In a game MLS will not want to use as an advertisement for the league, one moment of quality was all it took.
D.C. United got over last week's wide-open 3-2 loss in Portland with pretty much the opposite: A gritty 1-0 win against a Philadelphia Union side that was booed off the field. Chris Rolfe's 6th minute strike from the center of the box was enough for United, who despite some sloppiness in possession probably should have added a second goal.
Coming into the game, both teams were in need of something to feel good about. United had conceded a 94th minute goal to lose to the Timbers, wasting an unexpectedly assertive road performance. The Union were even more desperate, with one win in their opening ten matches of a season that was supposed to see them among the playoff chasers.
Philadelphia pushed up the field from the start, but United ended up converting the first chance for either side. Lewis Neal - in for an injured Nick DeLeon at right midfield - found Davy Arnaud centrally, and the veteran whipped in a lovely searching ball to the back post. Christian settled before attempting to fire a low cross in for runners at the back post. That service clipped off of the foot of Raymon Gaddis, but Rolfe was in the right spot to chest the ball down and half-volley the ball past Union goalkeeper Zac MacMath and into the lower corner.
The goal was not without controversy, however, as both Neal and Eddie Johnson were in offside positions when Rolfe shot. MacMath will probably argue that they screened or obstructed him, but the goal was allowed to stand as neither made a move towards the ball.
From there, things got sloppy. United was content to sit back and try to hit the Union on the counter, while Philly was static in possession and a mess in terms of their defensive spacing. As the half wore on, United had the two best chances: First, Eddie Johnson had a 32nd minute goal called back for an extremely tight offside decision - the only replay was from a bad angle, making accurate judgment for TV viewers impossible - after a rare sequence of quick passing saw Arnaud send him in behind Fabinho.
Two minutes later, Fabian Espindola nearly turned a horrible error from center back Austin Berry, who was getting his first start since March 15th. Christian's long ball was a bit too short for Espindola's initial run, but Berry's attempt to chest it down simply set it on a platter for United's #9. Espindola burst into the Union box, but the Argentine blasted his shot wide from a promising position.
The second half saw more of the same, with the Union having a possession edge but lacking any sort of creativity. The halftime addition of former United winger Danny Cruz - in place of defensive midfielder Brian Carroll, another ex-United player - gave John Hackworth's side some new angles to attack from but few ideas.
Still, there were a few warning signs that the win wasn't going to come easily. Vincent Nogueira fired just over the bar after a layoff from Conor Casey in the 53rd minute, and Berry - possibly unsighted by Bobby Boswell - headed over an empty net after Bill Hamid rashly came off his line and missed a 59th minute corner from Cristian Maidana.
That threat paled in comparison to a wild sequence inside the United box in the 64th minute. Fabinho intercepted a bad square pass from Perry Kitchen and, after the defense collapsed, found Andrew Wenger at the top of the box. The much maligned striker produced a nasty spinning touch to elude Jeff Parke, but his ensuing shot was kick-saved by Hamid. The rebound fell perfectly for Casey, but Hamid popped up from a prone position to make a spectacular save. United still had to make one more block - Kitchen, making up for his error, stuffed Cruz's attempt with the net unguarded - to escape the danger.
That was the last truly good moment from the run of play for the Union, and in fact it was United who looked more likely to score after a flurry of subs from the 73rd minute onward. Rolfe had a great chance to exploit a stretched Union defense but went for an overly ambitious killer ball for Johnson that was picked off, and later substitute Alex Caskey took an inexplicably long time to square his feet after Espindola sent him in alone on goal in the 85th minute.
Philadelphia did create one last chance. After United half-cleared a 91st minute corner kick, Boswell headed a Cruz shot from outside the box over the bar. Without the captain's intervention, Hamid may have had to come up with a huge save on a shot he would have only seen late.
In the end, United's wastefulness and inability to push higher up the field went unpunished due to equal parts good play from Parke, Boswell, and Arnaud and an insipid showing from the Union, whose fans called for Hackworth to be fired as the game wore on. Despite a pretty lackluster showing, United scraped out a 1-0 road win, which is just the sort of thing MLS's contenders do from time to time. With the win, United jumps up into a four-way tie for 2nd place in the Eastern Conference, three points back of Sporting Kansas City.