Finishing out a stretch of five in six games at home, D.C. United went into Friday's game against the New York Red Bulls needing all three points to put their season on the right course. With almost a third of the season gone, United had yet to really find consistency as a team, following up good performances with unsavory results.
That was put to rest at RFK Stadium on Friday night, at least temporarily, as United took down their bitter Atlantic Cup rivals with a 2-0 victory. Alvaro Saborio and Patrick Nyarko provided the goals in the first half, with Travis Worra making three crucial saves in between goals to preserve United's advantage. It isn't quite the cure-all for Ben Olsen's charges, who have yet to win back to back games this year. But for 90 minutes, it was the exact kind of mentality from his players that Olsen is looking for.
"The connections, and the way we play, it always still stems from the basics," said Olsen after the game. "That's out-fighting teams, having more energy, having the right mentality about the game. That's what we had today."
The only disappointing fact of his team's performance tonight was that it took going up against the Red Bulls to illicit that kind of emotion from his team. That's something he wants to see out of his players ever week.
"You're pleased," Olsen said of his team's mentality tonight. "But the message is that is what you can do. We can't wait for it to be New York, the Red Bulls, a packed house, and a week after a loss at home. That's the standard. It's a difficult thing to have each week in this league. We have to keep a high standard each game."
After failing to register to a shot on target last week in a lackluster 2-0 loss at home to New York City FC, United reversed course this week, getting forward early and often against a Red Bulls team that has the most losses in MLS. That pressure paid off in the 20th minute, as Saborio finished off a pass from Marcelo Sarvas that gave United a lead they would never relinquish.
But in between Saborio's team leading fourth goal of the season, and the 43rd minute, when Nyarko volleyed home a cross from Lamar Neagle to ensure all three points, Worra came up big for United. The young goalkeeper saved three seemingly certain goals in the space of two minutes, with each save more impressive than the last. Those saves ended up being the difference in the game, as New York would only register one more shot on goal the rest of the way.
"[Worra] bailed us out once or twice," said Olsen.
First was a sprawling save on a header from Dax McCarty. That was followed by a kick save on Gonzalo Veron, and then scrambling just in time to palm away Felipe's attempt from the rebound. All told, it was three big saves in the space of 1 minute and 16 seconds.
"In the run of play, as a goalkeeper, when you make a big save, I don't even recognize it as a big save, I just recognize it as keeping the ball out of the net," said Worra after the game. "That's my number one priority. And with both of them, I gave up rebounds, so the first thing on my mind is where is the ball."
Worra's saves proved huge for United. Soon after those heroics at one end, Nyarko scored his third goal of the season at the other. From there, United saw off any challenges from the Red Bulls with something approaching ease. Conceding possession, United still found a way to limit New York to just one shot on target in the second half, despite the deficit.
Just the mentality United needed.
"Maybe we are putting too much pressure on ourselves, and we are being inconsistent," Nyarko said of the team's uneven start to the season. "A third of the season has gone by, but this is the time that teams get that rhythm and that intensity. Hopefully we've discovered [our identity] now, we can't afford to be inconsistent. This is how we need to play."
In that stretch of five games from six at home, United managed to pick up just 9 points of the available 15 at RFK (three wins broken up by two losses). That's far from perfect, but in a weak Eastern Conference, the results look like they will suit United just fine if they find a way to continue to play the same way going forward.
"We're in an okay spot. But we still haven't put back to back wins together," said Olsen. "That's always I preach to the guys. That will be our task next weekend. The message tonight will be try to keep this standard. Everybody shows up and does their job."