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United ends playoff drought in dramatic fashion

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Penalty Kicks,Sports,Craig Stouffer

D.C. United 3, Crew 2

RFK Stadium has always been known for stands that bounce. But there is nothing quite like when the stadium itself shakes.

A tired, fading D.C. United had already done what it need to get back into the playoffs for the first time since 2007, closing in on a 2-2 draw with Columbus in the final moments Saturday night.

But when Lewis Neal latched onto Branko Boskovic’s splendid touch for a clinical one-on-one finish past converging Crew goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum, the building rocked and swayed like it hasn’t in years. The stoppage time goal ensured far more than a 3-2 victory. It was the exclamation point on the end of seasons of misery and disappointment, ones that were replaced by the kind of joy and celebration that can only be appreciated when it hasn’t been experienced for so long.

When the final whistle blew, United coach Ben Olsen turned toward his bench, spread his arms with two fists and let out a guttural scream that was matched by the raucous emotion of the 19,647 at RFK Stadium, the largest crowd of the season.

“We’ve had some great games in this place, and I’ve been lucky to be a part of a few of them,” Olsen said. “That was great. In a packed house, it was like the old days. I don’t like to bring up the old days very often, but the feeling in that building felt like the good old days here.”

Olsen was still a player the last time United was in the postseason. That year, Dwayne De Rosario led the Houston Dynamo to an MLS Cup championship at RFK Stadium. This fall, with De Rosario sidelined by a knee injury in early September, Olsen coaxed a six-game winnings streak out of D.C. United (17-10-6, 57 points) to earn a postseason berth. A team that was out of playoff position when De Rosario went down could find itself with the top seed in the Eastern Conference if it wins and Sporting Kansas City (17-7-9, 60 points) loses on the final weekend of the regular season.

“It’s been a while since I felt like this,” said midfielder Chris Pontius, D.C.’s longest tenured player, who was drafted in 2009. “This is one of the biggest games of my professional career, and to fight back like that in the manner that we won was amazing.”

United was twice out of position to earn the draw it needed against the Crew (14-12-7, 49 points) before helping to eliminate the visitors from the postseason.

Eddie Gaven popped up unmarked in the box to put Columbus ahead in the seventh minute, and two minutes after Nick DeLeon’s equalizer in the 39th minute – the rookie of the year candidate’s sixth goal of the year, a D.C. United record – Jairo Arrieta curled a shot that D.C. goalkeeper Bill Hamid stretched to deflect, only to have it hit off the post and his calf and land in the net.

D.C.’s response was the same as it has been since losing De Rosario, an unbeaten run that now sits at six games. United didn’t make any immediate changes to the two-forward formation that hadn’t produced a bumper crop of offense, certain that the breakthrough would come at home, where they hadn’t lost since the season opener in March.

It came in the 59th minute. Andy Najar’s cross was initially hit by a Crew defender, but Brandon McDonald slid to poke it back to Marcelo Saragosa, who skimmed his shot from the 18-yard-box through the Columbus defense for his first goal of the year.

With fatigue from the adrenaline-fueled evening setting in, United began to sag as it pressed for a winner and tried simultaneously to hold off the desperate Crew. But with Columbus throwing numbers forward, Chris Korb’s clearance down the left side in the 91st minute exposed the visitors, particularly since it went forward to Boskovic and Neal, who were both fresh-legged late substitutes.

Boskovic’s blind, left footed pass over Crew defender Chris Birchall couldn’t have settled more neatly for Neal, who one-timed it toward the near post as Gruenebaum leaned left.

“The reaction from everybody in the team to the people in the stands, it was an unbelievable feeling,” Neal said. “It’s a great credit to the guys to come from two goals behind to even get us in that position in the first place… I don’t think we’ll realize how big a win this was tonight until we’ve slept on it a little and wake up in the morning, and wonder if we’ve dreamed or what. It was a great feeling.”

Hamid, who joined the club in 2009, said he kind of “blacked out” after the goal.

“It felt like ecstasy, to be honest,” he said. “A thousand thoughts running through my mind, a little bit of relief, happiness. It was just a great moment for every single one of us.”

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