It wasn't a win, but a tie was all that D.C. United needed against the Chicago Fire, thanks to some incredible stops by Bill Hamid, and the always maddening play of Lionard Pajoy and Branko Boskovic.
Don't let anyone try to tell you that D.C. United is mediocre. Don't listen to any claims about our weak schedule to finish the season. United outplayed the Chicago Fire for the majority of a 1-1 draw at Toyota Park to clinch second place in the MLS Eastern Conference. Its a spot that they earned last night in their seventh straight match without a loss. A spot that they deserve.
For the first time in seemingly years, United was in complete control of possession for long stretches of the match. And they did it against a central midfield pairing of Logan Pause and Pavel Pardo that is one of the best in the league. I'm not going to tell you that the possession play reminded me of United's domination in the early years of MLS, but I'm not going to shy away from comparing it to the way that we played in 2006-07. Those teams were great at cycling the ball around the central third of the field, passing back when pressured, moving forward only when an opening was available. I saw a little bit of that last night.
And its one of the reasons why I'm confident in this team heading into the playoffs. I mentioned the schedule already, but hasn't the schedule worked out just perfectly for this team? In the wake of Dwayne De Rosario's injury, the league handed United a few winnable games so we could learn how to play without him. We probably wouldn't have beat the Fire or the Columbus Crew in that first week without DeRo, but they were able to beat the New England Revolution and Philadelphia Union. And now that Ben Olsen has figured out who he can count on and when in the absence of our MVP, we're doing well against the good teams as well. Its a credit to Olsen once again.
It may have been a draw, but a draw was all we needed to secure second place, and that's all that really matters. D.C. looked like the better team in Chicago for about 75 minutes.
The last 15 minutes was filled with desperation for the Fire, as they were doing everything they could to avoid the play-in match on Wednesday, with the possibility of having to play on the road against the Houston Dynamo still very real before the Dynamo's loss to the Colorado Rapids. But everything they could was still less than Bill Hamid. The young goalkeeper was fantastic last night, finishing with eight saves, and some of them being very difficult and very crucial. Just when you start to worry about Hamid having to bail the team out several times, remember that Hamid is part of the team too. And he might actually be the best goalkeeper in the league, or at least the best still alive in the playoffs.
The one goal allowed by Hamid certainly wasn't his fault. And although it appeared to be Marcelo Saragosa's fault for falling for a cutback move, Patrick Nyarko really earned the goal through a beautiful strike that doesn't really need blame assignment. That goal would have put Chicago into second place, but United wasn't ready to concede.
United came back to tie the game early in the second half thanks to two often scorned players, who had previously made some disappointing plays already in the game. And that's kind of how things work for Branko Boskovic and Lionard Pajoy. They can both be frustrating to watch, maddening fans with their odd decisions, underhit set pieces, lack of scoring aggression... but they'll still always give you one incredible play a game. That play consisted of a perfect cross from Boskovic, and a great run to the near post by Pajoy that he finished with a diving header.
Pajoy could have scored two more times, but he didn't, and we didn't really need him to. We might need him to do more next weekend though, and then again on Wed. Nov. 7. With the second seed in the Eastern Conference, United will face the New York Red Bulls in the first round of the playoffs proper, giving us the chance to advance to the Eastern Conference Final while also continuing New York's streak of ineptitude in important games.