As Dwayne De Rosario fought back tears, the D.C. United captain could hardly speak. It was a stunning sight, really, to see such raw emotion out of a figure celebrated as a commanding presence on the pitch. Vulnerability is not a trait one associates with the 34-year-old.
But that's the nature of the postseason. A four-time MLS Cup champion, De Rosario isn't used to coming up short the way his team did Sunday, when a 1-1 draw with Houston gave the Dynamo a 4-2 aggregate win in the two-game, total-goals Eastern Conference final.
Just as De Rosario returned for his first match since Sept. 1, his season was over. In the reigning MVP's absence because of a sprained knee ligament, however, United rallied, going 5-0-2 down the stretch before dispatching New York in a frantic semifinal series first disrupted by Superstorm Sandy, then by a nor'easter.
"The character that the guys showed throughout this year and the dedication and the unity we showed as a team was fantastic," De Rosario said. "It's something we can definitely build on for the future."
And that future is bright. In returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2007, United instilled belief in a fan base that had begun to fade throughout the years of shortcomings.
If the raucous standing-room-only crowd of 20,015 on Sunday was any indication, the D.C. faithful are buying back in. With the club continuing discussions with the city on constructing a soccer-specific stadium in the District, the timing for such renewed enthusiasm couldn't be better.
"We talk about laying a foundation here, having something special for years to come," coach Ben Olsen said. "I believe that it's here. It's a bunch of great young guys that are willing to fight and do what it takes. This experience was invaluable for them, being in these real games down the stretch. It's a special group. There's a certain character and spirit that makes me proud to be a part of them."
Considering United went a league-worst 6-20-4 in 2010, the turnaround to 17-10-7 and coming one match shy of the MLS Cup final is remarkable. And the improvement in personnel has come from a variety of avenues.
The club's past three first-round picks — Chris Pontius, Perry Kitchen and Nick DeLeon — have been Rookie of the Year finalists. Academy products Bill Hamid and Andy Najar have emerged as two of the most electrifying young talents in MLS. And trades brought influential veterans such as De Rosario and Brandon McDonald to the fold.
"We're a lot closer than we were two or three years ago," club president Kevin Payne said. "We had a plan of how to rebuild this team, and it's nice to see that it's actually working. We've got a young coaching staff individually, and collectively it's not been together very long. They've done a phenomenal job working with [general manager] Dave Kasper and building this cadre of talent. It's a pretty exciting time."
Ah yes, that young coaching staff, keyed by the 35-year-old Olsen. The centerpiece of this reconstruction project, the United icon has evolved, finding a way to reconcile his relatable, fiery nature as a player with the distance, maturity and tactical awareness necessitated by a coaching position.
As Hamid put it, "I got to see him as a player and a coach, and the difference from then to now is tremendous."
Thanks to the year-round nature of soccer, we're just some eight weeks away from preseason kicking off, making looking ahead to 2013 all the easier. While this past season was about ending the club's playoff drought, it's clear the pieces are in place for United to set their sights from the start next year on a more elusive goal: adding the organization's fifth MLS Cup to the trophy case.
"We know the potential of this team," DeLeon said. "Now it's time to unwind — and come back even harder next season."
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