On Saturday, D.C. United won a close game against FC Dallas thanks to a late, scrappy goal from Russell Canouse. United won again on Wednesday night 1-0, this time against a weakened Toronto FC team that has already been eliminated from playoff contention. This time though, the goal was a spectacular free kick from the team’s star, Wayne Rooney, as United moved within a win of securing a playoff spot.
“It was a big time goal from a world class player,” right back Nick DeLeon told reporters after the game, in his first start since getting injured against Los Angeles FC back in May.
In the 18th minute, Zoltan Stieber won a free kick for the Black-and-Red about 35 yards out from goal, in the middle of the field. That’s not exactly a prime location for a shot on target, but that didn’t deter Rooney, who scored a free kick against the Portland Timbers back in August.
Rooney started his shot wide of the goal, allowing the ball to deliciously curl back just inside the post, leaving keeper Alex Bono with little chance of making a save.
“I was 50/50 whether to shoot,” Rooney told reporters after the game in the locker room, given the distance from goal. “I just fancied it. I just thought ‘give it a go, see what happens.’”
What happened was United won again, for the 12th time at home this year. United finish up a seven-game home stretch on Sunday against NYCFC, and have made the most of their advantage. Making the playoffs still requires one more win from the Black-and-Red, or hope for some help from their playoff rivals, Montreal.
“This has been a lot of fun the last two months,” head coach Ben Olsen said in his post-game press conference. “The job is not done, we would like to continue this form, and finish off this home stretch with a win, and seal our playoff [spot].”
Since beating the Impact 5-0 at the end of September, United hasn’t quite been at their best over the past two weeks, despite picking up wins against the Chicago Fire, Dallas, and Toronto. All three games have been decided by one goal, with United having to stage a second half rally against a struggling Chicago side.
Though Toronto didn’t threaten much in the second half, United had to grind for 90 minutes to ensure all three points. The woodwork came to TFC’s aide twice, denying DeLeon and Luciano Acosta on either side of the half, but the performance left United wanting a bit more going forward.
“We’ve won the game, we’re pleased obviously with the three points, but at this stage of the season, it’s important: We need to improve,” Rooney said of the team’s performance after the game.
“It’s important to be able to win games in different ways in this league, if you’re going to make the postseason,” Olsen added, after seeing his team win 1-0 in back to back games. “Today we made some plays. We defended the box well, and we gutted one out.”
The Black-and-Red might not be scoring at the rate that they were earlier in this unbeaten streak, but at the same time, they are improving defensively. After keeping opponents scoreless in just two of their first 28 games, United have only allowed one goal in their last four games.
Conceding fewer goals has paved over United’s lack of goal scoring in recent games, but it’s taken the whole team to improve to start becoming stingy at their own end.
“From Wayne all the way down to Bill, it’s been a great team effort,” center back Steven Birnbaum said after the game. “And guys working back after a ball is lost, or getting into the right spots in the box. Our box defending is good, and everyone has a good understanding of it right now.”
A win Sunday will take United to postseason, removing any chance of drama on the final weekend of the season. And even if United aren’t firing on all cylinders, they have the difference maker than can change the outcome with one kick, as Rooney did on Wednesday night.
“It’s exciting to have a player like that over the ball in those moments,” Olsen said of Rooney. “Today was a day where we needed a moment.”