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D.C. United beats Chicago, clinches worst-to-first reverse

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A goal and an assist Saturday night from Eddie Johnson propelled DCU to a 2-1 win over Chicago and the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

For the last time in this 2014 MLS regular season, D.C. United wore black. And perhaps also for the last time in this 2014 MLS regular season, television sets across the District wore the same.

But while a TV blackout may have resulted in one of 2014's smaller audiences outside RFK Stadium, 2014's best crowd gathered within, and United rewarded its sellout on Saturday with a 2-1 win over the visiting Chicago Fire — a win that, a year removed from a spot in the cellar, secured first place in the Eastern Conference and all-important home-field advantage.

And so it was only natural, especially on a very fitting Fan Appreciation Day, for the Black and Red (17-9-7) to stick around a bit to bask in the afterglow.

"To go from worst to first in our conference is a pretty big chance. And we want to say thank you to [the fans]. They stuck with the team through the bad, and they're here for the good," center back Bobby Boswell said. "So the least we could do is say thanks and shake some hands and sign some autographs, take some pictures. I probably took more selfies tonight than I've taken in my entire life."

But, top to bottom, Boswell and his teammates stressed postgame that the team's was still far from done. "We've got some work to do," head coach Ben Olsen said. "It's still the beginning," Fabian Espindola echoed.

In that respect, then, maybe the brightest spot for D.C. United's championship chances on Saturday came from its enigmatic offseason signing: Starting in his first game since Aug. 27 against the Galaxy, striker Eddie Johnson fed Chris Pontius on the backpost for the opening tally in the 31st minute and used some defensive hustle to bag an insurance one himself in the 53rd.

It was Johnson's second straight game with a goal, coming six days after his 87th-minute score put away D.C.'s first ever win in Houston. Prior to that win over the Dynamo, the striker's most recent goal had come against the Red Bulls back on Aug. 31; he hadn't played the role of distributor since July 20.

With regular second striker Luis Silva sidelined four to six weeks by a hamstring injury, Johnson's production or lack thereof is likely to be a key factor for United come playoff time.

"He was great," Olsen said of Johnson. "You could tell that Fabian [Espindola] and him had not gotten a lot of minutes, but I'll say this: It was a lot better than Houston, the way they were moving off of each other. So that's going to build every game, and you'll see it.

"The rhythm between those two is going to continue to get better, and hopefully, when the playoffs hit, they're flying."

But Pontius' goal was similarly noteworthy: D.C.'s longest-tenured player had not scored in a league match since Sept. 14, 2013, having sat out the first seven months of this season's campaign with his own hamstring issues. "There are so many story lines with this team right now," Olsen said afterward, and they aren't hard to find.

Bill Hamid was excellent on the night once again in net, his reactions swift and his distribution pinpoint. A full-stretch kick-save in the 28th on a Florent Sinama-Pongolle shot sent the crowd into a frenzy, and a nifty extra-time stop was needed, too, to preserve the advantage.

Espindola didn't score Saturday alongside Johnson, but his presence was, as always, felt in the creativity of his passes and the movement he brought to the attack.

Taylor Kemp, thrust into the starting left back spot in August, doesn't look like he's lacking for experience. Steve Birnbaum, at center back alongside Boswell, is much the same case.

Do those pieces make up an MLS Cup-caliber team? United is confident, but time will tell. But as much as the club might want to suggest that Saturday didn't really matter, that it was really just another simply stepping-stone, in candid moments, their postgame reactions said otherwise.

"Tonight's a special night, that's what I think, for the club and our players," Olsen said. "They've earned this.

"And I told them to make sure they go out there and reward themselves and reward the fans for the season that they've had together."

So Boswell and his teammates did just that. And once they finished signing autographs and taking photographs on the field, they returned to the locker room and did it all over again.  More signatures. More selfies. More Fan — and Player — Appreciation.

So yes, because of yet another blackout, the capstone of D.C. United's worst-to-first revolution was not televised.

But Saturday night at RFK Stadium — as at least 20,162 can tell you — it nonetheless remained a shining, radiant reality.