D.C. United's season has had its fair share of ups and downs.
The club has occupied a spot in the postseason window for much of the campaign, but its usual position inside the top-three has fallen by the wayside as Ben Olsen's men have slipped to fifth place in the Eastern Conference on 44 points.
United heads to PPL Park to face the Philadelphia Union on Thursday, clinging to the final playoff berth. The club's bid to end a four-year postseason drought begins now.
"It's everything," Brandon McDonald told the club's official website last week. "Looking at how we finished last year, the group of guys we have are a strong group of players, so for us not making the playoffs is unacceptable. We've got to lock down right now."
The race is likely to go down to the wire as D.C. has six games left, four of which are on the road. The club only holds a two-point lead over the Columbus Crew and still has to travel west to face the Portland Timbers in addition to its match at Toyota Park against the second-place Chicago Fire, but Chris Pontius is convinced that United is in a favorable position to get the job done.
"Everyone knows where we stand," said Pontius, who wore the captain's armband in United's most recent outing, a 2-1 home win over the New England Revolution. "What you ask at this time in the season is that you are in the race and that you control your own destiny. We do. We have both of those in our hands."
Robbie Russell figures to be a central figure for United's playoff push. The defender won a title with Real Salt Lake in 2009 and has not missed the postseason in any of his four MLS seasons.
"There's always that period where a team realizes that - if they want to have a taste of something they will remember the rest of their lives - it needs to start now," Russell said. "There are two months left in the season. That is two months of your whole life. You can give up two months for something that is going to stay with you forever. It's always helped when someone has pointed that out at some point."
D.C. will face a Philadelphia side that has little, if anything, to play for. The Union are coming off of a 1-1 draw with Toronto FC, a result that extended the club's winless streak to seven games. The club's last victory came on July 29 in a 2-1 home defeat of the New England Revolution.
Philadelphia and D.C. have faced one another twice already this season. United came away from PPL Park with a 1-0 win on June 16 before playing to a 1-1 draw with the Union at RFK Stadium on August 19.