Even before the game-winning goal was scored by Lewis Neal, this was the best match that D.C. United has played in two months. Or at least certainly the most memorable.
When Emilio Renteria entered the match for the Columbus Crew and lined up opposed to Lewis Neal, I was getting pretty darn nervous. I remember pretty clearly the last time these two teams faced off at RFK Stadium. This was the match in which Daniel Woolard suffered his concussion in the 63rd minute, and Neal was forced to come off the bench and slot into Woolard's left back spot. But he was abused so badly by Renteria that Ben Olsen had to move Neal out of the back line, inserting a recovering Dejan Jakovic on the left instead.
In the end, Neal had the final say.
But before that, I was nervous. I didn't think D.C. United would be able to put a third ball past Andy Gruenenbaum, and memories of the years 2009 and 2010 were ringing too fresh in my memory.
Even at a 2-2 score, I was pleased with United's performance. Even if the final score was a draw, I would have called this the best D.C. match in two months. The players responded to the playoff atmosphere at RFK Stadium with huge amounts of energy and intensity. I would've been satisfied with a draw - satisfied with clinching a playoff spot, and satisfied with the newfound knowledge that this team does still have the potential to compete against the best teams in the league even without Dwayne De Rosario. Despite the five-game winning streak that United had carried into this game, I still had my doubts. I think we all did.
Those doubts have now been resolved.
The resilience that United had shown earlier in the season has returned. Twice the team came back from a goal deficit last night, and for the first time since August and the first time without their MVP, United won by outscoring their opponent.
The early goal from the Crew was just a tad lucky as Jakovic did well to block the initial header from Jairo Arrieta and the ball fell to Eddie Gaven, who did well to beat his man (Brandon McDonald?). Some early nerves may have contributed to the poor marking on the goal, as McDonald could have been positioned better, and Bill Hamid was caught in the middle between charging out to try to swat the ball away and staying on his line preparing to make a save.
United responded late in the half though with some aggressive play in the box involving both of the D.C. forwards as Maicon Santos set up Lionard Pajoy who swerved through traffic to get off a clean shot. Gruenenbaum had to dive to make the initial save but Nick DeLeon finished his run and put away the rebound.
Columbus scored again almost immediately, notching a dagger of a goal that might have crippled this United team in previous seasons. The Crew caught United on a counter, but even after D.C. was able to get numbers back, Arrieta and Federico Higuain were still given too much time and too much space. Hamid gave his best effort to try to make a save but was unfortunate to have the ball deflect off the post and then off his leg and in.
That Columbus goal didn't turn out to be a true dagger though. This team doesn't go away that easily. United scored on a bit of trick free kick that involved a pass from DeLeon to Andy Najar. It was a play that lots of different players on lots of different teams might have given up on, but McDonald stayed with it to lay the ball off for Marcelo Saragosa who finished with an accurate shot we didn't know he possessed. This may have been the first regular season goal for Saragosa, but it was the second big goal scored this year by Saragossa. The central midfielder had possibly his best game in a D.C. uniform, but might not have even been the most impressive D.C. player in that position. Perry Kitchen was brilliant as well.
And then, magic happened. We weren't surprised to see both teams going for the win, with so much at stake in the dying moments of the game and the dying moments of the season. With just stoppage time to go, United caught the Crew pushing forward without numbers in defense. But it was the work rate of Hamdi Salihi that created the chance. Salihi's pressure helped D.C. keep possession, pushing the ball back to Chris Korb. The right back was active all day both on offense and defense, but his perfect cleared cross was part of what made the difference in the match, along with Branko Boskovic's no-look over-the-shoulder pass to Neal. A no-look over-the-shoulder pass is difficult to do in basketball, a sport in which players get to use their hands. Its even more difficult in a sport where you can only use your feet.
Neal will go down as the hero, but his one-touch finish may have actually been the easiest part of the entire play, a play that will live on in United history.
This was really a fun game. It was the type of game that would turn casual soccer fans into hardcore fans. Its also the type of game that's bound to live on my DVR for the entire offseason, if not in perpetuity.
Because of Neal's goal, we're assured of having the chance to experience such a game at least one more time at RFK Stadium this year. Now that we've seen United do it once, there's no reason to believe they can't do it again.