Head coach Ben Olsen (center) is inducted into the D.C. United Hall of Tradition before the team’s 2-1 victory over the New England Revolution. (Photo by Francis Chung)
Faced with a season-ending injury to its captain and rapidly fading playoff hopes, D.C. United did what it had to do on Saturday evening, relying on an unlikely goal-scorer and some stellar goalkeeping to grind out a 2-1 victory over the visiting New England Revolution.
“We were rusty,” said United Head Coach Ben Olsen after the victory. “It wasn’t a great game and we were probably a little lucky. It could have gone either way. They had plenty of chances and we had some good looks. We are going to have to do much better than that going forward if we’re going to reach our goal.”
United’s game-winning goal came courtesy of 31-year old Lewis Neal, an off-season acquisition who most recently plied his trade with USL-Pro side Orlando City. Neal, a second-half substitute, scored only minutes after entering the match. Running onto a ball played back to him by midfielder Chris Pontius, he struck a low shot into the right corner to give United the win.
“To be honest, I just left Pontius to do his work as he usually does down the wing,” the Englishman said of his first-ever MLS goal. “I held back on the edge of the box and thankfully he cut back inside and he played it to me and I was lucky enough to just get a decent foot on it and guide it into the corner. It was great, we needed to win. It is pretty obvious how important tonight’s win was.”
Neal revealed that he and Pontius had actually been texting back and forth the night before the match. After Neal offered up his congratulations on Pontius’ newly signed contract extension, the United forward offered up a response: “We just need to get you a goal or an assist now.” Neal joked: “We’ll have to remember to text before every game.”
D.C. entered the game sitting in sixth place in the East, a point out of playoff position. With only three home games remaining and the teams surrounding them in the standings red-hot, the match-up against a New England side that had only picked up one road victory on the season had to be considered a must-win.
Playing its first game without DeRo and starting Maicon Santos and Lionard Pajoy together up top for the first time, United looked out of sync for most of the game. The Revolution controlled the pace for much of the first half, and broke through in the 29th minute. Diego Fagundez found Kelyn Rowe streaking down the right side, and Rowe struck a venomous ball that rose past the outstretched arms of Hamid.
United would respond just two minutes later, as Pontius would run onto a deftly touched backheel from Branko Bošković, drilling it past New England keeper Matt Reis. Bošković was impressive during his 56 minutes on the pitch. With De Rosario out, Branko seemed to be the most creative player on the pitch, distributing the ball with ease. His free kicks looked as dangerous as ever.
United could have easily found itself leaving RFK with a draw or even a loss, if not for some late-game heroics by their goalkeeper. During a frantic 10-minute stretch to end the match, Hamid came up huge on three separate occasions. United’s coach was full of praise for his keeper: “Overall, nobody on our team today really played great, except Hamid. He made two incredible saves today.”
If Bošković, Hamid and Pontius were United’s men of the match, Lionard Pajoy very well may have been the team’s big bust of the evening. The Colombian got his share of touches, but didn’t look threatening all night. Maicon Santos wasn’t much better. Whether Olsen chooses to stick with the pairing up top remains to be seen.
“The relationship between them is going to take a little bit of time,” Olsen quipped at his post-game press conference. “I thought Maicon had some moments where it was nice to have him back but he also had some moments of rust. It was the first time those two played together and I think time will help that.”
United’s other realistic option up top is Hamdi Salihi. The sparingly used Albanian got 25 minutes at the end of the match and made the most of them, nearly scoring on two occasions-including what would have been a spectacular bicycle kick in the game’s dying moments.
The win, combined with a Columbus loss, puts United back in the playoff picture for now. The team’s next four games are against teams beneath them in the table, providing it with a golden opportunity to rack up points heading into the final weeks of the season. DCist will be in Philly Thursday evening for the black and red’s crucial match-up with the Union (8 p.m., ESPN2), and this weekend’s home match-up with Western Conference bottom dwellers Chivas USA as well. Follow me at @DCist_Pablo for in-game commentary and photos during both the matches and post-game quotes directly following them.
Team Notes: The Columbus loss came at the hands of the New York Red Bulls, and the game contained what’s (to this point) possibly the goal of the year. Thierry Henry scored an “Olimpico,” directly off of a corner kick. Take a look … Olsen was inducted into United’s “Hall of Tradition” during a pre-game ceremony. “These fans mean a lot to me,” he said of the honor. “My family was here today so it was a family day for me today and it was nice to have my kids on the field with me. I’m not sure if they knew what was going on, but I’m sure there is a picture or two that they will see 20 years from now and they will remember that this was a good day.” … De Rosario was also honored before the match for scoring 100 career MLS goals. He certainly showed signs of his injury, hobbling towards the sidelines after the ceremony … As mentioned, Pontius (who served as captain for the match) finalized a contract extension Friday afternoon. Though terms of the deal-which goes into effect in January-weren’t released (per league policy), the Post’s soccer insider suggests that the deal is guaranteed for three years, with an additional two-year option. Pontius presently makes $155,000 a year.