D.C. United look to keep their playoff hopes alive as they will search for a third consecutive victory when they host the Columbus Crew on Wednesday at Audi Field.
While the Crew (10-4-5, 35 points) have a postseason berth secured in the Eastern Conference, it did not seem plausible earlier this month that D.C. United (4-10-6, 18 points) would be entertaining the thought of the playoffs this late in the season.
But the club is three points outside of the final Eastern Conference spot, with three games left.
Following the firing of longtime coach Ben Olsen on Oct. 8, D.C. lost its first match under interim coach Chad Ashton before securing seven points in the past three games.
"The focus has been great," D.C. midfielder Russell Canouse said. "We've been able to have more overall belief in the locker room, trying to see out this season the best way we can."
That was evident on Saturday when Atlanta United tied it 1-1 in the 89th minute before Gelmin Rivas scored the winner two minutes into stoppage time to keep the team's playoff aspirations alive.
"These guys have been beaten down over the course of the year a little bit with a lot of different things," Ashton said. "All we can do is control ourselves at this point."
The Crew are 1-3-2 in the past six games after a 1-1 tie at the Houston Dynamo on Saturday but are encouraged that goalkeeper Eloy Room and midfielders Darlington Nagbe and Lucas Zelarayan returned from injury. Gyasi Zardes, the team's leading scorer with 11 goals, did not play because of what the team described as a minor knee injury but could be available Wednesday.
Columbus often shows more confidence defensively with Room, who has seven shutouts in 13 games, and is fluid in the attack with Nagbe and Zelarayan.
"I think these games are crucial," Nagbe said. "Now we're getting guys back, myself and Lucas and Eloy, so we can get in a rhythm again and start playing how we were playing at the beginning of the season when we were on a roll."
--Field Level Media
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Julian Gressel scored in the 32nd minute and D.C. United defeated the Columbus Crew 1-0 in Washington on Wednesday for their third consecutive victory.
Bill Hamid did not make a save in his second shutout of the season for D.C. (5-10-6, 21 points), which is tied with Inter Miami and the Chicago Fire for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference pending the result of Miami's match later at FC Dallas.
Columbus (10-5-5, 35 points) continues to struggle and fell into a third-place tie in the East with Orlando City, six points behind second-place Toronto FC with three matches remaining.
The Crew are 1-4-2 in their past seven games.
Gressel gave D.C. a rare lead with his second goal of the season. D.C. has allowed the first goal a league-high 13 times (1-9-3), but the Crew have experienced problems as well, falling behind 1-0 for the fourth straight road game.
D.C. used a combination of passes to stretch the defense, and Yamil Asad had space on the right channel to whip a service to the box.
Gressel lost his markers at the penalty spot and his shot deflected off a Crew player to leave goalkeeper Eloy Room leaning the wrong way on D.C.'s only shot on goal in the game.
The Crew have had two halftime leads in nine true away matches (excluding matches at the MLS is Back Tournament near Orlando, Fla.).
It would have a different score line in the first half if not for a defensive gem by D.C. midfielder Junior Moreno in the 22nd minute when Columbus' Jonathan Mensah headed a corner kick by Pedro Santos.
The ball was directed toward the goal, but Moreno cleared it on one of three shot attempts for the Crew in the half.
Columbus' other good chance came in the 73rd minute on a header by Krisztian Nemeth that went inches over the bar.
On Sunday, the Crew host Philadelphia while D.C. plays at New England.