The last time that D.C. United had a multiple-game winning streak, we knew what players were in the best 11. Injuries, trades, international trips, and dips in form forced United to depart from that best 11 long ago, and a consistent starting lineup hasn't been established ever since.
We know our best 11 again now. The same 11 players were on the field for both of the game-winning goals scored by United in the past six days. Lewis Neal scored it against the New England Revolution on Saturday, and Lionard Pajoy scored it against the Philadelphia Union tonight in a 1-0 win. Both of the game-winning goals were assisted by Chris Pontius.
What's most surprising though is that none of our three highest paid players are in that best 11. Only one of them is missing due to injury. We know now that our best 11 doesn't include Boskovic. And it definitely doesn't include Hamdi Salihi.
In fact, if you were going to design a starting quality forward that was the exact opposite of Salihi, you might wind up with Pajoy. He's strong and surprisingly quick. All effort, no killer instinct. With his final touch of the match, Branko Boskovic delivered an absolutely perfect cross to a virtually unmarked Pajoy. The forward's decision to strike the ball with the outside of his foot was almost ngwenyian, reminding me eerily of the awful miss against the Portland Timbers at the end of last season.
The 2011 United couldn't come back from that moment. The 2012 United can and did.
Because this team fights on. We have another game in three days, but Ben Olsen didn't make any late substitutes because he didn't need to. Everyone on the field from the 55th minute on was willing to fight until the end. Pajoy was clearly tired, but he kept working. Chris Korb picked up a knock early in the second half but showed no intent to leave the field.
We also have as definitive an answer as we're going to get to the question of Who Will Step Up Without Dwayne De Rosario. It's Pontius. There shouldn't be any doubt why he was given the captain's armband in DeRo's absense. He was leading by example with a newfound and unexpected maturity, pushing the team forward with consistency and precision. While we're still making comparisons to last season, let's just call 2012 Pontius the closest thing we have to 2011 De Rosario. Pontius was always going to be the likeliest player to create a goal. When the team needed a play, Pontius made it.
Pontius created the game-winner in the 67th minute when he could have easily gone down and hoped Baldomero Toledo would reward him with a penalty kick call that he probably deserved. Lots of attackers would have gone down in that situation after receiving a perfectly weighted (and perhaps luckily helped along by a deflection) cross from Maicon Santos. Pontius didn't choose to go down though. That's not his style. Instead, he drew out the defenders and goalkeeper and sent the ball back to the well-positioned Pajoy in the middle. This time, Pajoy didn't waste his opportunity. He put it away with a short laser under the bar and into the net.
After that play, United disappointed in many chances to double the lead, but in the end they didn't need it. Mostly because the Philadelphia Union are pretty bad offensively. You know, after trading away their most experienced forward to a conference rival.
That might have also been perhaps the least inspiring clean sheet I've ever seen a goalkeeper earn. Fortunately, Bill Hamid picked the perfect opponent for his worst game of the season. United was a bit lucky that the numerous mistakes made by Hamid didn't result in any goals. Still, it should be noted that Hamid was there at the end of the match making stops when we needed them the most.
The team is getting wins now, both at home and on the road, by outlasting the weakest teams in the conference and finishing just one more chance than the opposition. It's quite obvious that this sort of performance isn't going to cut it against the Columbus Crew and Chicago Fire in those last two matches of the season, or in the first round of the playoffs. But it's good enough for now, as it's good enough for three points. And tonight, that's all that really matters.