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D.C. United prepares for Toronto FC with MLS playoff berth in sight

Wayne Rooney and D.C. United will battle the Toronto Impact on Wednesday at Audi Field. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

For months, with a playoff berth in the great distance, D.C. United players and staff have climbed the stairs behind the south goal at Audi Field with the cold, harsh understanding that anything short of victory would damage the postseason cause. Each draw at home and defeat at any location compressed the margin of error.

But by earning three points Wednesday against MLS’s fading reigning champion, Toronto FC, United would occupy a position of power.

Make no mistake: The mission would remain incomplete entering the final 11 days of the regular season. But by winning this one — and, in the process, extending the winning streak to four and unbeaten run to eight — the must-win onus would fall on the team United had been chasing for weeks, the Montreal Impact.

Sixth-place D.C. (12-11-8) sits one point ahead of the Impact (13-15-4). Six teams will qualify for the playoffs. United has played one fewer match. Montreal is off Wednesday. Hence, a D.C. triumph over Toronto would force the Impact to win its final two matches — and even that might not be enough.

“It would be nice to put a little pressure on Montreal,” Coach Ben Olsen said Tuesday. “We’ve been living with these important games every week for a while now.”

A victory over Toronto (9-16-6) would also set up a situation Sunday at home against third-place New York City FC in which D.C. could clinch a berth with one game to spare. Montreal will host Toronto on Sunday, needing to win and for United to drop two or three points at home.

“Every game has felt like it’s our last game, a playoff game,” midfielder Russell Canouse said. “It’s difficult to keep that mind-set where we all have to be at our best. But even at times when things aren’t working out for us, we are thinking someone is going to make the difference.”

With Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta quieter than usual this past weekend, Canouse made the difference by breaking a scoreless deadlock with West leader FC Dallas in the 86th minute for his first MLS goal.

United is 5-0-1 in the past six home matches and 10-2-1 at the Buzzard Point venue. The two games this week will cap a seven-game homestand heading into the Oct. 28 finale at Chicago. Montreal will close that same day at New England, which was eliminated from playoff contention this past weekend.

For two hours Wednesday, United will set aside both the remaining schedule and the seemingly endless permutations of a defeat or draw against Toronto. It will welcome the return of Darren Mattocks (10 goals) from Jamaican national team duty — he is the top scoring threat off the bench — and perhaps Costa Rican midfielder Ulises Segura.

Segura was with his national team Tuesday night in Harrison, N.J., for a friendly against Colombia, and depending on how much the part-time starter played, Olsen said he would consider using him in some capacity against Toronto.

Junior Moreno, a Venezuelan defensive midfielder, remains on international duty. Chris Durkin, 18, is expected to fill the void again. Midfielder Paul Arriola, whose father died last week, will not rejoin the club until Thursday.

United is unsure who will take the field for Toronto, a high-salary, low-performance team that will miss the playoffs.

Midfielders Michael Bradley and Marky Delgado were with the U.S. national team for Tuesday’s friendly against Peru in East Hartford, Conn., and conceivably could fly to Washington.

Star forward Sebastian Giovinco (12 goals, 14 assists) completed Italian national team duty Sunday, but with the season lost and extensive travel involved, would he play Wednesday? The same must be asked of another dangerous attacker, Jozy Altidore, who has been hampered by foot and ankle injuries.

Midfielder Victor Vazquez underwent knee surgery Friday. Defender Gregory van der Wiel will serve a red-card suspension. Four players, including midfielder Jonathan Osorio (10 goals), were with the Canadian national team Tuesday.

Olsen said, “Sometimes when you play a team that maybe doesn’t have their big guns out there, they are almost more effective in that they can put in a group effort and make it really difficult on you.”

D.C. United vs. Toronto FC

Where: Audi Field.

When: Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.

TV: WJLA 24/7 News (formerly NewsChannel 8).

Records: United 12-11-8, 44 points; Toronto 9-16-6, 33 points.

D.C. probable starters: GK Bill Hamid; Ds Jalen Robinson, Frederic Brillant, Steve Birnbaum, Joseph Mora; MFs Zoltan Stieber, Chris Durkin, Russell Canouse, Luciano Acosta, Yamil Asad; F Wayne Rooney.

Toronto probable starters: GK Alex Bono; Ds Auro, Chris Mavinga, Drew Moor, Eriq Zavaleta, Justin Morrow; MFs Lucas Janson, Liam Fraser, Ryan Telfer; F Ayo Akinola, Jordan Hamilton.

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