Before this weekend, there was a chance that D.C. United could have wrapped up the sixth and final playoff spot by winning three games in a row, culminating with the game against Toronto FC in 10 days. Had the Montreal Impact, who were coming off last weekend’s 5-0 dismantling at Audi Field, lost at home to the Columbus Crew, United could have secured a playoff spot before the Impact took the field once again.
Instead, Montreal took care of Columbus with ease, putting pressure back on the Black-and-Red. United didn’t have the best of times on Sunday against the visiting Chicago Fire, but eventually won 2-1, thanks to two second half goals from Wayne Rooney.
“I don’t think we had the greatest performance today,” Head Coach Ben Olsen said in his post game press conference, “but there is a belief in the group that we can still get three points.”
After having a goal called back on review, and Ulises Segura not converting late in the first half with Rooney wide open in front of goal, United fell behind early in the second half. Raheem Edwards skipped around two challenges from Frederic Brillant and Russell Canouse in the box, and fired past Bill Hamid.
The Fire were recently eliminated from playoff contention in a season that started with high hopes. But last weekend, they beat Los Angeles FC 3-1, a team that secured their playoff spot this weekend. And now in the second half against United, they had a lead against a team that needed three points.
Just as they did last month against Minnesota United, the Black-and-Red were able to recover from a second half deficit, riding two goals from their captain on their way to the 11th victory of the season.
“They scored, and we responded well,” Rooney said after the game. “These are the games we have to win, sometimes when you’re not at your best, you have to try to get something out of the game.”
In the 62nd minute, Paul Arriola attempted a shot that Rooney redirected towards goal. That initial effort was saved, but the rebound fell right back to Rooney, who deposited the equalizer 11 minutes after United had fallen behind.
At some point, with the game still tied, Darren Mattocks would have been thrown on by Olsen to try to get the win. Before that could happen, Junior Moreno was taken down in the box, and Rooney expertly converted the spot kick for the 2-1 advantage.
That goal secured the three points for United, keeping them within two of the Impact for the final playoff spot.
“We knew the importance of today’s game,” Rooney added in his post game scrum. “After [my] first goal, you could see the determination to get the win.”
Past versions of United, even the team earlier this year before Rooney’s arrival, would likely not have been able to recover from the deficit. Now that United has twice come from behind in the past month though, it’s clear that there is something different amongst the team, and it’s not just the number 9 who is leading the line.
“In the first half of the season, we didn’t have Wayne, and the type of leadership that he brings to the table, and the type of player that he is,” Arriola said after the game in the locker room. “I think mainly that’s where it comes from, to be able to know that he’ll be able to put one away.”
Against Minnesota, it was Segura and Mattocks who netted second half goals in the comeback. On Sunday, against the Fire, it was Rooney, United’s star attraction, who made sure D.C. finished the day with three points. Rooney failed to put United ahead in the 72nd minute, but didn’t flinch in the 81st minute, when he put away the penalty for his 9th goal in 16 appearances for the Black-and-Red.
“It’s in his DNA. He’s doing the bit in front of goal,” Olsen said of Rooney’s winning mentality. “And [he’s] helped with the group in the locker room.”
United’s task gets harder over the next two weeks, as the wrap up play at Audi Field. Visits from FC Dallas, Toronto, and New York City FC will present a bevy of challenges for the 7th placed team in the East. Should United maintain their winning form though, they can jump Montreal, who have just two games left this season, and stake a claim for the sixth spot.
“Dallas, Toronto and New York City are all as good as they come in this league,” said Olsen. “We will have a huge test, but I think we will be up for it.”