WASHINGTON – When midfielder Lewis Neal scored the goal that ensured D.C. United would be heading back to the playoffs for the first time in five years, the former player in coach Ben Olsen escaped.
Ironically enough, Olsen happened to be a D.C. player in 2007, the last time United made the postseason.
In the 91st minute Saturday, immediately following Neal’s stoppage-time winner, Olsen jumped on the home bench – essentially two pieces of drab beige metal welded together – in celebration.
Thing was, everyone else had already sprung off the bench in ecstasy, leaving Olsen in a precarious position.
“I almost fell over the bench,” he said. “I jumped on the bench and nobody else was on the bench, so the bench started falling over. But I saved it. I saved myself.”
Similarly, Olsen and his players saved the District of Columbia from another season of heartache. This time, elation reverberated through the brittle bones of RFK Stadium as a sellout crowd erupted at the final whistle of United’s 3-2 victory against Columbus.
In the process, United jumped into second place in the Eastern Conference and are guaranteed a home playoff match. With a win against Chicago and a loss by Sporting Kansas City next weekend, D.C. would earn the top seed.
“I don’t think we’ll realize how big a win this was tonight until we’ve slept on it a little and wonder whether we’ve dreamed,” said Neal, whose breakaway strike was his second of the season.
Remarkably, United haven’t lost in the six matches (5-0-1) since team captain and 2011 MLS MVP Dwayne De Rosario was sidelined with a grade III MCL sprain.
On Saturday, United not only faced a side with a winning record for the first time in five matches, but a team fighting to extend their season. Twice D.C.’s previously struggling offense overcame a one-goal deficit to eliminate the Crew from playoff contention.
“I’m so excited, I can’t even explain it. It’s been a while since I’ve felt like this,” midfielder Chris Pontius said. “This is one of the biggest moments of my professional career. To fight back like that in the manner that we won is amazing.”
Again, it was contributions from unlikely sources that fueled United, as has been the case for a majority of D.C.’s run sans De Ro.
Midfielder Marcelo Saragosa scored his first goal of the season to tie the game at 2-2 after Brandon McDonald kept the ball alive near the box. On Neal’s winner, substitute Branko Boskovic settled a long ball from Chris Korb and played a perfect pass toward the streaking Englishman.
“To be honest, I almost got a nosebleed going that far upfield like that and going one-on-one with the ’keeper. It’s not usually my forte,” Neal said with a smile. “It was great to see it go in and have the lads come and bombard me.”
By the time United’s jovial players trickled out of the locker room, the stadium lights had dimmed. The sound of trash being scooped into large black bags and humming leaf blowers echoed through the concourse.
Faded orange seats, now all empty, are guaranteed to be filled at least once more in 2012.
And in an old, run-down place with creaks and cracks and critters, Olsen admitted that Saturday… well, Saturday felt a bit like the old days.
“I don’t like to bring up the old days very often, but the feeling in that building felt like the good ol’ days here,” he said. “I’d like to keep that around. We’re excited to continue to move on and have more moments like this.”