- - Thursday, February 6, 2014

Success is often determined in a moment. And it was in a split moment last year that Lewis Neal wrote himself into D.C. United history.

In the midst of its worst campaign ever, a stunning goal by Neal in the U.S. Open Cup gave the proud club a moment of celebration in an otherwise horrendous year. The odds were against the D.C. outfit beating the in-form Real Salt Lake in front of 17,000 fans in Sandy, Utah, but Neal’s 12-yard strike — United’s only shot on goal — handed the club the U.S. Open Cup title in the tournament’s 100th year.

Titles and medals are hard to come by in soccer, but Neal, an Englishman who had struggled all year with a groin injury, was able to claim a coveted piece of silverware in the twilight of his career.

“Scoring that goal is up there as one of the most important moments of my career,” said Neal as the team gathered for preseason training recently in Washington.

Neal only managed to appear in nine games (five starts) last year due to a groin injury and the speedy midfielder will be battling again this season to get into the United lineup.

“With all the new players coming into the team, competition is going to be tough,” said Neal. “No one is guaranteed a first-team spot. It’s all about preseason training and how you go about it. Getting in the starting lineup is going to be tough. We are all going to have to strive and work hard for a place.”

The 32-year-old, who began his career with Stoke City in England, has the ability to come off the bench and give United a spark on the left side in a midfielder. He is a good crosser of the ball and can hit a decent strike on goal from distance.

“I generally don’t mind where I play as long as I’m on the field,” said Neal, who also played with Preston North End in the Championship and later had stints with Notts County, Carlisle and Shrewsbury Town. “I suppose I do prefer the left flank and cutting into the middle.”

Neal joined United in 2012 from Orlando City and played in 18 games (seven starts) that season earning two goals and as assist.

Neal is also coaching material and has already worked with United’s youth teams. He has bubbling enthusiasm for the game with an outgoing character. He loves America and would like to settle in the States with his wife and two children after he hangs up his cleats.

“I really like it here and have no real aspirations about going home,” Neal said. “Coaching is certainly something I would like to do.”

As for fitness, Neal says the groin that bothered him all last year has healed and he is now just dealing with a niggling Achilles injury.

“My aim is to get a full season under my belt,” said Neal.

“I enjoy playing over here,” said Neal, who hails Leicester in the English Midlands and was a youth player with Leicester City from age 8 to 15.

“The game in England can be a little bit hectic and very much long ball and end-to-end. Here, players are very athletic and try to play the ball on the ground. I think the game suits me out here a little better.”

Neal is looking forward this season to be able to go up against star players such as American ace Michael Bradley and English striker Jermain Defoe who have both joined Toronto FC.

“I think these are exciting times in MLS seeing these quality players joining the league,” he said.

Growing up in England, Neal was a huge Manchester United fan.

“Ryan Giggs was always my hero,” Neal said. “The career he has had in unbelievable and he is a true professional.”

Being a true professional is a label that many would pin on Neal.

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