By AVI CREDITOR
D.C. United is on the cusp of earning what has turned into a rare distinction for the club this deep into the season in recent years. With a win over the New England Revolution Saturday night, D.C. would enter its three-week international break in first place in the Eastern Conference.
"I've never been a part of that since I've signed," third-year goalkeeper Bill Hamid said. "Being able to say we're at the top of the conference, and if we stay focused, we can definitely find a playoff spot, is something exciting and something you want to continue working hard for."
D.C.'s turnaround can be attributed to many factors, one of which is the club's tremendous depth. Five players have at least three goals apiece, 15 players have at least one assist and success has been achieved despite a rash of injuries up and down the roster. That's not to say the club is happy where it is. Now that D.C. has found a rhythm, the mantra in training these days is to avoid complacency.
"I think we're up there, but we're not where we want to be at this point," midfielder Perry Kitchen said. "There's other great teams in this league, and we just have to stay consistent. We can put two losses in a row and we're back in fifth or sixth, so consistency is the key and just staying focused."
Maintaining that hunger across the board is coach Ben Olsen's biggest task going forward. Other teams in the league have had extended periods of success before falling into a bit of a lull, and Olsen is wary of that happening to his club.
"When you start having a little bit of success the tendency is to turn it down a little bit, and unfortunately, the teams that come in and play you turn it up," Olsen said. "We have to make sure that we keep getting better and make sure that our mentality is still one of hunger and aggression and one with a chip on our shoulder, because it's been a long time since we've had any success at this club. It's not about beating Torontos and feeling good about ourselves. It's about winning championships and trying to get this team to where we, as an organization, need it to be."
INJURED PLAYERS NEARING RETURN
Perhaps what's most impressive of what D.C. United has been able to accomplish over the last few games is that they've done so without four of their more productive starters.
Pontius, Maicon Santos, Nick DeLeon and Emiliano Dudar are all on the verge of returning to the playing field after dealing with various muscle strains in recent weeks. Not that the club has skipped a beat without them.
"People look at the lineups and say, 'Oh, this isn't their best lineup,' but we're getting wins," Pontius said. "And it's not like we're just squeaking by. A lot of them are convincing wins. The team has done well and adjusted, and everyone has come in and played their part."
Starting forwards Pontius and Santos, who have a combined 11 goals, were both hurt in the club's loss at Houston on May 12 and have been replaced up top by Dwayne De Rosario and Hamdi Salihi. All those two have done in their place is combine for all of D.C.'s five goals in the last two games.
"They've all been killers and goalscorers this year, which is a good thing," Kitchen said. "At any point during the game we can score. If we're down a goal I feel like we're still dangerous, still getting chances. It's great to have guys that have a knack for scoring goals. Each player is different, but whoever is out there we have confidence that they're going to score and get the job done."
DeLeon, meanwhile, has given way to a combination of Lewis Neal, Branko Boskovic and Andy Najar on the left wing, while left back Daniel Woolard has pitched in admirably at centerback with Dudar and Dejan Jakovic hurt, though Jakovic returned off the bench in D.C.'s win over Toronto FC last weekend.
"It just shows the level of talent we have on the team," Olsen said. "We had a couple of injuries last year, we were in trouble. This year, I feel like we have more depth and more talent and a little bit more hunger in filling in voids."
Even though right back Robbie Russell and right winger Danny Cruz have fresh hamstring injuries, D.C.'s depth is about to be extended, as those four injured pieces are all on the cusp of returning. DeLeon was on the verge of returning last week, but the club elected to hold him out for another week, a choice that paid major dividends.
"I think (the hamstring) needed that extra week," DeLeon said. "Before it was on the border, but I think that was the best choice (to wait), because now it feels great."
Santos, who leads the club with six goals, said he fully expected to be a part of the lineup on Saturday after missing the last two matches with a calf strain.
"I feel good," said Santos, who added that he will be at FedEx Field on Wednesday to watch his native Brazil take on the U.S. men's national team. "It's nice to come back and strike some balls like that again. For sure, I expect to play. I expect to be there and score some goals."
PROTECTING HOME FIELD
RFK Stadium hasn't been the kindest of places to D.C. over the last couple of years. United has taken that upon themselves to rectify that problem. With the team's five home wins already exceeding the home win totals achieved in 2011 (four) and 2010 (three), the mission to "take back RFK" is fully underway.
"That's been a huge thing (Olsen) been preaching about, that 'Take Back RFK,'" DeLeon said. "We have to build that fear into the league where when you come here it's going to be a tough, hard environment to play in. You're not going to come in here and expect to get three points, you're going to expect to lose three points. That's the kind of mentality we're trying to build with this team, and so far it's going well."
D.C. is 5-1-2 at home, with the only loss coming on opening night to Sporting Kansas City — on a goal scored in second-half stoppage time.
DYKSTRA LOANED TO CHARLESTON AGAIN
For a third time this season, Andrew Dykstra is going on loan to the Charleston Battery.
Dykstra was loaned to the USL Pro club until June 10 after two previous stints in which the club went 3-2-0 with him in goal. Dykstra, D.C.'s third goalkeeper, will be eligible to play in five more games during this stint with the Battery.