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Is DC United Truly a Playoff Contender?

5626494072 cefa40e8f1 Is DC United Truly a Playoff Contender?

Photo by Connor Turner

Those who know my writing know that I have an affinity for DC United and have followed the team, with varying levels of intensity, since its inception. So it should surprise no one that I have been closely following the Black-and-Red this season, not just because of rooting interest but because this has shaped up to be an intriguing season for a number of reasons. Ownership essentially hit reboot after last year’s disastrous campaign and brought in a new coach who was incredibly familiar to MLS fans. The team went through a semi-purge and brought back to the States a striker who needed redemption after a horrible accident and a seeming snub from the national team picture. MLS’s most honored franchise itself needed to remain relevant in an era of flashy new franchises and stars, more professional play, and a growing distance between the dominant days of the late 1990s/early 2000s.

So more than halfway through the season, DC stands a much-improved team over last season. They sit in the middle of the Eastern Conference and two points off the final wild card spot. Their defense has shown signs of improvement while their offense has shown signs of explosiveness. Like many MLS teams, DC United is good but not great, and the next two months will determine if they can reach a the next level where they can grab a playoff spot. In the Eastern Conference, this may well mean a top-three seed.

Which brings me to the original question: is the 2011 version of DC United good enough to make the playoffs? Below are a series of pros and cons of if they should be considered playoff contenders. Agree or disagree? Sound off in the comments section.

DC United Should be Considered Favorites to Make the Playoffs

Dwayne De Rosario: Right now the trade with New York is looking like genius for the Black-and-Red. During a stretch where Charlie Davies is looking a bit worn-down and some key offensive players have struggled, the former MLS MVP is kicking it into another gear.  He essentially willed DC to a draw against Toronto when down a man the entire game, he broke through with two goals in San Jose when a scoreless draw looked likely, and he has set up teammates countless times for scoring chances. This was the DeRo New York hoped they were trading for, and if he continues to play this way he should be considered for the MVP award. Regarding DC’s playoff chances, he gives them the opportunity to win every game just through his play-making ability and is arguably still one of the league’s top players.

Favorable Schedule: Here is DC’s next four matches – Vancouver, at Chicago, at Kansas City, and Portland. While not a cakewalk, DC has a much easier slate of opponents in the next three months than many of its competitors in the Eastern Conference. It has already played Los Angeles, Dallas, Colorado, and New York twice and will play Real Salt Lake at home. While they still have to go to Philly and Seattle, their schedule is loaded with teams in the lower half of the league including Chicago and Vancouver twice.  And the team still has games in hand over the teams in front of it, providing them with the opportunity to pick up points while opponents are idle.

Weak Eastern Conference: While New York, Philadelphia, and Columbus are generally acknowledged to be the top three teams in the Eastern Conference, the truth is DC is only three points behind the third-place Red Bulls with two games in hand.  Even with a negative goal difference, there are no unbeatable teams in the Eastern Conference that would prevent DC from advancing in the standings.  All three of the top teams have weaknesses and the two teams in front of DC (KC and Houston) have even bigger question marks, with DC playing Kansas City twice in the next two months. If United were in the Western Conference, they would have to settle for a wild card run but in the East, they could make a play for a seeded spot.

Away Wins: DC United’s away record this year has been quite impressive: 4-3-3 with a zero goal differential.  Their impressive results include draws at the Home Depot Center, Pizza Hut Park, and Rio Tinto, and wins at JELD-WEN (first MLS team to do so) and Red Bull Arena. While there have been some embarrassing  results as well, this team shows impressive fortitude on the road and is not afraid to play in even the toughest arenas, which sets them up nicely to late-season visits to Kansas City, Chivas USA, and Seattle.

DC United at This Point Should Not Be Considered Playoff Contenders

Home Record: With the 3-3 result hosting Toronto, DC United has now fallen to 2-3-6 at home on the year, including seven straight MLS games without a win at home. When you consider the great fan support the team receives, such a record is completely unacceptable. To compound the problem, the draws and losses seem to happen in inexplicable ways: late comebacks by Houston and Philadelphia as well as dominating New England before allowing a late counter. No serious playoff team can play so poorly at home, and the ultimate test for DC’s playoff aspirations occurs this Saturday when Vancouver (winless on the road) visits RFK Stadium.

Defensive Liabilities: While the team has improved defensively from last season through trades both before and during this season, the back-five for the Black-and-Red are an impediment that could prevent this team from making the playoffs. While Bill Hamid is the future of the U.S. national team, he’s only 20 in his first full MLS season as a starter, and his red card on Saturday shows that he is still learning the position. Fellow starter Perry Kitchen is a rookie and 19 years old, while Dejan Jakovic is coming off a long-term injury. The backs also have a tendency towards maddening displays of carelessness; it was starter Brandon McDonald’s failure to corral the ball in the 7th minute that led to Hamid’s red.

Lack of Set Piece Performance: Credit to Chris Webb on the MLS Talk Podcast for bringing up this talking point about DC United, but the team struggles mightily on set pieces and corner kicks on both ends of the field. Until Saturday’s De Rosario goal (which was in no way defended well) the Black-and-Red had gone an insanely long number of games since its prior set pieces goal and in the past few seasons have struggled to score when awarded a free kick in the opponent’s territory. And when defending set pieces it’s even worse: witness the breakdowns in the games versus Houston and New England, among others. DC simply cannot defend corner kicks consistently to this point, a scary proposition in late games.

Whither the goals? We all know DeRo can score and can score a lot, but can he score enough? Charlie Davies has slowed down after his fast start, likely due to his continued physical rehabilitation and teams learning how to defend him. While Chris Pontius is dangerous, he can go through stretches where he tends to hit the post or drift too far inside to play effectively on the wing. The DC offense needs to be more consistent and a scorer needs to step up to take the current load off of DeRo. The players are there, they just need to take that next step.