WASHINGTON — In leagues that utilize playoffs, the eventual champion oftentimes isn’t the best team but instead the side playing the best at the best time.
One need look no further than last season’s MLS Cup champions, the Portland Timbers, for a perfect example of this.
Portland was outside of the playoff picture with a month left in the regular season in 2015, but, spurred on by a formation switch that moved Darlington Nagbe to central midfield, Caleb Porter's side went on a nine-game unbeaten run that culminated with the Timbers lifting MLS Cup in Columbus.
This season, D.C. United is hoping to play the role that Portland did last year. The way things are going for Ben Olsen's men, you wouldn't be shocked if they pulled it off.
After going nearly the entire season without winning back-to-back games, DCU won its fourth consecutive match Sunday, easily defeating New York City FC 3-1 at RFK Stadium — a win that clinched a playoff berth for the third consecutive season.
Much like the Timbers, DCU's fortunes began to swing upward after a change in formation. Unlike the Timbers, it took an injection of new players to bring about the tactical switch.
United's fortunes began to change with the midseason addition of Patrick Mullins from NYCFC. With the 24-year-old on board, Olsen moved United out of its usual 4-4-2 setup into a 4-2-3-1 formation that featured Mullins as the lone striker.
The results have been better than even Olsen likely could have imagined.
Buoyed by Mullins, who scored his eighth goal in just 12 starts Sunday, United has found an identity. And it has the club playing as well as it has in a long time.
"[Olsen] just told us we were going to stick with the one forward and so that’s where the identity started from," United midfielder Patrick Nyarko told reporters. "With Mullins, the guy is fantastic, not [just] the goals he’s scored for us, how hard he works, he dictates our press. Our defensive unit starts from him and we’re able to strip balls in the attacking half and it gives us a shorter field to score goals, which we’ve done."
Mullins isn't the only midseason addition who has spurred United on. Lloyd Sam, acquired in early July, has injected a spark into DCU's attack, scoring three goals and adding five assists in 13 games.
Even when injuries have struck United — normal starters Marcelo Sarvas and Sean Franklin are currently out in addition to long-term absences Chris Rolfe and Chris Korb — the club's newfound depth has allowed it to not only weather the storm, but thrive.
"Sean Franklin is out, Marcelo Sarvas is out, Chris Korb didn’t play this year, Chris Rolfe has been out since (April 30)," Olsen said. "I give guys like Rob Vincent and Jared Jeffrey, a bunch of guys — Sabo [Alvaro Saborio], Kennedy [Igboaninike] — everyone’s chipping in. Nick DeLeon goes in at right back and filling a void and fixing that hole.
"There’s a lot of things that I think lend this to be a real group effort and that’s real satisfying for a coach."
Olsen will be even more satisfied if United can carry this form into the postseason. The way things are going now, you wouldn't bet against it.
"Sometimes when you get on these rolls you feel like you’re inside your teammates’ heads and you know what they’re thinking and you know what they’re going to do," Mullins said. "Of course in this league you want that kind of mind-meld to happen at this time of year. "