D.C. United enters finale knowing a win will firm up travel plans

As D.C. United prepares for the end of the regular season and start of the MLS playoffs, an unsuspecting figure in the organization has moved to the forefront.

He’s not a player, coach or executive.

He is the director of team operations, Francisco Tobar. His chief responsibility: travel.

United will play in Orlando on Sunday. The next stop — Washington or Montreal — hinges on the outcome of the D.C. match and, should United stumble, one other game being played. The league will announce specific dates and time slots Sunday evening after the conclusion of the 10 regular season finales, which will all kick off around 4 p.m.

“The scenarios you have to prepare for is a bit ridiculous, but we think we are narrowing in on the right plan,” Coach Ben Olsen said. “For the players, it’s about the games, but there is some scheduling stuff you have to plan.”

By retaining fourth place in the Eastern Conference, United would host the Montreal Impact or Philadelphia Union in the first round Wednesday or Thursday. That’s the desirable outcome for both the organization (it gets to play a home game) and Tobar (he doesn’t have to give up confirmed seats and scramble to make alternate plans).

If D.C. slips to fifth, however, the club would face Montreal on the road. With a quick turnaround, a Wednesday playoff would require United to fly to Quebec from Florida.

Because of the travel uncertainty, defender Taylor Kemp said, “They told us to pack for a while.”

Unlike other U.S. pro sports operations, which charter planes and can change plans on short notice, MLS teams almost always fly commercial. Most clubs can afford charters for all trips, but to maintain competitive balance, the league caps the number at four per calendar year.

Tobar has made tentative arrangements for a commercial flight to Montreal but can’t lock into them until Sunday night. Meantime, paying customers are claiming the final seats on the few nonstops. United would likely have to break into smaller groups or take connecting flights. If the situation is dire, D.C. could request the league arrange a charter and settle the cost difference at a later time.

A Thursday match in Montreal would allow the team to return home first.

“I simply get to execute what the team wants me to do,” said Tobar, who has served various capacities for the club since its founding in 1996, with a two-year interruption to work in Miami. “When it works out, everyone is happy with me. When it doesn’t, maybe I’m not so likable anymore.”

To prepare for a possible Orlando-to-Montreal route, Tobar collected passports a few days ago.

“We are nothing without him. I am nothing without his guidance,” Olsen said of his Chilean-born colleague, whom he calls El Jefe (Chief) or El Padrino (Godfather). “It’s a long week for Francisco Tobar. He deserves a shout-out. Fortunately, he’s the best in the business and I have no doubt he can work his magic.”

United’s aim is to lock up the No. 4 slot with a victory. D.C. is one point ahead Montreal, which on Sunday will play on the road against all-but-eliminated New England. United’s foe, Orlando, will miss the playoffs.

If D.C. and Montreal finish tied on points, United would prevail on goal differential, the second tiebreaker after total victories (11 apiece).

Aside from easing travel issues, a fourth-place finish would allow United to play at RFK, where it is 6-0-3 in the past nine home dates and is averaging more than three goals in the last seven appearances.

“A large part of our focus right now is how we get a result in Orlando and still prepare for a very important game” Wednesday or Thursday, Olsen said.

Although Sunday’s match is not as important as the first-round clash, “We are going after a win in Orlando,” Olsen said, firmly. “That is the result we need to ensure a playoff game at RFK.”

That said, Olsen does not want to overextend his players three or four days ahead of a do-or-die game. He seems poised to use the usual lineup and, depending how the game transpires, rest key players in the second half. He’d also like to sustain the momentum of four consecutive victories, a six-game unbeaten streak and a 6-1-6 record since July 31.

With three regulars close to returning from extended injury absences — defenders Sean Franklin and Kofi Opare, and midfielder Marcelo Sarvas — Olsen said United might travel to Orlando with a larger delegation than the usual 18 players. Some players might stand by in Washington and join the team in Montreal, if it comes to that.

“We’re going to try to win in Orlando and then figure it out,” Kemp said of the logistical challenges. “Guys aren’t worrying about it too much. Wives and girlfriends, maybe a little more.”

D.C. United at Orlando City

Where: Camping World Stadium.

When: 4 p.m. Sunday. TV: WJLA-7.

Records: United 11-9-13, 46 points; Orlando 8-11-14, 38 points.

D.C. probable starters: GK Bill Hamid; Ds Nick DeLeon, Steve Birnbaum, Bobby Boswell, Taylor Kemp; MFs Lloyd Sam, Rob Vincent, Jared Jeffrey, Luciano Acosta, Patrick Nyarko; F Patrick Mullins.

Orlando probable starters: GK Joe Bendik; Ds Rafael Ramos, Jose Aja, Seb Hines, Mikey Ambrose; MFs Matias Perez Garcia, Cristian Higuita, Antonio Nocerino, Kaka; Fs Carlos Rivas, Cyle Larin.

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Saturday kickaround

USA vs. Cuba. USA vs. New Zealand. Bob Bradley at Swansea City. Ex-D.C. United player dies. Maryland remains unbeaten. College Cup in San Jose.

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