WASHINGTON — Deep in the bowels of venerable RFK Stadium on Friday night, just moments after D.C. United’s last-gasp victory over NYCFC, United’s rain-drenched players filed into the locker room.
Nearly four inches of rain had fallen on the D.C.-area over the past 24 hours, and the 50-year-old venue seemed to have soaked in every drop of it. By game’s end, murky puddles had formed on the pitch; from the seats above, water had filtered through cracks in the concrete and dropped from ceiling tiles into the venue’s interior corridors.
“The building,” said a security guard outside the home locker room, “is crying tears of joy.”
A funny explanation for RFK’s sometimes questionable structural integrity, but one that fit almost perfectly on Friday. D.C. had just snapped a six-game winless streak, and had done so in the most dramatic fashion possible, riding an Alvaro Saborio stoppage-time game-winner to a 2-1 victory over New York City.
Friday’s match was the third consecutive game D.C. had had a chance to clinch a playoff berth, and Saborio’s tally pushed them over the top, qualifying them for the postseason for the second consecutive year.
“[Making the playoffs] was our goal at the beginning of the season,” United head coach Ben Olsen told MLSsoccer.com after the match, "and it’s nice to reach goals. Now we’ll have new goals, one of them is in the short term to continue to rev things up — because we learned a lesson last year where we weren’t winning games and playing well down the stretch, and now its important for the next two games to improve the quality.”
"It’s good,” added United attacker Chris Rolfe. "This is good. We needed that, we needed a win. We needed a win like that, I think that helps. And now with next weekend off it’s gonna be a lot better for us psychologically coming off a win, clinching the playoffs and not having to worry about any of that stuff during our two weeks. That will allow us now to look back on this game and the past couple of games and figure out what we need to do better and give us some time to work on that.”
For a while on Friday, it certainly didn’t look like there’d be any tears of joy at RFK — from the building itself or the fans in it. In what’s become an increasingly troubling theme for D.C., United dropped the ball early and allowed a goal inside of one minute -- a dangerous ball led to a failed David Villa attempt on goal, which an unmarked Frank Lampard pounced on for the opener. It was the third time in the past five home matches United had given up a goal in the first two minutes.
"I cant explain the starts,” Olsen said after the match. “We’ll continue to work on them, we’ve tried just about everything short of an exorcism to sort out the starts.”
But there was something different about United’s response to Friday’s early goal, something that had been lacking in their previous six performances. In the driving rain, on an unseasonably cold night, United looked full of energy, eager to take advantage of a desperate NYCFC side. As the game wore on — and especially after D.C. forward Fabian Espindola found the equalizer, it became evident that D.C. would be given plenty of opportunities against an NYCFC side badly in need of a win.
"We talked about that,” said Olsen. “As the game goes on, [if] the score was level or they were losing, there was going to be tons of space and they were going to bring on good reserves like [Kwadwo] Poku, [Khiry] Shelton – they’re a handful. They’re not a fun team to play offensively but I was very happy with how we dealt with that down the stretch and how we used their aggression against them.”
Onwards for United, who still have a bit of work to do -- a pair of wins gives them a good shot at avoiding the play-in game. On Friday, the cheeriness in United’s post-game locker room was tempered by talk of needing to continue building form.
"If you look at New England last year,” said Chris Pontius, "they went through a six or seven game losing streak and then they got hot at the end of the year, they were the hot team going into the playoffs. We have two more games left to get that going. I thought the chemistry was good tonight but it can get better for us."