The wait is over. D.C. United only needed a draw to clinch its first playoff berth since 2007, but instead earned a 3-2 victory over the Columbus Crew before a sellout crowd Oct. 20 at RFK Stadium.
Lewis Neal provided the game-winning goal for United during the opening minute of second-half stoppage time, and his score eliminated Columbus (14-12-7, 49 points) from playoff contention.
United’s recent good form has seen it move up to second place in the Eastern Conference, a sign that head coach Ben Olsen’s attempt to return the team to its former glory is moving in the right direction.
“It was like the old days,” Olsen said. “I don’t like to bring up the old days very often, but the feeling in that building felt [like] the good old days, and I would [like] to keep that around.”
The game didn’t get off to a promising start for the home side. The Crew drew first blood after just seven minutes when an unmarked Eddie Gaven found the back of the net.
D.C. United (17-10-6, 57 points) was outplayed both technically and physically early, but the back line improved as the half went on. Columbus produced numerous attacks, but their chances did not lead to goals.
Club rookie Nick DeLeon got United back in the game, knotting the match at 1-1 with a 39th-minute goal. The score was DeLeon’s sixth of the season, which sets a team record for rookies.
Bad luck struck two minutes later for United, as Jairo Arrieta’s curving shot hit the right post and went in the goal off diving goalkeeper Bill Hamid’s foot. Columbus took a 2-1 lead into halftime, knowing that a victory was necessary if it wanted any shot at the postseason.
Midfielder Marcelo Saragosa scored the equalizer in the 59th minute for United. Brandon McDonald, who represented United’s courage and determination, refused to quit off a set piece ball he failed to win and worked a pass to Saragosa, who made it 2-2.
“I had to take the opportunity, I had to score the goal,” Saragosa said. “I am the player that works hard every time, but I needed to do something different.”
In the first minute of stoppage time, Neal one-timed a low shot off Branko Boskovic’s feed to net the game winner for United.
“It was an unbelievable effort and it’s an unbelievable feeling,” Neal said. “We’ve done what we set out to do, and now we can prepare for something bigger.”
With the playoff berth in hand, team captain Chris Pontius feels the team is ready to make an impact.
“Relief, excitement — it’s been a long time coming,” Pontius said. “Everyone is excited for the opportunity. We’re sitting in a good position. We put ourselves in a good position.”
D.C. United will close out the regular season on the road against the Chicago Fire Oct. 27. The squad can secure a first-round bye if it finishes in the top three in the Eastern Conference.