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Lewis Neal's October goal habit making him a cult hero for DC United

WASHINGTON – The photograph, taken by the indelible Tony Quinn of The Washington Post, will likely be seared in the minds of D.C. United fans for quite some time.

It provides a glimpse into the moment one goal turned a season of misery into a championship campaign. A look at how, with his second monumental October goal for a club he joined at the start of 2012, United midfielder Lewis Neal has become somewhat of a cult hero in D.C. soccer circles.

The shot shows Neal, sporting his white No. 24 road kit, leaping high into the night air at Rio Tinto Stadium after scoring the only goal of United’s 1-0 upset victory in the U.S. Open Cup final on Oct. 1. His mouth open, Neal’s left hand has its fingers spread apart above his head while his right hand is balled in a fist by his waist, ready to explode skyward in celebration.

Neal’s goal against Real Salt Lake just before halftime not only set off a flow of emotion among the D.C. supporters who made the trip to Sandy, but also on Twitter – with variations of “LEWIS NEAL!” (all caps, of course) and “Lewis [expletive] Neal!” recurring most frequently.

“It was obviously an unbelievable experience for everybody involved. It brought a little bit of joy to the organization,” Neal said.

Roughly one year ago, also on a chilly October night, Neal scored the goal that first endeared him to United’s faithful followers. On Oct. 20, 2012, Neal’s breakway tally in stoppage time against the Columbus Crew at RFK Stadium helped D.C. lock up its first postseason berth since 2007.

“It certainly brings it more to light with the history of the club and how much it means to the team and the fans,” Neal said of his two special goals. “To see them celebrate the way they did and for that many of them to actually turn up in Salt Lake was a pretty cool moment and something I’ll personally never forget.”

The 2013 campaign, as it has been for many of United’s players, was an up-and-down one for Neal. After complications with a hernia surgery sidelined the English midfielder until August, he’s slowly won his way back into coach Ben Olsen’s favor. Smart on the ball and rarely mistake-prone, Neal has played in eight matches (four starts) and said he continues to feel more and more fit as the season rolls along.

“We’re under no illusion that there’s not a lot of work to do getting ready for next year,” Neal said. “These last couple of games are to do ourselves proud, do the organization proud and just go out there and try to put on a good performance.”

Nick Cammarota covers D.C. United for MLSsoccer.com.