On the third try, D.C. United finally made a first half lead at home count. After going four straight on the road without a win in July, the Black-and-Red had wasted first half leads in two straight at home, finishing with draws against the Montreal Impact and Philadelphia Union. But on Saturday night against the Portland Timbers, United scored not once, but twice in the first half to give themselves a cushion, before seeing out a 2-0 result at home.
In the sweltering D.C. heat, the two goal lead was just what United craved against the defending MLS Cup champions.
"That was so important," winger Lloyd Sam said after the game of the team’s ability to add the second goal in the first half. "You just feel a bit on edge with one goal. You know with what’s happened in the last two games that you need another. I think that was crucial, the timing of the second goal, right before that break we had."
"I think it knocked a bit of the stuffing out of them. That was a big part of why we won."
Steve Birnbaum scored for the second week in a row, with this game's goal coming early rather than late. From a corner kick in the 7th minute, Bobby Boswell flicked the ball on, allowing Birnbaum to volley an effort home from near the penalty spot. Mission one accomplished.
United needed a wonder save from Bill Hamid in the 26th minute on Jack McInerney to keep their advantage. Through on goal with just Hamid to beat, McInerney couldn’t finish off his chance, an outcome all too familiar to United’s strikers this season.
And then United did what they have failed to do so often this season, capitalizing on a chance to put distance between themselves and an opponent. Luciano Acosta fed a ball to Patrick Mullins near the top of the box, continued his run towards goal, and then collected a return pass from Mullins before clipping a shot in for the two-goal lead.
"Me and Lucho have a good rapport together. We’ve built it up over the past couple of weeks," Mullins said after the game. "As a forward, if you’re holding the ball up, you just want runners off of you. He definitely made a great run off me, and I was able to find him, and he finished well."
That second goal meant that mission two accomplished. Take a lead, and then add to it.
"We got the second goal. The last couple, we only had the one [goal], and didn’t finish some of the chances," Mullins said of the difference between tonight and the past two games at home. "It was still the case tonight where we left chances on the table, but 2-0 is a lot different than 1-0, especially when we’ve got a great defense."
"To put up the full three [points] is a big deal," assistant Chad Ashton, filling in for the suspended Ben Olsen, said after the game. "We felt like we are moving forward, and this feels like another step forward."
Both teams had to deal with the stifling heat, which caused the game to pushed back an hour from it’s original 7:00pm kickoff time. The heat and humidity had cooled a bit by the time 8 o'clock rolled around, but the conditions were still exceedingly difficult for both teams.
In those conditions, DC's lead was a definitive advantage. Portland was going to have to chase the game, and if United could be smart and avoid mistakes, they would get a badly needed win. And they did just that, moving into sixth place in the Eastern Conference as a result.
"It affected both teams, but once you get your nose in front, it affects the other team a lot more when they are chasing the game," said Sam.
"It’s all on them to try to push to get the game back. We can sit back and absorb some pressure," added Mullins. "On days when it’s hot like that, the hardest thing is making those final runs, and opening up a defense. Given the two goals in the first half, I think it was a big boost to us going into the second half."
United to survive a couple of scares in the second half, including a free kick off the woodwork, coupled with missed chances of their own. But in seeing out the game, United ended their recent hex, breaking a six game winless streak and moving into a playoff spot for the time being.
The next step, of course, is to string multiple wins together for the first time in 2016. The New York Red Bulls come to town next, but at least one player was more concerned with points than who the opponent would be.
"Right now, we’re above the red line. There are bigger fish to fry than the Red Bulls," Sam said of the prospect of facing his former club for the first time. "We just need the three points, so it doesn’t matter who it is against right now."