Coming off two losses over the past week, Sunday night could have been big trouble for D.C. United. Atlanta United were in town, a team that has beaten the Black-and-Red twice this season already. The Montreal Impact had picked up a big win on Saturday against the New York Red Bulls, putting more distance between United and a playoff spot.
When it mattered the most though, United’s biggest players shined, as D.C. took down the Five Stripes 3-1, with Luciano Acosta and Wayne Rooney providing the goals. At the other end, Bill Hamid made saves reminiscent of times past, as United moved up to 7th place in the Eastern Conference with the win.
“It was a massive result for us,” Rooney told reporters in the locker room after the game.
Atlanta came into the game on without a loss in their last seven games, which included a 3-1 win over the Black-and-Red back in July. Striker Josef Martinez set the record for goals in a season last week with his 28th strike, and had scored in nine goals in a row, including 10 games in a row on the road. On the other hand, United were reeling a bit after two 1-0 losses, to the Red Bulls and the Philadelphia Union.
Instead buckling under the pressure of Atlanta’s attack though, United dug deep, earning their fourth win in six tries against the second year club.
“It’s our most complete performance in that it was a full group effort, from the beginning to the end,” Head Coach Ben Olsen said in his post game press conference.
United went route one in the first half to take the lead, with Rooney heading on a long ball from Hamid for Acosta. Acosta had plenty of work to do from there, and worked around two defenders in the box, before scoring past Brad Guzan to a 29th minute lead.
Up until that point, United hadn’t done much offensively. But when the chance arose, United pounced, something they have not been able to do consistently throughout the season.
“You have to put the knife in when you have the opportunities,” said Olsen.
United couldn’t hold onto the lead going into halftime, giving up an equalizer to Jeff Larentowicz on a header five minutes from the end of the half. That could have gotten the team down, but they responded well in the second half, as Paul Arriola, filling in for the injured Oniel Fisher at right back, won a penalty, which Rooney converted for his fourth goal for the club.
And then with Atlanta pouring forward late on, Rooney played into space for Acosta, who converted his second goal of the night, his seventh on the season.
It was the sixth goal for Acosta since Rooney arrived, having scoring just once previously this year. With Rooney in the fold, Acosta is noticeably more confident in front of goal, where he used to try to find a pass, or tried to dribble too much, passing up shooting opportunities.
“He’s just been clinical,” Rooney said of Acosta after the game. “I’ve said to him a few times he should have shot when he hasn’t. I think he’s starting to enjoy scoring goals, and you can see that again tonight. Two great finishes from him.”
And it’s becoming evident that for United to succeed this season, Rooney and Acosta have to be at the top of their games. The high point for the two was the Buzzard Beater a few weeks back against Orlando City. Neither were at their best in the past week as United lost twice, but the pair were back on the same page on Sunday night.
“It’s fun to watch, it’s fun to be on their team,” Arriola said in the locker room after the game. “That’s what happens when we get two players of great quality and they understand each other well.”
There were two chances in the last ten minutes for Atlanta to get back into the game. Hamid though, who hasn’t quite found his top form since returning to D.C., made two huge saves, denying a Kevin Kratz free kick and another Larentowicz header.
“That’s why we brought him here,” Olsen said of Hamid’s saves on the night. “To bail us out, and I think we are a good enough team where we are going to continue to score goals. If he can save us one or two times a night, it’s a huge boost.”
United now have to go on the road to face New York City FC, a team they have never beaten in three tries in the Bronx. And they’ll have to do it without the services of six different players, who will be away on international duty. Keeping the momentum going will be tough, but with just six points between them and the Impact, closing the gap to the playoffs has never seemed more possible.
“With Montreal winning yesterday, we knew it was a game which felt like [a must win],” said Rooney. “I reminded the players at halftime that we were in a position where we could go on and get three points. It was a big win for us.”