Scouting D.C. United's Potential 1st-Round Playoff Opponents

Ben Olsen, Jim Curtin

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With three games left in the regular season, D.C. United currently sits in fifth place in the Eastern Conference ahead of Sunday's game against the Seattle Sounders. The Black-and-Red haven't yet punched their playoff ticket yet, but two results could ensure their qualification this weekend even before they take the field at Audi Field. 

What is more uncertain at this moment is just where United will end up in the playoff race. D.C. can't catch New York City FC at the top, and it is unlikely that they'll chase down the Philadelphia Union or Atlanta United for that matter as well. In seventh place, the New England Revolution sit five points behind United, albeit with a game in hand. However, given the Revs' recent form, it seems unlikely that they'll catch the Black-and-Red.

That means United will likely end up in fourth, fifth, or sixth place in the Eastern Conference this year. They are currently tied with Toronto FC on 45 points with the same exact record, but they sit behind the Reds based on goal differential. The New York Red Bulls currently occupy sixth, just a point behind United, with a game at Red Bull Arena looming next weekend. 

With all that in mind, here's a look at the three likeliest opponents for United when the playoff kick-off, after the October FIFA window.

1. At The Philadelphia Union

Philly currently sit in second place in the East, a point ahead of the Five Stripes. Both teams have four games left this year, but the final schedule might just favor Atlanta to finish in second place. The Union play their next three games on the road, going Sunday-Wednesday-Sunday to the Red Bulls, San Jose Earthquakes, and Columbus Crew. On the final day, they finish up at home against NYCFC, another tough matchup.

All of that is to say right now, Philly might drop into third place in the East and then host a sixth-placed D.C. United squad. That wouldn't be great for the Black-and-Red, who have never faced off against their I-95 opponents in the playoffs. And United have had a torrid time at Talen Energy Field recently, having not won a game in Chester since 2014. In two league contests this year, the Union triumphed twice: a 3-1 win at home and a resounding 5-1 result on Buzzard Point. 

United might have to eventually face the Union anyway, but avoiding a matchup in the first round might help the Black-and-Red secure their first playoff win since 2015.

2. Home Or Away Against Toronto FC

The last three games of the season retain the utmost importance for United, who could host or visit either TFC or RBNY depending on the results of those games. United have never faced off against the Reds in the postseason, but a game between the two would have plenty of storylines — not least of which would be Nick DeLeon getting another crack at United, after scoring as a visitor at Audi Field earlier this season.

Both games this year yielded a draw between the two clubs. First, United grinded out a 0-0 result at BMO, fielding a reserve side on short rest but keeping a clean sheet despite a barrage of shots for 90 minutes. Then, in June, United snatched a late draw as a Wayne Rooney penalty saved United's blushes at home. 

Despite having several top-notch players including Jozy Altidore and Alejandro Pozuelo, the Reds might just make the most favorable matchup for United. What might determine who would move on between the two teams is where the game is being played, which makes the next three games so important for the Black-and-Red.

3. Home Or Away Against The New York Red Bulls

Up until 2014, United had never lost in the playoffs to their longtime rivals. The aforementioned DeLeon scored one of the most memorable goals for D.C. this decade in 2012 when his late second leg winner saw United triumph once against over the Red Bulls. 

Since then, though, United have played RBNY twice in the playoffs, with the Red Bulls advancing in both instances. In 2014, the NYRB won the first game of their playoff series at home 2-0 and then took advantage of an away goal, moving on despite losing the second leg 2-1. The next year, a Dax McCarty header gave the visitors a 1-0 win in the first leg at RFK Stadium, and Bradley Wright-Phillips wrapped up the series in stoppage time of the second leg in another 1-0 decision.

Of course, with the new playoff format this year, there are no more two-leg series. Now it's just a single game, which makes home field advantage even more important. However, that's meant little for United in recent years, as they have won just one of the past 15 games against their rivals. That win came back in May 2016, at RFK Stadium. The Red Bulls have already visited Audi Field three times and have yet to lose, winning two of the three games. 

That said, this might be the game that United supporters would most look forward to. There's plenty of history between the two sides, and another playoff game would add more lore to the story no matter where the game gets played. 

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