ORLANDO — Ben Olsen gambled in D.C. United‘s regular season finale Sunday, and while he lost in the short term with a 4-2 defeat to Orlando City, he achieved the broader aim of resting regulars and securing home-field advantage in the first round of the MLS playoffs.
With the postseason days away, Olsen decided the fitness of his starters outweighed the risk of having to play on the road in a single knockout game. In the end, Olsen’s decision worked out nicely — except for a setback that ended a four-game winning streak.
Only two of the starters who have fueled United’s late-season surge stepped onto the field: Rob Vincent for the first 72 minutes and Jared Jeffrey for the last 18. All others remained on the bench or watched from a suite at Camping World Stadium. And with Montreal’s 3-0 loss at New England in a match that started at the same time, United (11-10-13) remained a point ahead of the Impact (11-11-12) for fourth place.
D.C. and Montreal will clash Thursday at RFK Stadium, with the winner facing first-place New York Red Bulls (16-9-9) or second-place New York City FC (15-10-9) in a two-leg conference semifinal starting next Sunday.
“There’s a lot of thought” that went into fielding a B squad, Olsen said. “It was playing the percentages a little bit and understanding Montreal had to go away too on [artificial] turf.”
Montreal’s only hope of overtaking United was to beat the Revolution at Gillette Stadium. A draw would’ve left the Impact even with D.C. on points but on the short end of the goal-differential tiebreaker. Philadelphia was also a possible opponent for United as well but it lost to the Red Bulls.
While United has made marked improvement on the road the last two months, the club takes great comfort in playing in Washington, where it’s 6-0-3 since early summer and averaging more than three goals over the past seven dates.
D.C. and Montreal played to a pair of 1-1 draws in the regular season, with the Impact scoring late in each meeting.
The site of their playoff wasn’t in the balance for very long as the Impact, also resting regulars, fell behind early.
In the suite, captain Bobby Boswell and teammates Luciano Acosta, Patrick Mullins, Patrick Nyarko and Taylor Kemp watched the Montreal-New England match on a laptop.
Said Boswell: “We were actually screaming more with missed chances by New England early on than anything else.”
Olsen’s lineup included three players returning from injury (Sean Franklin, Kofi Opare and Alhaji Kamara) and four who’ve seen light work this year (Kennedy Igboananike, Collin Martin, Jalen Robinson and Luke Mishu). Kamara lasted just 40 minutes, off with a hamstring ailment.
Marcelo Sarvas, the first-choice defensive midfielder, returned from a three-game absence caused by a knee injury and entered at the start of the second half. With Bill Hamid resting, goalkeeper Travis Worra started for the first time in three months.
“In some ways,” Olsen said, “I set them up to fail, but they showed they were a really gutsy group.”
Eighth-place Orlando (9-11-14) tested Worra early and often. The Lions went ahead in the 13th minute when Kaka floated a long ball over the defense to Rafael Ramos on the right side. Kevin Molino timed Ramos’s cross and scored with a running one-timer from six yards for his 11th goal.
Eight minutes later, Kaka surged past the rusty Franklin on the left side and poked an eight-yard shot into the far corner for his ninth goal of the year.
With assorted players, United was predictably disjointed.
“It took us a while to figure out the relationships,” rookie midfielder Julian Buescher said. “They had already put two on the score sheet by then. It was tough coming from behind, but we still did a decent job afterward.”
Orlando gifted a goal in the 43rd minute. Buescher beat goalkeeper Joe Bendik to Seb Hines’s weak back pass and crossed to Alvaro Saborio, Kamara’s replacement, for an easy finish into the vacated net.
An incorrect offside call denied Lamar Neagle’s equalizer seconds before the halftime whistle.
Orlando answered five minutes into the second half when Cristian Higuita whistled a 12-yard laser to the far side netting.
Buescher’s quick, clever footwork in tight space led to D.C.’s second goal as he set up Igboananike for a 10-yard blast to the near corner, the Nigerian’s first goal since joining United from Chicago this summer. Julio Baptista settled the outcome in the 89th minute with a 22-yard, deflected shot.
“Disappointed with the loss,” Olsen said. “This is still what we do. We still want to win games. But I think [the players] can separate that very quickly and understand there’s a very important game at our home.”