A funny thing happened to D.C. United in its bid for a second postseason appearance. Okay it wasn’t so funny. In fact United’s playoff push seemed over before it started. Still as the Black and Red close the 2013 campaign Sunday at home against Houston, they do so with a mixture of pride and optimism.
This is not rose-colored glasses stuff. There was real disappointment for United in 2013, but it serves no purpose to go around with heads down. To United’s credit the team played through a collapsing Major League Soccer schedule, captured the U.S. Open Cup, and now will be part of the CONCACAF Champions League next season.
“Nothing went right at the start of the season and we did hit a bottom,” said United general manager Dave Kasper. “I believe the bad times are over. We made some quality signings in the middle of the season and that made a difference over these last three months.”
It’s not that the results dramatically changed for United over the final three months, but the quality of play was better. Since the beginning of August United in twelve matches has only one win and three draws with eight losses. That’s a hardly convincing run, but it served as a shop window for new additions.
There are players like midfielder Collin Martin who is clearly in United’s future plans. Martin was developed in United’s academy and after a season at Wake Forest has proven he is ready for MLS play. The same could be said of a fellow mid-season arrival Jared Jeffrey who has chipped in two goals in his nine appearances.
There are decisions to be made. Conor Doyle is on loan from English side Derby County and he fits into United’s plan to build with young talent. In 13 matches Doyle has netted two goals and demonstrated the kind of attacking flair that is reminiscent of his father David Doyle, who was a prolific scorer in the Major Indoor Soccer League’s heyday in the late '80s.
The question is whether or not Doyle has unveiled enough to make United want to turn the loan deal into a permanent move. There is a strong case for keeping Doyle. United’s season careened out of control as it struggled to create quality scoring chances. For the first half of the season United just did not have any bite to its attack. Doyle added bite to the attack.
Part of United’s early struggles on offense can be attributed to lingering injuries to Dwayne De Rosario, Chris Pontius, and Nick De Leon. Pontius and De Leon have to be healthy and effective for United to be a contender going forward. De Rosario still could have a role, but he might have to take a salary cut to stay with United.
It’s ironic then that United closes the regular season against the Houston Dynamo. It was just last November that United was battling the Dynamo for passage to MLS Cup 2012. The Dynamo won the Eastern Conference final series, but this time around hits the final week of the regular season trying to break into the postseason.
The Dynamo is on 48 points, even with New England, but in sixth place because the Revolution has a better goal difference. The Dynamo could really use the full three points from its match against United. Even a win does not guarantee the Dynamo a playoff spot. A tie would only work for the Dynamo if New England loses to Columbus later on Sunday.
Sunday is also billed as United’s fan appreciation day. Among the highlights defender Dejan Jakoic will play ping-pong with season ticket holders pregame in the Champions Club. Yes the players want to personally thank their supporters. All 13 of the club’s trophies, including the newest addition the 2013 U.S. Open Cup, will be on display for fans to get a glimpse of.
A win over the Dynamo would complete the fan appreciation day script. Regardless of Sunday’s result, United is about to head into an off season where additions will have to be made to give the Black and Red a legitimate chance to compete for a 14th trophy.
Sunday should be about fun. The real serious business of forging a future for D.C. United will begin after the final whistle.