think that’s something we lacked earlier in the year.”
“There is a different mentality,” Olsen continued. “It’s simply a group mentality.”
Instead of relying on individual talent, United's players are making decisions as a group, using their collective strengths to surge closer toward the postseason. They have displayed a willingness to work harder and cover for their teammates, and their increased sense of camaraderie has extended off the pitch as well, as shown through team-led initiatives such as the English players taking Spanish lessons, and the Spanish players taking English lessons. The Black-and-Red are approaching the final stretch of the season as a unit, and that mentality will be critical as they prepare to face some of the top teams in MLS.
“We’ve got three very good teams coming to this building over the next few weeks," Olsen said. "Dallas, Toronto, and New York City. They’re all as good as they come in this league, so we’ll have a huge test, but I think we’ll be up for it.”
Midfielder Paul Arriola echoed Olsen's sentiments, but also emphasized how United are challenging each other to take things one match at a time, despite the heightened importance of every remaining game.
“The more we can win now, the easier we make it on ourselves," Arriola said. "Obviously, we have known for awhile now that a lot of these games are must-wins. The game against Dallas—obviously a strong Dallas team in first place in the West—they’re going to come and try to maintain their position and spoil it for us. As long as we all focus on getting the three points against Dallas, I think we’ll be good.”
D.C. United will host FC Dallas at Audi Field on Saturday, Oct. 13 in yet another huge matchup in the District. Saturday gives the Black-and-Red an opportunity for three more points, and the potential to jump into a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference should they continue their winning ways at Audi Field. It won’t be an easy matchup against the No. 1 team in the West, but the Black-and-Red are collectively locked in, confident, and ready to face the next challenge at hand.