Six games was a long time for D.C. United. Since their last win on August 8th against the Montreal Impact, United had lost five of six, with the lone point coming on the road against the Colorado Rapids. So when Frank Lampard put New York City FC ahead within a minute on Friday night at RFK Stadium, it almost looked like United was actually going to need some help to qualify for the playoffs.
But in typical 2015 fashion, the Black-and-Red left it late, with Fabian Espindola providing the equalizer in the second half before substitute Alvaro Saborio prodded home the winner in the second minute of stoppage time for a 2-1 win.
"We needed a win. We needed a win like that. It helps," United attacker Chris Rolfe said after the game.
As United has stumbled in the past month and a half, falling from top of the Supporters' Shield race to fourth in the Eastern Conference at kickoff, all the club needed to do was win a game to earn a playoff spot. Losses to NYCFC, San Jose Earthquakes, the New York Red Bulls, Columbus Crew SC, and Montreal meant that United was running out of opportunities to qualify on their own.
"It's been a long month and a half. We've been through a lot. We go through these stretches, and they can take their toll on the players and the staff," United manager Ben Olsen said in his post-game press conference.
Looking for a strong start, United got the exact opposite. David Villa was left all alone in front of goal from a pass by Andrew Jacobson, and though Bill Hamid denied Villa his efforts were undone by Lampard, who made no mistake on the rebound.
"I can't explain the starts. We will continue to work on them, we've tried about everything, short of an exorcism, to sort out the starts," Olsen added. "We're aggressive, and we've tried a few things, but sometimes it gets in your head."
That was it though for City's shots on goal for the remainder of the match. After 50 seconds, Hamid wouldn't be forced into another save. City had opportunities, but couldn't find that final ball, the final touch to put United to the sword.
Instead, United came out with a renewed vigor in the second half, and finally found their breakthrough in the 73rd minute, as Espindola converted the rebound from a shot by Chris Pontius. That goal set the stage for a wide-open finish, with Saborio's late winner putting United into the 2015 MLS Cup playoffs.
"[The playoffs] were our goal at the beginning of the season. It's nice to reach goals. Now we'll have new goals, one of them is, in the short term, continuing to rev things up," Olsen said. "We learned a lesson last year where we weren't winning games and playing well down the stretch. It's important for the next two games to improve the quality."
Saborio, who has been a sure starter since his July trade from Real Salt Lake, was relegated to the bench after missing the week of practice. After picking up a knock to his knee on Monday, Saborio tried to practice on Tuesday, but had to end his day early. On Wednesday fluid was drained from the Costa Rica international's knee, but he and OIsen decided today that he could take a spot on the bench.
And after wasting a golden opportunity to win it in the 90th minute, sending a weak shot straight at Josh Saunders from a good scoring position, Saborio atoned at the right time. His hard run forced Jacobson into a bad spot, knocking down Espindola's free kick and then emphatically slamming it home for the winner.
"When I miss a chance like that, I try to put it in my head that I'll get another one," Saborio said of his 90th minute miss. "Hopefully I can get it, but I have to make those. But it was another good ball from Fabi. Now we have to [move] forward for the next games."
Now with a week off before facing the Chicago Fire at home, and ending the season with a trip to Columbus, United know that they have at least assured themselves of a playoff spot. The onus now is to finish out the season strong, knowing that improved performances now could result in a longer playoff run than in 2014.
"We need to get hot going into the playoffs. New England, last year, went through an [eight] game losing streak, and then they get hot at the end of the year," said Pontius. "They were the hot team going into the playoffs, and with two more games left, we want to get that going."