Two months remain in the MLS regular season, and it's looking as if at least four 2011 playoff teams won't be back this season.
Colorado, FC Dallas, Philadelphia and Columbus are not in the top five of the Western and Eastern Conferences, respectively, and need to move up at least to fifth to make the playoffs.
Overall points leader San Jose and Vancouver are in the lead to take the Western places, and the main Eastern protagonists, Chicago and D.C, United, met Wednesday night at RFK Stadium.
United (12-8-4) closed to within a point of fourth-place Chicago (12-8-5) by dousing the Fire, 4-2, in a wide-open game not settled until substitute Long Tan directed a shot past Sean Johnson in the 89th minute.
While the win was vital for D.C. to keep its distance from the Crew, which also came up victorious by beating Toronto FC, 2-1, it also strengthened the quest of D.C. to finish in fourth place and thus host the Eastern Conference wild-card game, or perhaps even sneak into third and thus escape the one-game knockout scenario altogether.
Chicago is actually tied with Houston for third place -- both have 41 points -- but trails in the first tiebreaker, total goals, 37 to 32. United (41 goals) has outscored both of those teams.
Both D.C. United and Chicago stayed in the playoff chase last year until the final weeks, and both have built on that foundation in 2012.
Chicago came into the RFK match in sharper form on the momentum of three straight wins, but United bounced back from a bizarre 1-1 tie with Philadelphia Sunday in which two goals were disallowed, three players sent off, and a re-taken penalty kick that hit the crossbar in the 89th minute deprived the team of a victory.
A bitter round of bickering between teammates Chris Korb and Brandon McDonald as the team walked off the field seemed to signify an impending collapse but instead United came out sharp and piled up a 22-12 advantage in shots while controlling most of the play. (McDonald and Korb, both defenders, even teamed up for the third goal against the Fire in the 51st minute.)
"I guess it motivated them and we still feel a little bit wronged and it is still a little bit on all of our minds," Coach Ben Olsen said. "I'm glad we responded in the right way today."
While the four-goal outburst -- attained without suspended DP catalyst Branko Boskovic -- delighted the fans, a solid midfield performance keyed by the central pairing of Perry Kitchen and Marcel Saragosa throttled Chicago's attack for much of the game.
The absence of Fire stalwart Logan Pause (broken ribs) helped Saragosa and Kitchen focus on shutting down Chris Rolfe, who dropped into a playmaking role behind forward partner Sherjill MacDonald but seldom escaped United's shackles until the second half. Kitchen also ranged wide to help subdue Patrick Nyarko, who came up hobbling after a midfield collision and also struggled against Korb, whose patient marking and decisive tackling usually got the better of Chicago's speedy winger.
The stat sheet credited Johnson with eight saves, but doesn't reveal his fault on the first and fourth goals.
In the 19th minute, he conceded a goal eerily similar to that given up by former Olympic teammate and United keeper Bill Hamid in the qualifying group finale against El Salvador last March.
In that match, Hamid -- who'd been injured but didn't leave the game until halftime -- couldn't reach a rolling shot from the left flank and Andres Flores popped up at the back post to score. United did the same when Johnson gave up on a scuffed Chris Pontius shot that was headed wide and turned into a great pass for Dwayne De Rosario to smack into the net.
Pause's replacement, Dan Paladini, scored just before halftime to give the Fire a foundation heading into the second half. Instead, United regained the lead less than a minute after the restart with a goal by Lionard Pajoy, and increased the lead to 3-1 five minutes later when McDonald headed a home a Korb cross. Their embrace during a spirited celebration dispelled any suspicion of lingering bad feelings, but the goal also seemed to infect D.C. with complacency.
United got a break when a blast by Marco Pappa stung the post, but United lost control of midfield as the Fire kept coming. United fell asleep with 15 minutes to play and nobody got near Gonzalo Segares as he swooped to the back post and headed home a Pavel Pardo free kick. But Hamid dove quickly to deflect a sizzling shot by Rolfe that would have tied the game, and United clinched victory when De Rosario tore down the left side and crossed a ball that Tan didn't hit solidly yet a partially-screened Johnson let slip under this left glove and into the net.
After winning just once in their last five games, many D.C. players were nearly as impressive as De Rosario. Andy Najar tackled toughly and still got forward down the flank to reward the coach's decision to deploy him at right back, as he's done occasionally this season. A Najar cross enabled Pajoy to score his first goal for D.C. since arriving in a trade from Philly, whose dismal season is one reason United has an excellent chance to take away a playoff spot.
"I like to welcome our new player 'Cafu' to our team," laughed McDonald. "He was unbelievable out there. I don't know where his feet came from or how he gets out of some of the stuff he does. I'm there in the game thinking‘how in the world is this guy doing this?'"
There's another huge test Saturday, in Montreal against the Impact (11-13-3, 36 points), which is United's closest pursuer but has played three more matches.