D.C. United seeks a rare road victory at New York City FC
D.C. United has not lost an MLS regular season match since August but hasn’t won an MLS regular season away game since May.
Two explanations are necessary: United has played almost exclusively at home since late last summer and, on those rare occasions when it has had to leave its comfort zone, good fortune has not followed.
But in this season of great promise — and of normal scheduling — United believes it’s better equipped to handle the rigors of the road, starting Sunday afternoon at Yankee Stadium against New York City FC.
“We got comfortable at home and we remain comfortable at home,” defender Steve Birnbaum said, “but now we have to get comfortable away. That’s tough. If we turn the corner on these away games, it will be a big factor in our success.”
Last year, because Audi Field did not open until midseason, United played 12 of its first 14 matches away and 15 of the last 20 at the new Buzzard Point venue. A final 10-game stretch included eight home dates, during which United went 7-0-1 and earned draws in the away matches.
D.C. picked up where it left off last weekend, defeating visiting Atlanta in the season opener, 2-0, to extend the regular season unbeaten streak to 11. (United was also home for the first round of the playoffs, but because the defeat to Columbus came in a penalty-kick tiebreaker, the result entered the record books as a draw.)
Now, with a balanced schedule to navigate, United cannot rely on the comforts of home to sustain its place as an Eastern Conference contender.
“Our away form is nowhere near good enough, even in the short time I was here,” said forward Wayne Rooney, whose arrival coincided with Audi Field’s opening. “That is something we need to improve this season if we want to push for first place.”
In the 15 home games after Rooney’s arrival, United was 12-2-1. In the five away matches after his arrival, D.C. went 0-2-3.
In soccer, in most cases, a draw on the road is considered a good result. To its credit, the rigorous away schedule early last year yielded ties against both Los Angeles teams (and a victory at San Jose). Later, deadlocks at Montreal and New York City FC were welcomed, The season-ending tie at lowly Chicago was good enough to clinch home-field advantage in the playoffs.
Since June 2017, however, United is 2-19-8 away, with neither victory coming against an in-conference opponent.
Coach Ben Olsen said winning on the road early in the year is attainable because “no one is in the greatest form and fitness plays into it.”
The first two trips are not arduous, either: Acela to New York and, in two weeks, a two-hour flight to Orlando.
What should fuel United’s optimism is not the locations or opponents, Birnbaum said, but talent and self-belief. With the nucleus of the roster returning, players and coaches alike believe this team should bond and thrive right away.
“We have a little more confidence than we’ve had in the past,” said Birnbaum, who is in his sixth season in Washington. “Our team is better and we have a solid core group. We’ve been through it and know what it takes.”
For Rooney, a normal schedule will introduce him to long-haul travel on commercial flights, varying weather conditions and shifting time zones. In England, where he thrived with Everton and Manchester United, many league road games involve short bus rides.
“I have no issue with flying or staying over for games,” he said. “That’s what I expected when I came to the league. That will never be an excuse for me.”
The first test comes on a narrow, jury-rigged field that spans the outfield and part of the turf-covered infield at Yankee Stadium, where United has never won (0-3-1 with a 10-4 goal difference). Last year, a 1-0 lead, thanks to Birnbaum’s header assisted by Rooney, dissolved in the 86th minute and ended in a draw.
“Most of the guys have played there and know what to expect,” Olsen said. “The focus has to be so high because things happen quickly and mistakes happen. You can’t get frustrated. Because of the circumstances, it’s not going to be perfect.”