D.C. United had just taken a pair of punches to the gut. Up 2-0 at halftime against the New England Revolution, they watched that lead evaporate in the opening minutes of the second stanza. But they had an answer.
It's perhaps the surest sign that this year's D.C. squad is different than incarnations that have missed the playoffs the past four seasons. When this team has been knocked down, it's made a habit of getting right back up.
So when substitute Maicon Santos struck net just 11 minutes after New England had erased its deficit, it almost came as an expected development. United's 3-2 win at RFK Stadium on Saturday was just the club's latest act of resilience.
"I wasn't worried," defender Brandon McDonald said. "It was weird because last year, they get two goals, we're going to lose this game 5-2. This year, our guys have been so good at just keeping themselves composed and knowing it's going to come."
Keyed by Santos' winner, along with goals from the center back duo of McDonald and Dejan Jakovic, United (8-4-3) capped their first three-game winning streak since 2008, leapfrogging the New York Red Bulls for first place in the Eastern Conference entering a three-week hiatus from league play.
"Throughout the week, we've been talking about it," goalkeeper Bill Hamid said. "First place, first place, first place."
Despite his team's position atop the table, coach Ben Olsen still was far from satisfied, pointing to a lack of sharpness on the ball and the defensive breakdowns that led to goals by New England's Saer Sene and A.J. Soares.
Whether it was an impressive performance from United was debatable. The notch in the win column, though, was not.
"It's strange because I feel unfulfilled," Olsen said. "It's nice to be feeling unfulfilled and have three points in the bag."
In search of a spark after the Revolution (4-7-1) scored twice in three minutes, Olsen brought Santos off the bench in the 57th minute. Making his return after missing two games with a calf injury, the team's leading scorer replaced midfielder Branko Boskovic, allowing captain Dwayne De Rosario to drop back to a playmaker role.
It worked. Four minutes later, Santos and De Rosario executed a superb give-and-go that concluded with the bruising Brazilian slotting a shot past New England goalkeeper Matt Reis. It was the seventh goal of the season for Santos.
"I go back to mentality, I go back to determination, hard work and depth," De Rosario said. "This team has shown it numerous times this year."
D.C. went on top in the 15th minute when McDonald connected with Boskovic's driven free kick and flicked it in. For McDonald, the goal continued an unexpected offensive surge from the center back, who also has recorded three assists this season.
And it was the second helper in as many games for Boskovic, who before last week had not tallied a goal or assist in league play since joining the club in July 2010.
"You have to give all the credit to Branko," McDonald said. "His services have been unbelievable."
The Montenegrin's set-piece prowess paid off again in first-half stoppage time, when Jakovic notched his first goal in four years in a D.C. uniform, burying a point-blank finish in the aftermath of a Boskovic corner kick.
But New England cut the deficit three minutes after the break, as Benny Feilhaber's long-range blast forced a diving save from Hamid and Sene was there to sweep home the rebound. And just two minutes later, Soares nodded a Chris Tierney free kick past Hamid to level the score.
Santos' strike, however, put the home side back on top, and Hamid came up with a spectacular 90th-minute save on New England substitute Kelyn Rowe to preserve the result.
When the final whistle blew, the 14,627 in attendance unleashed a roar to celebrate their first-place club's fifth straight win at home.
"The past couple years, results haven't gone our way," Hamid said. "Fans don't get what they deserve, get their money's worth. But this season, we're bringing it and we're focused."
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