- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 15, 2012

As Dwayne De Rosario hobbled onto the RFK Stadium pitch, attired in street clothes during a pregame ceremony honoring his 100th MLS goal, reality sunk in. If D.C. United are going to emerge from the stretch run with a playoff bid, they’ll have to do it without their captain and catalyst.

That, of course, means relying on an unlikely hero or two down the stretch. On Saturday night, it was English journeyman Lewis Neal who shined in the spotlight.

The reserve midfielder’s 63rd-minute winner gave United (13-10-5) a 2-1 triumph over the New England Revolution (7-15-7), sliding D.C. back into playoff positioning with six matches remaining.

Although making the postseason for the first time since 2007 will be no easy task with De Rosario sidelined by a medical collateral ligament strain suffered Tuesday, the result proved this team still can grind out a result without the reigning Most Valuable Player.

“Everybody knows about Dwayne,” Neal said. “We can’t do anything about that now. We’ve got to move on and guys have got to step up and try to perform.”

Neal wasn’t the only individual who raised his game on a night United as a unit, in coach Ben Olsen’s blunt words, “did not look good”: Chris Pontius notched a goal and an assist a day after signing a new long-term contract, and goalkeeper Bill Hamid came up with a slew of show-stopping saves to preserve the come-from-behind win.

For the Revolution (7-15-7), Kelyn Rowe’s opener wasn’t enough to keep the team from being eliminated from playoff contention. In that Eastern Conference race, United now have a two-point advantage on the Columbus Crew (12-10-6), who dropped a 3-1 result at the New York Red Bulls on Saturday.

“It’s going to change, again and again and again,” Olsen said of the playoff picture. “I hope it changes with us continuing to move forward.”

A utility man who has filled in at left back, left midfield and central midfield while appearing in 13 games (four starts) this season, Neal scored the first top-flight goal of his 12-year career seven minutes after coming on for Branko Boskovic.

Pontius collected the ball near midfield and charged toward the Revolution penalty area, evading a pair of defenders before laying off a pass at top of the box. Though Neal’s one-time effort lacked power, its placement in the far side netting was enough to beat goalkeeper Matt Reis.

“Obviously, you’re always itching to get on, you’re always wanting to play as many minutes as you can,” Neal said. “Hopefully, I’ve gone tonight and took my chance.”

Added Pontius: “That’s what we ask everyone. We had the talk, we said everyone is going to have to step up a little bit and do their job.”

As expected, Olsen looked to a committee of players to help replace the myriad qualities that have made De Rosario (seven goals, 12 assists) such a force for United.

Maicon Santos filled De Rosario’s position, making his first start since July 15 as he partnered up top with Lionard Pajoy. Boskovic was inserted into the starting lineup for the first time since Aug. 11 to make up for creative influence lost. And Pontius took on the captain’s armband.

But on the strength of their youthful attack, the Revolution went ahead in the 29th minute. Catching the home side on the counter, 17-year-old striker Diego Fagundez slotted a pass to Rowe before the rookie picked his spot and glanced a shot in off the crossbar.

It took United all of three minutes to respond, as Boskovic teed up Pontius 25 yards from goal with a back-heel pass the All-Star drilled into the lower corner.

With New England pushing for the equalizer after Neal’s goal, inserting attackers Dimitry Imbongo, Juan Toja and Benny Feilhaber, Hamid bailed out a helter-skelter back line in the contest’s closing minutes, making a trio of point-blank saves in quick succession to secure the result.

So it’s one match survived without De Rosario — six to go.

“It was hectic back there late on,” Hamid said. “We wanted to stay as tidy as possible and not give them any chances. Unfortunately, we got a little mixed up in the end, but we came out with the W and we stayed strong.”

NOTE: United inducted Olsen, who played with United from 1998 to 2009, as the seventh player in the club’s Hall of Tradition during a pregame ceremony. “I’m excited,” Olsen said. “I’ll probably be more excited 20 years down the line when I look back and see that I’m on there.”