As the final whistle blew, the waves of emotion washed away four years of frustration. Flags and flares emerged from the boisterous sea of black that filled RFK Stadium’s lower bowl. And as D.C. United’s players and coaches mobbed each other, Ben Olsen and Chris Pontius savored a long embrace.
The last time United were in the playoffs, Olsen, the D.C. coach, was a player. And Pontius, the team’s longest-tenured member, was at UC Santa Barbara.
But with United’s 3-2 win over the Columbus Crew on Saturday, the drought is over. For the first time since 2007, D.C. is going to the postseason.
“We’ve had some great games in this place, and I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of a few of them,” said Olsen, who won two MLS Cups during his 12 years playing for United. “I don’t like to bring up the old days often. But the feeling in that building felt like the good ol’ days here. And I’d like to keep that around.”
The victory pushed United (17-10-6) to second place in the Eastern Conference, putting D.C. in prime position to secure the bye that comes with a top-three slot, and maybe even claim the conference’s No. 1 seed.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Pontius said. “I’ve been here too long. I was so excited, I can’t even really explain it. It’s been a while since I felt like this.”
United wrap the regular season next Saturday with a trip to face the Chicago Fire (17-11-5). With the loss, Columbus (14-12-7) was eliminated from playoff contention, locking the East’s five-team field.
Saturday’s match, like many games in United’s season, was an up-and-down affair. Columbus, on goals from Eddie Gaven and Jairo Arrieta, twice took the lead. United, on tallies from Nick DeLeon and Marcelo Saragosa, twice equalized.
With the contest tied 2-2 in second-half stoppage time, D.C. buckled up defensively. A draw, after all, still would clinch the playoff berth.
But substitute Lewis Neal made that a moot point.
With Columbus caught searching for the winner, United’s Chris Korb found Branko Boskovic on the counter. As Neal cut inside from the left flank, Boskovic flicked a pass over a defender to free the Englishman.
In alone on goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum, Neal slotted home his second MLS goal. And RFK erupted.
“The emotions, they’re indescribable,” Neal said. “It’s such a great feeling. Hopefully we can have a few more of those feelings in the playoffs.”
The season-high crowd of 19,647 offered an atmosphere worthy of the occasion, providing a festive blend of drumming, singing and chanting that reverberated through the half-century-old stadium as United ended the campaign 12-1-4 at home.
Just seven minutes in, the Crew dampened the ambiance when Gaven converted a point-blank effort to cap a tidy Columbus buildup.
In the 39th minute, United drew even as DeLeon banged home a rebound for his sixth goal of the season, breaking a D.C. rookie record. But two minutes later, Arrieta ripped a long-range shot that rattled the post, ricocheted off diving goalkeeper Bill Hamid and nestled in the net.
Olsen, however, didn’t panic.
“I told them it was going to come,” he said. “It was just one of those games. We’re at home, the energy is good – it was a winnable game.”
He was right. Fourteen minutes after halftime, United knotted the match with a strike from a most-unlikely source, as Saragosa, a veteran who hadn’t scored an MLS goal since 2008 with FC Dallas, ran onto Brandon McDonald’s layoff and buried his shot.
Such resilience has been commonplace for United lately. Since reigning MVP Dwayne De Rosario went down with a sprained knee ligament last month, Olsen’s side has gone 5-0-1, leaning on its big names and role players alike.
Once Neal’s goal completed the comeback, the celebration of this club’s perseverance was on.
“I blacked out,” Hamid said. “I started running with my hands in the air and I just started going crazy. Honestly, I don’t know what was running through my mind. There was just a lot of work put into this year.”
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.