In an MLS Matchday 1 packed with dramatic, last-second finishes, one of the most heart-pounding took place at D.C. United's Audi Field, where the Black-and-Red mounted a furious comeback in second-half stoppage time to flip a potential 2-1 defeat into a 3-2 victory over Toronto FC.
Between the pair of late strikes from Designated Player forward Christian Benteke and homegrown midfielder Ted Ku-DiPietro, plus a first-half golazo from marquee offseason arrival Mateusz Klich, it was a promising start for D.C. in the club's first full season under head coach Wayne Rooney.
"It's always important to try and start the season well," Rooney told reporters after the match. "And to be honest, for the players, for us as a group, we had a tough week. Obviously losing [Martín Rodríguez] with a knee injury and then Taxi [Fountas] as well, so I had to change the team a little bit.
"To start the season with three points against a good team – Toronto are a very good team – we're all delighted."
If D.C. hope to make noise in the Eastern Conference this season – they were bottom of the table in 2022 – big contributions will be required from both Designated Players who found the scoresheet on Saturday.
Klich was the first to make his mark, putting D.C. on top in the 13th minute with a highlight-reel AT&T 5G Goal of the Matchday candidate from well outside the penalty area. It was an apt illustration of the quality possessed by the 32-year-old Polish international, who arrived in a January transfer from English Premier League side Leeds United.
Equally significant was Benteke's equalizer, a 90th-minute flicked header from the Belgian striker, who arrived from the EPL's Crystal Palace last August with similar hopes he could be a game-changing force in MLS.
"Delighted for [Klich], he's been excellent all preseason, to get his goal," Rooney said. "And Christian, we've done a lot of work on being in the middle of the goal, where you score goals. And although it was not his best game, tonight he had an important moment, getting us tied 2-2 and then Ku gets the winner."
Goal: M. Klich vs. TOR, 13’
Youngsters step up
D.C.'s big-time DPs might have set the stage, but the final result was delivered courtesy of Ku-DiPietro's 98th-minute game-winner that sent the Audi Field crowd into bedlam.
The 21-year-old academy product rewarded Rooney's choice to bring him in as a second-half substitute with the well-taken late strike, which saw him demonstrate impressive composure to control the ball in the area and convert the decisive finish.
Rooney also highlighted 16-year-old homegrown center back Matai Akinmboni, who started the match and played 78 minutes in just his third MLS appearance, delivering an impressive shift aside from a growing-pains moment when he conceded a 66th-minute penalty kick converted by Toronto's Federico Bernardeschi.
"Just go and express yourself," Rooney said of his message to his homegrown standouts. "With young players, of course, you try and give them information and develop them. But I think probably more important than that is letting them play and be free. Of course, to know their roles defensively, that's what we worked on all preseason. But when we're attacking, let them express themselves.
"Matai, for instance, I thought he was excellent tonight," Rooney added. "But the difference from an attacking young player to a defender is one mistake as a defender can cost you a goal, which obviously Matai gave the penalty. But I thought the maturity he showed throughout the game as a 16-year-old was incredible, really. And you're going to have these moments, they're moments he has to get through and learn from. But for the attacking lads, they're going to make mistakes. They're going to make 3-4-5-6 mistakes a game. But then they might have moments like we got with Ku."