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Strengthened mentality key for late-season playoff run

Less than three months ago, D.C. United were looking up at the rest of the conference, sitting in last place in the East. They were coming off of a first half of the season that saw them play 12 of their first 14 games of the season on the road, with their two designated home games played at local venues outside of the District. The Black-and-Red knew that to extend their season into the playoffs, they would have to open their new home, Audi Field, with an exceptional run of performances.

What followed has even the most optimistic of supporters amazed. Sunday’s draw at Chicago meant that United finished the 2018 regular season on a 10-game unbeaten run, the club’s longest since 2007. Out of the last 30 available points of the regular season, United claimed 24. In addition to the results on the field, the Black-and-Red cultivated a strengthened group mentality that would see them fight through incredible odds to host the Eastern Conference Knockout Round. 

“I think everyone is delighted,” captain Wayne Rooney said about the team’s recent performances. “To finish fourth in the league from where we were is a great achievement.”

The performance in Chicago mirrored the resolve that United players have shown throughout the season. After playing into a strong headwind in the first half, the Black-and-Red came out to a cold rain in the second half, making the game about holding on to a crucial point against a shifty attack. A resolute defense, bolstered by the return of outside back Nick DeLeon, limited the Fire to only a handful of chances at goal. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid stood strong to make two critical stops, including one right out of halftime on a dangerous corner that got caught in the unpredictable Chicago wind, to secure the clean sheet.

“We showed the determination which we have shown over previous weeks,” Rooney said post match. “First of all, we kept a clean sheet. And we stayed in the game. Thankfully tonight it moved us up a place, which will give us a home game.”

While celebrating this season’s reversal of fortunes and their return to the playoffs, the Black-and-Red know that the joy of clinching their spot in the postseason means little without a strong showing in the Knockout Round. Here, they'll face a Columbus team that clinched the fifth seed after a weather-delayed 3-2 win over Minnesota United. The two teams split their regular season series, with each team grabbing three points at home. United's win came in a gritty showing at Navy Marine-Corps Memorial Stadium, holding on to a 1-0 scoreline for 90 minutes after Ulises Segura scored just 43 seconds into the game.

“The satisfaction has to be put on hold and we have to try to move on and get more in our next game," Rooney said. "We have to try to get through that game, and we’ve given ourselves a better chance obviously with the game being at home." 

This Thursday will mark the return of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs to D.C. and will open what United will hope to be a long postseason history at Audi Field. The inaugural regular season at their new fortress ended with five straight wins; during this five game stretch, visiting teams were outscored 12-2. United's late-season tenacity secured an impressive record of 12-2-1 at Audi Field, but the Black-and-Red know their regular season showing is not enough. An early exit won’t be the kind of ending their remarkable turnaround deserves, and a home playoff game is exactly what they hope can ignite a postseason run that seemed inconceivable to many just a few months ago.