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DC United looking to bring road fortunes back home

Orlando City's Carlos Ascues, second from left, sits on the field as D.C. United players, including Steve Birnbaum (15), Chris McCann (16) and Jalen Robinson (20) celebrate after defeating Orlando City in an MLS soccer match, Sunday, March 31, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Last year, D.C. United needed a frantic, nearly mathematically impossible finish to scrape their way into the playoffs. This year — at least through the season’s opening weeks, things couldn’t be more different — especially away from home.

D.C. United (4-1-2) enters the weekend with 14 points, atop the Eastern Conference. They’ve tallied seven points through their first three road contests, with a draw at NYCFC and wins in both Orlando and Colorado.

Compare that to last season. It took them 12 road contests to accrue seven points and they never got a second win away from Audi Field, finishing a dismal 1-9-7 on the road.

Of course, that team looked very different through much of the road slate than the current rendition. With Audi Field’s mid-summer opening, United slogged through a wander-filled first half of the campaign, playing 12 of their first 14 games on the road. By the time their new fortress opened, the roster included Wayne Rooney on the front line and Bill Hamid at the back, and they took advantage of the backloaded slate to rise from the bottom of the standings to make the postseason.

“I think it’s important for us to remember that it’s a long season and things aren’t always going to be so sweet throughout the course of the year,” said goalkeeper Bill Hamid at training this week. “We have to be prepared for those moments when we do have a slight down, and we have to readjust quickly and find our form again.”

The defense struggled with Hamid gone in Denmark the first half of last year. They didn’t get their second shutout last year until their 22nd game, August 19, against New England and their fourth until their 31st game, in mid-October.

They’ve held opponents off the board four times in their first six games.

“The dynamic of the offense definitely takes a little pressure off the defense,” said Hamid. “Those guys are doing great. They scored three quality goals last week.”

That’s helped cover for a banged up back line that forced homegrown players Chris Durkin and Jalen Robinson into the starting lineup in Denver last weekend, and opened up the opportunity for fellow academy player Donovan Pines to make his MLS debut. United built a 3-1 lead and survived a second half dominated in possession by the Rapids to escape with a 3-2 victory.

Hamid understands the importance of the strong road start. Now, it’s a matter of backing that up at home. United’s hot start was halted momentarily in their last home game, a 4-0 wipeout by LAFC that saw them fall behind three goals before losing Wayne Rooney — both their goals and assists leader — to a red card early in the second half. Now, they’ll get an NYCFC squad they’re quite familiar with and which they stole a point from in their first meeting at Yankee Stadium.

“We know them pretty well,” said head coach Ben Olsen. “We saw them last year late, and already again early this year. We’re pretty familiar with them, they’re familiar with us, and we’ll have to be at our best to get the result.”

But Olsen is cognizant that a win — especially against a team that has struggled out of the gate — is important.

“It’s been two games since we’ve sent the fans home happy,” he said.

Two home games without a win is hardly a crisis. But the Black and Red haven’t endured any such stretch since Audi Field opened last year, responding to both home losses and their one draw with wins each time. That’s how dominant they’ve been at the new digs.

“We’re feeling pretty comfortable there,” said Olsen of Audi Field. “Now it feels like home.”

Looking over his shoulder at the fading relic of the team’s former home looming across the street from the practice fields, he put the sentiment in context.

“This feels like a long time ago. Playing at RFK feels like years ago.”

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