There is no postseason in English soccer. D.C. United midfielder Lewis Neal was raised with the FA Cup, a knockout tournament that takes place alongside the regular season in England. But he had no trouble understanding what it meant when his game-winning goal in Saturday's 3-2 win over Columbus cemented his team's return to the MLS postseason for the first time since 2007.
"The longer that I've spent here, the more I get the picture of how important playoffs is, whether it's soccer, basketball, the NFL or whatever," Neal said. "I know this is a massive achievement for everybody involved in this football team."
Neal's role is emblematic of a group that has come together to make it possible. In the upbeat but hardly over-the-top locker room afterward, there was a mixture of happiness from newcomers, relief for longer-tenured players and a general sense of workmanlike confidence.
All this despite the glaring absence of the team's best player, injured reigning MLS MVP Dwayne De Rosario.
"I think we've grown closer since Dwayne went down," United coach Ben Olsen said. "It's obviously not a negative towards Dwayne. It was survival. Everybody understood that we have to be a real team now. We have to commit to each other and bail each other out."
In six weeks without De Rosario, United (17-10-6) has gone 5-0-1. It hasn't been scintillating soccer, but time and again Olsen has gotten the most out of his substitutes. Against Columbus, Neal and Branko Boskovic started on the bench -- they "probably have the highest soccer IQ on our team," Olsen said -- before combining to put the game away. Maicon Santos and Hamdi Salihi also have delivered in reserve roles down the stretch.
"I don't think you see subs that are pissed off," midfielder Chris Pontius said. "I think you see subs that come on and are trying to make a difference."
The silver lining of the De Rosario injury could be that it has forced a team to take on the qualities of a defensive-minded playoff side.
"You have to have the results to have people buy in. That's the reality," Olsen said. "I think they've come together as a group. I'm really happy for them. I think they want more. I think this group still thinks they can do some things."
- Craig Stouffer