Wayne Rooney’s 12 goals have steered DC United to an unprecedented MLS play-off spot, but what route must they take to reach the MLS Cup final?
Rooney scored twice in a 3-1 win over New York City earlier this month to seal DC’s place at the post-season stage and cap what has been a remarkable turnaround.
Prior to the 33-year-old’s arrival at Audi Field in June, DC had lost seven of their opening 14 games and looked on course to replicate the 2017 season, where they finished bottom of the Eastern Conference.
Speaking recently to the club’s official website, Rooney was in a buoyant mood as his side booked their spot in the play-offs. He said: “Obviously our form here [Audi Field] is great but if we host a game or we don’t, we have to be confident in whoever we play, wherever we play that we can win the game.
“We are in great form, whether it’s a home or away we have to take that belief into that game and be ready.”
Following extensive links with a move across the Atlantic, Rooney joined DC United from Everton at the end of June and made his debut in a 3-1 against the Vancouver Whitecaps on 14 July. His introduction coincided with a first win in seven for the Black-and-Red and he made an instant impact, assisting one of Paul Arriola’s two goals.
MLS play-off knockout round fixtures
Wednesday 31 October
FC Dallas vs Portland Timbers (11pm)
NYCFC vs Philadelphia (1.30am)
Thursday 1 November
LAFC vs Real Salt Lake (12am)
D.C. United vs Colombus Crew (2.30am)
It wasn’t beginner’s luck, however. Prior to the 33-year-old’s arrival at Audi Field, DC had lost seven of their opening 14 games and looked on course to replicate the 2017 season, where they finished bottom of the Eastern Conference. Despite falling to a 3-1 defeat away at Atlanta United and being edged out 1-0 by the New York Red Bulls over the nine days that followed, Ben Olsen’s side won 11 of their next 16 games.
Most impressively perhaps, Rooney netted 12 of DC’s 33 goals over that period and finished the season with another six assists, meaning he had an involvement in over half of the goals scored. And some of them were absolutely spectacular, including the long-range free-kick that earned a vital win over Toronto on 17 October.
After DC finished fourth in the Eastern Conference, the monumental turnaround has been nothing short of season defining, but can one of the most prolific English forwards in history continue his goalscoring streak and guide DC United to a first MLS Cup since 2004?
Who else is in the play-offs?
The teams placed third to sixth have earned themselves a play-off knockout round, meaning New York City, DC United, Columbus Crew and Philadelphia Union progress from the Eastern Conference, with Los Angeles FC, FC Dallas, Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake progressing from the Western Conference.
Already through to the Conference semi-finals are New York Red Bulls and Sporting Kansas City, who topped the Eastern and Western Conferences respectively, while they are also joined by second-place sides Atlanta United and Seattle Sounders.
Route to the MLS Cup final
Make no mistake about it, reaching this only the beginning of the road for Rooney and co. Finishing fourth in the Eastern Conference has earned DC a berth in the knockout round of the MLS play-offs, where they will host Columbus Crew in the early hours of Friday morning. Defeat at this stage will result in elimination from the competition.
DC’s potential route to the MLS Cup final
Eastern Conference knockout round vs Columbus Crew (Thursday 1 November)
Eastern Conference semi-final vs Atlanta United (two legs on 4 November, 11 November)
Eastern Conference final vs New York Red Bulls (two legs on 25 November, 29 November)
The winner of DC vs Columbus Crew will progress to face Atlanta in the semi-final, while there could be a New York derby on the cards should New York City overcome Philadelphia Union. In the Western Conference, FC Dallas host Portland Timbers for the right to play Seattle Sounders and Los Angeles FC battle it out with Real Salt Lake for a semi-final date with Sporting Kansas.
Both the Conference semi-finals and finals will be played over two legs, while the final of the MLS Cup – the trophy the triumphant team will lift at the end of the play-off – will take place over 90 minutes.
The four successful sides then progress to the Conference finals, where the winners of each fixture advance to the showpiece MLS Cup finale, hosted by the club who finished highest in the regular season standings.
Last term, Diego Valeri of the Portland Timbers was named the winner of the Landon Donovan MVP Award after helping his side to a first-place finish in the Western Conference, with New York City’s David Villa and Chicago Fire’s Nemanja Nikolić the runners-up.
This year’s candidates are yet to be announced by the MLS, yet Rooney is set to be named as a finalist for his superb contribution to DC United’s play-off charge. Reportedly joining him will be Josef Martinez of Atlanta United and, despite missing out on a play-off spot, LA Galaxy frontman Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Venezuelan Martinez – described by Columbus Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen as ‘a monster’ – smashed the previous record of 27 for most goals scored in a single regular season, netting 31 goals in just 34 games this season. Ibrahimovic, meanwhile, announced himself in style when he netted a 45-yard half-volley in a 4-3 debut win against Los Angeles FC.
He has gone on to net 22 goals in total, but missed out on a play-off appearance by a single point after Galaxy blew a 2-0 lead to lose 3-2 to Houston Dynamo on Sunday evening.
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