Despite absences, D.C. United off to best start ever

WASHINGTON — D.C. United’s 2014 story was a worst-to-first fairy tale. With nowhere to go but up, it was easy to exceed expectations.

But after topping the Eastern Conference last year, United faced a six-game suspension to co-leading goal scorer Fabian Espindola to open the 2015 season and the loss of third-leading scorer Eddie Johnson for health reasons.

And yet, United is off to a 5-1-2 start, collecting 17 points through just eight games, the best start in franchise history. They are unbeaten in their last 16 at home, and have not been beaten in 24 straight when scoring first, dating all the way back to September of 2013.

They’ve done it all even as new Finnish acquisition Markus Halsti has been sidelined all year with a sprained right knee, but is being activated for Saturday’s game. Meanwhile, defender Steve Birnbaum, who has played just three games, is close to returning.

Trying to squeeze additional players into a lineup that has worked well may intuitively threaten to upset what seems to be a comfortable early balance. But the extra bodies will be critical at this point of the calendar. Saturday marks the beginning of the heavier part of the schedule, as United has eight scheduled games in a 29-day stretch.

“There are a lot of good players out there,” said Ben Olsen at training earlier this week. “But the group that’s been out there has done well. The guys on the outside have to find their way and get in there and make the most when they do.”

Saturday’s match will also be United’s second-to-last home game before hitting the road for three straight, including a cross-country trip to face the Timbers in Portland, Oregon. That has made the eight games so far and the two still to play before that foray a crucial part of the schedule.

“We looked at the first part of the season as a very important stretch,” said Olsen. “Yeah, the start’s great, but now we have the real meat of our schedule, and it’s important we get through this with the right amount of points.”

Speaking of points, United is tied with the New England Revolution atop the table in the East, but with a game in hand. They are also three points clear of the New York Red Bulls, the only team to beat D.C. thus far this year. That makes these next two home contests — against Sporting Kansas City Saturday and Orlando City Wednesday, two clubs in the middle of the pack — crucial opportunities to stock up on points.

There is a perception among some that United has gotten lucky in the early going, as they’ve come out largely on the winning end of some crazy games. Olsen isn’t worried.

“I’m not too concerned about the perception of us,” he said. “I don’t think our guys are either.”

Four or six more points in the next week would go a long way toward dispelling any such thoughts.

D.C. United vs. Sporting KC kicks off at RFK Stadium at 7 p.m. Saturday.

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