There is no postseason in English soccer. Lewis Neal was raised with the FA Cup, a knockout tournament that takes place alongside the regular season in England. But the D.C. United midfielder had no trouble understanding what it meant for his game-winning goal in Saturday’s 3-2 win over Columbus to cement his team’s long-awaited return to the MLS playoffs. [Playoff scenarios here.]
“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 in getting United back into the postseason for the first time since 2007 also is emblematic of the unique 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.
“I’ve been through a lot,” said United defender Dejan Jakovic, who was signed early in the 2009 season. “We’ve had a lot of different seasons: a year where we were terrible, awful, and then a couple years where we were really close to making the playoffs. Now, to finally clinch it and not worry about other teams and maybe even finish first [in the Eastern Conference], it’s just an unbelievable feeling.”
United president Kevin Payne had words of congratulations for his team in the locker room afterward.
“It’s nice to be back,” Payne said. “It looks bad on paper. Unfortunately, there are no asterisks. It just says that you missed the playoffs. I think that this group of players has done a great job of coming together. They’ve really figured out what it takes to win these hard games, real games. This was a real game tonight.”
Payne also celebrated the lower bowl-capacity crowd of 19,647 – rumors are he contrasted D.C.’s fans to Portland’s, saying United’s are better – and new partner Jason Levien said it was pretty good timing as he got a taste of exactly why he and Erick Thohir bought into the team.
“This passion, the intensity of the game and the feeling that people were coming together in the stands was exciting,” Levien said. “It just made me see the vision for what we could really do, and it’s amazing.”
All this despite the glaring absence of the team’s injured best player, 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. I think that slowly over this six-week period has got us to the point we are today.”
In those six weeks, United (17-10-6) has gone 5-0-1. It hasn’t often been scintillating soccer, but it’s been effective, with Olsen time and again getting the most out of his substitutes. Against Columbus Neal and Branko Boskovic both started on the bench– they “probably have the highest soccer IQ on our team,” Olsen said – but combined to put the game away. Maicon Santos and Hamdi Salihi have also delivered in reserve roles down the stretch since De Rosario’s injury.
“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. They’re putting their heads down and working hard, and you got two subs that end up winning the game for us tonight. I thought that was fantastic.”
There remains plenty of room for improvement. United’s defense struggled at times to rotate the ball around the back line. Up front, Santos and Lionard Pajoy continue to end up in the same spots on the field and showed almost no chemistry together against the Crew. Marcelo Saragosa’s offense isn’t the kind that can be relied upon consistently, and neither is Neal’s.
“To be honest, I almost got a nosebleed going up that far on the field and getting through like that, and then going one-on-one with the keeper,” Neal joked.
The silver lining in the De Rosario injury, of course, is that it has forced a team to take on the qualities of a defensive-minded playoff side. Ironically, that was a transition that was difficult to make when D.C. United was last in the playoffs in 2006 and 2007.
That’s not to say that United has turned into a playoff favorite. But as much as Olsen’s rotation and player management at times has been second guessed, he’s figured out, officially, how to turn D.C. United back into a playoff team.
“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.”