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The 5 games that defined D.C. United’s 2018 season

These five results helped shape United’s up-and-down 2018

2018 has been a wild ride so far for D.C. United. The season started with the allure of the opening of Audi Field, but the Black-and-Red faced a tough schedule before July 14th, having to slog their way through 12 games on the road, playing two ‘home’ games at other stadiums in the region. United didn’t have much luck in that early period, and quickly found themselves cemented to the bottom of the Eastern Conference.

Then, the news of the potential signing of Wayne Rooney came about, and the outlook for United’s season looked brighter. Rooney brought excitement to the club, the likes of which had never been seen before with United in terms of signing a designated player. Audi Field and Rooney made their debuts on July 14th, and ever since, United has been on the up.

United surged up the table, clinching a playoff berth in the penultimate week of the season. Their 0-0 draw against the Chicago Fire on Decision Day earned them a home playoff game in the knockout round, against the Columbus Crew on Thursday evening. But how did United get to this point over 34 games? Let’s take a look at five of the most important results from the Black-and-Red’s 2018 campaign.

April 14: D.C. United 1-0 Columbus Crew

United’s second game against the Crew in 2018 was their second home game of the season, though Annapolis is not exactly “home.” United had not won any of their first five games, which included a 2-2 draw against the Houston Dynamo at the Maryland SoccerPlex. The Black-and-Red wouldn’t have another home game for three months, and desperately needed a win.

Ulises Segura struck early for D.C., notching the club’s third-quickest goal in the club’s history after 43 seconds. United missed a couple of chances to add to their lead in the first half, but then had Paul Arriola sent off early in the second half. Ben Olsen eventually took off most of his attackers in hopes of holding on for the win, which required two excellent saves from Steve Clark to ensure. It was far from pretty, but it was the vital first win for United.

May 19: San Jose Earthquakes 1-3 D.C. United

Due to United’s weird schedule, they only played two games in between their win over the Crew and this game. On both occasions, against the Philadelphia Union and Real Salt Lake, D.C. jumped out to early leads on the road. However, United found ways to lose both games 3-2, more evidence that this United team just didn’t know how to hold onto leads early on.

So when United swung out to California and took another early lead, through Zoltan Stieber, there might have been some worry that United would falter once again. Instead, five minutes after the opener, Darren Mattocks doubled the lead in the 20th minute. Yamil Asad made it three in the 37th, and though Danny Hoesen got one back before the break, there would be no more scoring, giving United their second win.

San Jose ended up being the worst team in the league, grabbing just 21 points in 2018. Given United’s struggles in holding onto leads, this was an important three points. The win turned out to be United’s only one on the road this year, but it was a sign that United could put together a good result when they were the better team over 90 minutes.

August 12: D.C. United 3-2 Orlando City

A big skip ahead from the San Jose game to Orlando’s visit passes through Rooney’s arrival, and a fantastic opening win at Audi Field against the Vancouver Whitecaps. But even after two wins out of the first three games at Buzzard Point, United found themselves in last place in the East. The visiting Lions were spiraling out of control, while United had three home games in eight days, a chance to start to make their move up the table.

Luciano Acosta gave United the lead deep into first half stoppage time, a great finish from a move set up by Rooney. City leveled the game up in the 50th minute, as David Ousted was credited for an own goal on a cross that was deflected, leaving him wrong footed. In the 55th minute though, Cristian Higuita was given a red card, on one of five video reviews on the night.

Acosta put United back ahead in the 64th minute, which should have won United the game. However, United couldn’t keep the lead against a 10-man Orlando for the second time this season. In the season opener, it was a last-gasp equalizer deep in stoppage time after being outplayed by the Lions. This time, Dom Dwyer stayed onside to equalize in the 71st minute.

United got more and more desperate, and in the final stages of the game, even threw Ousted up for a corner. We all know what happened next: Kofi Opare’s header was hacked off the line, and Rooney made an incredible run and tackle to deny Will Johnson what would have been a dagger of a goal. With everyone still forward, Rooney then sent the ball into the box, and Acosta, the shortest player on the field, leapt into the air to head home his hat trick. The game’s final video review added to the tension, but the goal stood, giving United one of their more dramatic wins in team history.

Call it the Buzzard Beater, call it The Play, call it whatever you want. Rooney went down in United lore with the incredible effort, and United were talk of the soccer world for a fleeting moment.

What was probably more important though, was that United didn’t get too high off their win. Three days later, they beat the Portland Timbers 4-1, and four days after that they dispatched the New England Revolution 2-0. United were finally out of last place, and they would never fall back down.

August 29: D.C. United 0-2 Philadelphia Union

It might look strange adding a loss to a list of season-defining results for a team that made the playoffs, but there’s good reason. United followed up the aforementioned three-game win streak by going on the road and losing a hard-fought game 1-0 against the New York Red Bulls. Three days later, back at home, Olsen fielded a nearly unchanged team, with Stieber replacing the injured Asad as the only bit of rotation.

That choice backfired for Olsen, as United were listless in suffering their second loss at Audi Field. United never really threatened after CJ Sapong’s first half goal, and Fafa Picault added the insurance tally in the second half. Olsen admitted afterwards that he might have needed to rotate his team more, given the quick turnaround after a demanding game against NYRB.

That said, this game also goes down as the last regular season loss for United in 2018. The Black-and-Red would go on to pick up points in their final 10 games, winning five in a row at one point. In other words, this was the turning point.

September 29: D.C. United 5-0 Montreal Impact

The Black-and-Red followed up that loss to Philly with an impressive 3-1 win over Atlanta United a couple of days later. A draw at Yankee Stadium, a tight win over Minnesota United, and a disappointing 3-3 draw with the Red Bulls left the Black-and-Red five points behind the 6th placed Impact heading into the Audi Field showdown.

United still had two games in hand over Montreal, meaning the five point gap was not insurmountable. However, for all purposes, this was a must win game for the Black-and-Red. A loss would have been devastating, and a draw might have drained a bit of morale out of the playoff chasers.

Montreal were the better side throughout most of the first half, but trailed going into the break thanks to a 17th minute goal from Acosta, who went on to win the MLS Player of the Month award after a September to remember.

Any nerves were settled after the break, when United really put the visitors to the sword. Both Rooney and Arriola would score twice, coming from three assists for Acosta, who also had a helping hand in Rooney’s second (officially unassisted) goal. The game ended in a 5-0 rout, United’s biggest win in years. D.C. were within two points of the Impact, with two games in hand. The win began a five-game winning streak for D.C., all of which proved to be key. It took three more wins before they would finally jump Montreal, and then clinch a playoff spot with the fifth win, a 3-1 decision over New York City FC.