Three weeks ago, Jared Jeffrey walked off the field at the Maryland SoccerPlex, head down, distraught at what had just taken place. After a scoreless 120 minutes against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the US Open Cup, Jeffrey stepped up to the spot for D.C. United’s fifth penalty, and smashed it off of the crossbar. Moments later, the Strikers converted their fifth, sending the NASL side onto the next round of the Open Cup.
The scene on Saturday night was the polar opposite for the midfielder, who was all smiles after his header in the 92nd minute against Real Salt Lake handed the Black-and-Red a point on the road when defeat seemed just about certain. Jeffrey's arduous journey since coming to DC made the moment all the sweeter.
"It was great. We were grinding for a while in the game, and getting a point on the road like that is big for us going forward," Jeffrey told reporters of his goal on Tuesday. "It was exciting, especially when you get [the goal] late, it almost feels like a win."
United had relied more or less solely on goalkeeper Bill Hamid for much of the game, but fell behind 12 minutes into the second half when Juan Manuel Martinez skipped around Bobby Boswell to give RSL the lead. The introduction of Jeffrey, Julian Buescher, and Alhaji Kamara gave United some life late on on in the game, but it still appeared that United would start their July road trip with zero points. But in a dramatic turn of events Jeffrey found himself unmarked on Fabian Espindola’s corner in stoppage time, and made no mistake with the header.
"It’s great to make an impact. We need everyone this month, and it’s nice to do my part a little," said Jeffrey.
The fact that Jeffrey was on the field to score that goal might have been considered a surprise at the beginning of the season. When Jeffrey was picked up via a waiver draft in the summer of 2013 after leaving Germany's FSV Mainz, he immediately came in and started in 10 games, on what turned out to be statistically the worst team in MLS history. The next year, when United completed the biggest turnaround MLS has ever seen, Jeffrey again appeared in 10 games, but only started twice.
And then in 2015, Jeffrey saw himself buried on the depth chart. He made just two appearances in MLS play, starting just one game while logging 61 minutes. Appearances in the Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League provided some playing time, but at times it looked like he might be on his way out.
2016 has been a completely different story. He made a substitute appearance in March, before he was asked to step in for the suspended Marcelo Sarvas against the San Jose Earthquakes. A tidy 90 minute performance wasn’t rewarded immediately, with Jeffrey not playing in the next three games. But he’s appeared in every game since, starting with the draw on the road against the Chicago Fire. In all, he’s appeared 9 straight league games for United, starting four of those contests.
"It’s been great to see him solidify his spot with this team. Yeah, he’s not starting every week, but the minutes he giving us are very valuable," United manager Ben Olsen said on Tuesday. "He came in this year with a good mentality, and he’s rewarding himself by proving he belongs on this team."
Whether it’s been filling in for Marcelo when the Brazilian has been suspended, or playing alongside him when Nick DeLeon has been forced to play out wide, Jeffrey has impressed enough to be trusted in tight spots. Olsen's increased reliance on Jeffrey is also made evident by how much United used him even while Markus Halsti was still with the club.
That brings us to the goal against Real Salt Lake. It was a game that United, by most measures, should have lost. But Hamid made several crucial saves, including one in the 90th minute to keep United within one goal. That set the stage for Jeffrey to lose his marker in stoppage time, and bury a header for a valuable road point.
"Goals help with confidence, in every aspect, even when you’re not a goal scorer. It gives you a little boost," Olsen said of Jeffrey. "He’s a selfless guy, he’s a guy who is all about the group, and getting results. I’m glad he got his name in the paper a little bit."
It was Jeffrey’s first goal in MLS play since September 28, 2013. But in the meantime, he scored last year against Arabe Unido, in the Champions League group stage. It was a similar goal, with Jeffrey losing his defender in the box and making no mistake with an open header on a corner.
"Not that many [headed goals], but I did score last year in the Champions League, so everyone is acting like it’s the first time in a while, but I’ve actually scored a goal," Jeffrey said. "It’s cool for me to score. But the biggest thing is to getting the point and helping the team."
And for a guy who for so long did not play a big part in the team, Jeffrey is making the most of his time now. There’s an understanding that minutes won’t necessarily come often for him, so when they do come by, he has to make the most of them to continue to get time.
"I think I waited a while for a chance, and this year I’ve been able to get on the field more," said Jeffrey. "I appreciate it more now, and hopefully I can keep playing moving forward and keep helping the team."