It sure wasn’t pretty, but D.C. United got the job done last night in Game 1 of this seven-game stretch that will test the team’s talent, depth and resolve as it attempts to make the postseason without the help of injured MVP Dwayne De Rosario.
My match report from United’s 2-1 win Saturday night at RFK Stadium delves into the need for contributions from unlikely sources, such as reserve midfielder Lewis Neal, whose first top-flight goal in a 12-year journeyman career extended United’s home unbeaten streak to a record 14 games.
Here are some of my observations from RFK:
FITNESS STILL AN ISSUE FOR BOSKOVIC
Midfielder Branko Boskovic helped fill De Rosario’s void with an active first half, finding the game well while serving in an array of dangerous free kicks. And he also, of course, set up Chris Pontius‘ opener with a nice back-heel assist.
So it was a bit surprising to see coach Ben Olsen pull a visibly frustrated Boskovic 11 minutes into the second half, although the move to insert Neal certainly paid off. Boskovic has made it past the 75th minute in just one of his 10 starts this year, and Olsen said after the game the former designated player continues to struggle with his fitness.
“He’s not 90 minutes fit,” Olsen said. “So at some point, he was going to have to come off. He just started to look like he was starting to fade a little bit. It’s tough because Branko offensively gives you some real magic, and the set pieces I thought he put in today were very good. But there was starting to be a cost to that, and I thought Lewis came in and really changed the game.”
HAMID COMES UP BIG LATE
Late in the game, United’s back line became flustered by a New England attack bolstered by substitutes Dimitry Imbongo, Juan Toja and Benny Feilhaber. Although the Revolution created several golden chances, United goalkeeper Bill Hamid was up to the task in the game’s dying stages.
“Nobody really on our team today played great except Bill Hamid,” Olsen said. “I’ll have to see them again, but from the bench they looked incredible. He made some big-time saves for us.”
Added Pontius: “Bill saved our butts at the end with two huge saves. You don’t want it to come down to that, but obviously he stepped up when we needed him to.”
PAJOY-SANTOS DUO DOESN’T JELL
Although Lionard Pajoy and Maicon Santos are both target forwards by nature, I thought the duo actually could jell heading into Saturday night’s game. Pajoy is more mobile and better on the ball, while Santos is bruiser who wins 50-50 opportunities.
But sure enough, they didn’t click against New England as the players often made similar runs and failed to link up. Even though Santos had some good hold-up play and showed glimpses of his early-season form, Pajoy simply had an off-game.
“The relationship between them is going to take a little time,” Olsen said. “But it was good for them to get that under the belt. We’ll look at film together with them, if they’re getting in each other’s way or what, but it was an OK performance.”
One forward who did seem to do well? Substitute Hamdi Salihi, who played 23 minutes after logging just a single minute in United’s past four games combined.
“I thought Hamdi did a good job,” Olsen said. “It’s good to get him those minutes. The thing about Hamdi is he has two great chances. He gets himself in two great spots. I think that’s a very good role for him going forward, but he may have to start at some point in the near future. We have a lot of faith in him. He can score goals. I think he’s going to play a part if we can have success in these next six games.”
— Inducted into the United Hall of Tradition in a pregame ceremony, Olsen played down the honor in his usual sarcastic fashion: “As a coach, individual awards don’t mean what they used to. As a player, that’s all I played for. Just kidding.”
— It turns out Neal and Pontius predicted their collaboration on the winning goal. “We were having a bit of banter over there, the text messaging,” Neal said. “I was just congratulating him on his new contract and he was like, ‘We just need to get you a goal now or an assist.’ … We’ll have to remember to text before every game now.”