WASHINGTON – As D.C. United continue their push toward the playoffs, many of their younger players are unaware of what it feels like to win a championship at the professional level.
Inside a locker room filled with youthful energy as well as veteran players who have won titles at various levels of competition, first-year MLS player Lewis Neal is one such player who has experienced winning his team’s final game of the season with a USL Pro League side.
Last season, Neal helped Orlando City SC win the USL championship, making 21 appearances and scoring four goals before joining United in 2012 for his first MLS campaign. That experience, however, remains something he keeps to himself.
“I don’t really ever mention that [in the locker room],” Neal said. “It’s a bit of a different standard because of the quality between the leagues. At the end of the day, you can only win what you play in.
“But I know what the feeling is to win something, no matter what level it’s at,” he said. “It was a great experience and it would be an even better one if we could firstly make the playoffs and then see where it takes us.”
With appearances in five consecutive matches, two of which were starts, Neal is helping bolster United’s midfield down the stretch as a playoff appearance becomes more and more likely.
Against Portland, D.C. coach Ben Olsen opted to start both Marcelo Saragosa and Neal in the midfield as part of the 4-5-1 formation he has frequently fashioned since captain Dwayne De Rosario went down with a knee injury. With De Rosario out and Branko Boskovic not on the field for a majority of the match against Portland, Neal was the one tasked with taking D.C.’s corner kicks.
“With the more time you get, the more confident you get in terms of playing time and things like that,” said the 5-foot-11, 155-pound Neal. “I’ve been here for a few months. You learn how the games are going to go, how they work, how the teams play and you get to know all the players.”
In 16 matches (six starts), Neal, 31, has one goal and one assist and has logged 641 minutes of playing time.
“It’s nice to be getting the minutes and helping the team try to take it into the playoffs, which is the main target. Whenever I’m called upon, I just give my best and do what I can for the team,” Neal said.