D.C. United have spent nearly all of 2014 floating near the top of the eastern conference, and have spent the last month near the top of the Supporters’ Shield race.
Still, many observers and pundits have been hesitant to call United one of Major League Soccer’s “elite teams,” and listless losses to RSL and Seattle seemed to back that up. While United had performed well enough against MLS’ mid-tier clubs, they couldn't find a breakthrough against the league’s jet set.
What’s more, United had squandered two chances this month to grab sole possession of first place in the east.
They did not squander anything on Saturday night.
The performance, a dominant 3-0 drubbing of Sporting Kansas City at Sporting Park, their first ever win at that venue, has “statement game” written all over it. Aside from an opening stretch that saw Sporting create a handful of opportunities, United did well to squash a normally potent SKC attack - even up three goals, United continued to press for a fourth, striking the post twice, and counted on goalkeeper Bill Hamid to make a handful of saves to preserve the shutout.
"Obviously we’re happy with the result,” midfielder Perry Kitchen, who scored United’s final goal of the match, told MLSsoccer.com in a phone interview. "I thought we came out and matched their intensity - that’s one of their strong suits, they come out and try and get a quick goal and put you on your heels, but I thought we did a good job of matching their intensity and converted our chances as well.”
It’s worth noting of course that Sporting seemed to be suffer from a bit of fatigue following the club’s mid-week CONCACAF Champions League match - which saw them travel to Nicaragua and use a good number of starters as well. United had a CCL match of their own, but the home match required no travel and DC managed to grind out a result without the use of most of their starting lineup.
Still, the numbers are impressive: in a 55-minute span that includes part of United’s encounter last week with the Colorado Rapids, D.C. found the net six times. They find themselves in first place in late August, a position they haven’t been in since 2007 - their most successful MLS campaign ever.
And pushing a Sporting team in their comfort zone was part of the plan, according to United coach Ben Olsen.
"It's not secret they are extremely aggressive at home," he said. "A lot of these games come down to if you can counter in the right way. Today, I think we were pretty sharp in that area and fortunately we punished them for it."
United’s work is far from done: they’ve managed well enough during a brutal stretch of seven games during the month of August but face a tough pair of matches in the week ahead: a mid-week tilt with the LA Galaxy, and an encounter with the New York Red Bulls.
For what it’s worth, nobody in a raucous United locker room seemed content to rest on any laurels after the victory. Kitchen himself summed it up well just before departing.
“First place with 10 games to go doesn’t mean much. We still have work to do.”